‘Stop the Steal’ supporters shift from Facebook to Parler to peddle false election claims

 Facebook took down a “Stop the Steal” network, which promoted dozens of stories with unfounded claims of voter fraud.

Elizabeth Dwoskin,Rachel Lerman
Tuesday 10 November 2020 17:02
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Facebook took down a “Stop the Steal” network, which promoted dozens of stories with unfounded claims of voter fraud.
Facebook took down a “Stop the Steal” network, which promoted dozens of stories with unfounded claims of voter fraud.

The leader of a Facebook group demanding an election recount told members this weekend that he was worried about a crackdown by the social media giant.

“The bigger we get, the more nervous I'm getting,” the administrator of Nationwide Recount 2020 posted to the group's hundreds of thousands of followers. “I do not want to lose this MAGA army!” 

His backup plan “in case we disappear”? Find him on the right-leaning social media site Parler, instead.

As Donald Trump and his allies continue to contest President-elect Joe Biden's victory, social media has become central to sustaining efforts to delegitimise the results. Yet those campaigns - which spilled onto the streets in protests this weekend - are resulting in the most high-stakes cat-and-mouse game for Facebook and other social media companies to date. The companies are banning groups and hashtags, altering search results, labelling posts, down-ranking problematic content and implementing a host of measures to ward off misinformation.

Since the election, Facebook and Twitter have labelled over a dozen posts by Trump and penalised some of his high-ranking campaign members and at least one family member. Facebook also took down a “Stop the Steal” network, which promoted dozens of stories with unfounded claims of voter fraud, tied to Mr Trump's former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon late Monday.

One sign of the impact of these actions is the renewed interest in Parler, which became the top new app download over the weekend on Apple's App Store. The app, which has a free-speech doctrine and has already become a haven for groups and individuals kicked off Facebook, experienced its largest number of single-day downloads on 8 November, when about 636,000 people installed it, according to market research firm Sensor Tower. Parler now boasts 7.6 million user accounts compared with 4.5 million about a week ago, said chief operating officer and investor Jeffrey Wernick.

The reaction by some users to Facebook's and Twitter's actions to prevent the spread of misinformation related to allegations of election fraud helps highlight the fragmented nature of the current political divide, as many liberals celebrate a new president-elect and many conservatives hold out hope that a legal challenge to the election could prevail. That partisan expectation extends even to Congress, where Republican senators recently questioned tech executives about perceived anti-conservative bias and censorship once again, despite scant evidence to support it.

Social media companies have been determined to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Russian operatives abused their services to sow disinformation to American voters. Although the companies initially developed strategies to prevent interference by foreign actors, domestic misinformation, often spread by Mr Trump and his allies, became a bigger threat as the 2020 election grew close.

Mr Trump and his backers have used their social media megaphones to complain about the veracity of mail-in ballots in recent months, despite widespread evidence that mailing voting is safe and secure. Mr Trump also indicated before the election that he would refuse to accept the results if they were not in his favour.

In response, Facebook, Twitter and other social media companies made policy decisions to ban calls for violence at the polls and to label premature declarations of victory. Facebook also disabled key parts of its service, such as the forwarding of messages, group recommendations and political ads, ahead of the election.

Still, in the aftermath, “Stop the Steal” groups suddenly gained hundreds of thousands of members. Many of those groups pushed misleading claims that Biden bragged about committing voter fraud and that poll workers had been secretly filling out ballots for him.

Facebook took unprecedented steps in response, banning a large “Stop the Steal” group for inciting violence, as well as the hashtags #stopthesteal, #voterfraud, #sharpiegate and other terms related to misleading claims of voter fraud. The company blocked live video and put some group posts on probation, requiring moderator approvals if group members have too many rule violations.

But the groups are adopting new tactics quickly, including frequent name changes. The Nationwide Recount 2020 group, for example, has changed its name five times since it launched on Thursday under the name “STOP THE STEAL.” It grew from 200,000 members to nearly a million over the weekend. The administrator said the group would not use terms such as “MAGA” or “Army” in any new name because “Facebook might find either word threatening,” according to posts viewed by The Washington Post.

Asked why it had blocked elements of “Stop the Steal” while allowing some related groups and events to proliferate, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said that the company was continuing to review additional activity for rule violations and “will take action accordingly.”

The administrator of that group, Joe America, had blocked messages on Facebook. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment through his Parler account. The Post sent messages to several other Nationwide Recount 2020 group administrators.

