By Elizabeth Culliford, Raphael Satter and Paresh Dave
(Reuters) – Facebook Inc (O:) on Thursday said it had taken down a rapidly growing group where some supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump posted violent rhetoric and baseless claims that Democrats were stealing the election.
On Thursday afternoon, the “Stop the Steal” group, which called for “boots on the ground to protect the integrity of the vote,” was adding 1,000 new members every 10 seconds and had grown to 365,000 members in a single day.
“The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement.
She said the move was in line with the “exceptional measures” Facebook was taking during “this period of heightened tension.”
The group’s backers decried the deletion, saying they were organizing peaceful protests, that they had been working hard to police the comments, and that Facebook had given then no advance warning. Chris Barron, a spokesman for the group, said those on the left side of the political spectrum were also voicing concerns over the election being stolen and organizing for protests but did not face the same problems.
“If Facebook wants to become the arbiter of truth then they’ve got a lot of work to do,” Barron said. In any case, “the election is over, so there’s no election disinformation to be shared.”
A review of a small number of comments posted to the group ahead of its deletion found no direct calls for violence, but its organizing premise – that Republican votes are being “nullified” by Democrats – has no basis in fact. For months, Trump and Republican allies have been laying the groundwork to cast doubt on the integrity of the U.S. election in case the president lost his re-election bid.
As election returns show a brightening picture for Trump’s Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, and as U.S. broadcasters and other major media outlets continue to brush off Trump’s premature claims of victory, the president and his supporters have taken to social media to try to turn the narrative around, floating conspiratorial theories using the hashtag #StopTheSteal.
But social media companies have been signaling less patience for election-related disinformation. On Thursday, Snap Inc ‘s (N:) Snapchat removed a video from Trump’s account in which Biden said he has an extensive “voter fraud organization.” Biden’s statement came during an interview in which he was discussing his team fighting voter suppression efforts, and Snap determined that Trump’s use out of context violated its policy against undermining the integrity of civic processes.
Trump campaign social media manager Ryann McEnany decried Snap’s action in a tweet, saying in all caps, “Why won’t they let the American people see this!?”
Twitter and YouTube also have taken similar measures to curb the spread of misinformation as ballot counting continues. For instance, eight of the president’s 28 tweets since Election Day on Tuesday have been placed behind a warning label saying they contain disputed information.
But the takedowns are something the “Stop the Steal” group seems to have prepared for. Before Facebook deleted the group, organizers directed new members to an email sign-up page “in the event that social media censors this group.”
Members appeared to be dispersing either to smaller lookalike groups or to more obscure social media services.
Paul Barrett, deputy director of New York University’s Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, praised the group’s removal.
“The social media platforms can’t allow themselves to be used to foment anti-democratic and potentially violent activity,” Barrett said.
“Facebook was right to step in.”
The deletion highlights the ongoing concern over Facebook’s groups, which typically work as community forums for shared interests but which watchdog organizations and social media researchers have argued can be closed loops for hyper-partisan misinformation.
“Facebook has been enabling and amplifying the infrastructure that’s now being used to attack our democratic process,” said Arisha Hatch, executive director of the Color of Change PAC, the political action committee of one of the nation’s largest online racial justice groups.
Facebook, which normally recommends groups to users that they may want to join based on their activity on the site, last week suspended these recommendations for political groups and new groups around the election.
The now-removed “Stop the Steal” group was run by the Trump action group Women for America First. The non-profit organized protests against COVID-19 restrictions and supported Trump during his impeachment hearing.
Barron said that the group’s mission would go on, noting that Amy and Kylie Kremer, Women for America First’s mother-daughter co-founders, would continue organizing demonstrations.
“Amy and Kylie were at a peaceful protest in Atlanta today,” he said. “They’re on a plane headed to Michigan.”