Even with the loopholes, many conservatives are instead turning to more fringe social media platforms, such as Gab and Parler.

Parler was created two years ago in response to what critics viewed as Big Tech's far-reaching moderation, and it boomed in popularity this summer when high-profile Trump surrogates started using it after Twitter for the first time labelled Trump's tweets in May. The app, which features a Twitter-like feed of updates, has struck a chord with Republican voters, far-right organisers and conservative pundits, in particular, who use it to shore up support for Trump and their causes.

Trump supporters flocked to Parler as the election dragged on and especially after Mr Biden was declared the president-elect.

“Hurry and follow me at Parler,” tweeted conservative radio host Mark Levin the day after the election was called for Mr Biden. “I'm trying to encourage as many of you as possible to immediately join me there as I may not stay at Facebook or Twitter if they continue censoring me.”

One of Mr Levin's tweets was labelled and restricted by Twitter on Thursday after he called on Republican state legislatures to exercise the “final say” over choosing electors.

The rallying cry to join Parler has been echoed since by politicians including Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, Fox News host Maria Bartiromo and Trump campaign legal adviser Jenna Ellis. Parler prides itself on not employing fact-checkers and letting free speech reign - though it still has rules.

Mr Wernick said people are tiring of excessive content moderation on Facebook and Twitter.

“I want people to have choices,” he said. “I want there to be one platform out there that people can choose to say, 'Trust us, we understand there's a world of disinformation and misinformation, but let us process it.'”

A search Monday for “#stopthesteal”on Parler turned up more than 58,000 results.

“This isn't over,” posted conservative commentator Dan Bongino on Monday. “No surrender. I'm not tired at all.” His post was “echoed” - Parler's word for reposting - 339 times in less than 15 minutes. Mr Bongino holds an ownership stake in Parler.

Mr Bongino did not immediately respond to a request for comment through his Parler account.

Across Facebook, regular users posted their Parler usernames and urged their friends to join them on the site.

“Who's on Parler? It's like Facebook but without censorship,” one user posted on Facebook on Monday morning.

The Trump campaign is active on Parler, mostly reposting what it also puts on Facebook and Twitter. Mr Trump does not have an account, though many supporters this week have called on him to join.

Facebook's hit-or-miss approach to policing content reflects the company's balancing act between preventing misinformation and allowing authentic expressions of protest over the election outcomes - even if those very protests are fueled by misleading narratives.

The conflict played out during election week on Facebook's internal chat boards, as employees expressed alarm over the proliferation and rapid growth of #stopthesteal groups, which in some cases made suggestions of violence, with references to “clean your guns” and “impending civil war.”

At the same time, observers questioned whether there might be some external signs that Facebook's efforts to stop disinformation were starting to affect right-wing publishers that have been known to spread it. On Sunday, the top 10 performing posts with article links on Facebook - which typically lean heavily toward right-leaning publishers such as Fox, Bongino and Trump's own page - took a surprising turn toward the left. On Sunday, the top 10 results were Donald J. Trump, CNN, NPR and “The Rachel Maddow Show,” according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned analytics tool.

The move led observers to question whether Facebook had tweaked its algorithms to sanction conservative publishers, including some that have been known to spread misinformation.

By Monday, the results had shifted back to Fox News, Bongino and Trump, but also included CNN, NPR and CBS.

Facebook said it had no comment.

Fadi Quran, a campaign director at the left-leaning group Avaaz, which researches misinformation, speculated that Facebook's ad hoc efforts to step up punishments for repeat offenders were starting to have a broader impact. He said that in September, his organisation had provided Facebook with a list of over 100 publishers that appeared to repeatedly put out false stories. He noticed that, several days before the election, about 25 of the publishers began to complain that Facebook had penalised them by reducing their traffic.

A former Facebook employee with experience policing misinformation said he thought the new climate of more frequent punishment in the wake of the election was starting to have an effect on the news people see. “If you stop giving misinformation distribution, then less people see it,” said the former employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak about sensitive matters without retribution.

Chris Looft, senior editor at First Draft, an organisation that combats misinformation and was the first to notice the “Stop the Steal” name changes, said Facebook's ad hoc approach was “a problem.”

“When 'movements' like this grow quickly around a slogan or hashtag, platforms have to be vigilant if they want to contain them,” he said.

The Washington Post

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