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‘Stop the steal’ groups hide in plain sight on Facebook

Groups and individuals spreading lies about the 2020 election and calling to protest the outcome have continued to hide in plain sight on Facebook, even as COO Sheryl Sandberg this week tried to downplay the platform’s role in the Capitol riots.

From altering the names of their online forums to abusing the core features of Facebook’s own services, conspiracy theorists have worked to evade content moderators despite the company’s vows of a crackdown, new research shows.

These groups’ efforts to remain undetected highlight the sophisticated threat confronting Facebook, despite its insistence the situation has been less of a problem compared to on other platforms. It also raises new concerns that the groups’ persistence on these mainstream social networks could spark a new cycle of violence that stretches well into Joe Biden’s presidency.

The latest examples surfaced on Thursday, as extremism experts at the activist group Avaaz identified 90 public and private Facebook groups that have continued to circulate baseless myths about the election, with 166,000 total members.

Of those, a half-dozen groups appeared to have successfully evaded Facebook’s restrictions on “stop the steal” content, according to Avaaz. Though many initially had “stop the steal” in their names, the groups have since altered their profiles, according to page histories reviewed by CNN Business — allowing them to blend in with other Facebook activity.

“So instead of ‘Stop the Steal,’ they became ‘Stop the Fraud’ or ‘Stop the Rigged Election’ or ‘Own the Vote,'” said Fadi Quran, campaign director at Avaaz.

In the months since the election, the slogan “Stop the Steal” has galvanized Trump supporters, and a leader of the movement has said he worked with Republican lawmakers to plan the rally that preceded the riots at the Capitol. The watchdog group Media Matters has highlighted dozens of posts on Facebook by state Republican Party pages that promoted bus trips to Washington for the Jan. 6 events.

Some of the Facebook groups Avaaz discovered contained posts mobilizing Trump supporters as well, including a promotional flier for Jan. 6 bearing the banner “Operation Occupy the Capitol: Taking back our country from corrupt politicians.”

Facebook removed three of the groups on Thursday after the company was notified of their activity, spokesman Andy Stone told CNN Business. In a statement, he said the company has banned over 250 white supremacist groups to date and has enforced policies restricting QAnon and militia groups from organizing on Facebook. Facebook has said its broader ban on “stop the steal” content will take time to ramp up.

“We work with experts in global terrorism and cyber intelligence to identify calls for violence and remove harmful content that could lead to further violence,” Stone said. “We are continuing all of these efforts and working with law enforcement to prevent direct threats to public safety.”

But the evasion tactics, as illustrated by Avaaz’s report Thursday and Facebook’s subsequent enforcement, threaten to complicate those efforts.

Taking advantage of Facebook’s features

Some individuals have taken advantage of the basic design of Facebook products, including using Instagram Stories to spread their content. Instagram Stories disappear after 24 hours — a feature some far-right activists are leveraging to circumvent content moderation, said Quran.

“Some of these Instagram accounts have tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of followers, and they’re inviting people to events such as the insurrection,” Quran said. “These actors are extremely sophisticated and innovative in how they weaponize these platforms.”

Quran said far-right actors have been witnessed using Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which is also owned by Facebook, to communicate, as well.

There are other signs that opportunistic actors have exploited loopholes in Facebook’s advertising systems — to Facebook’s apparent financial benefit and potentially undercutting claims in July by Nick Clegg, Facebook’s VP of global affairs, that “Facebook does not profit from hate.”

Although Facebook currently has a ban on political and issue advertising nationwide, those restrictions do not extend to commercial ads. Advertisements promoting body armor, firearm accessories, holsters and other tactical products have recently appeared beside pro-insurrection posts on Facebook, according to researchers.

The ads appeared in the Facebook feed of a dummy account set up by the Tech Transparency Project, a nonprofit watchdog, and made to resemble that of a far-right sympathizer. TPP used the account to join dozens of groups and pages linked to far-right movements.

“Facebook is microtargeting these ads to an account whose only activity involves joining dozens of groups and pages dedicated to militia and the far-right,” Katie Paul, director of TTP, told CNN Business on Thursday. “Facebook is sending a message: not only can users spend months violating platform policies to plan violence, Facebook will help users make their insurrection activity more effective while it profits from ads,” she added.

BuzzFeed News was first to report the advertising.

“We don’t allow ads that praise, support or represent militarized social movements and ban ads that promote the sale or use of weapons, ammunition, or explosives,” said Facebook’s Stone.

“Never perfect”

Asked on Monday whether Facebook could have done more to prevent the riots, COO Sheryl Sandberg mostly disclaimed Facebook’s responsibility in the matter.

“Our enforcement is never perfect, so I’m sure there were still things on Facebook,” Sandberg told Reuters in an interview. Then she added: “I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate and don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency.”

Internally, however, some Facebook employees reportedly questioned whether the company was doing enough as events at the Capitol spiraled out of control. According to the Wall Street Journal, divisions erupted within Facebook on Jan. 6 amid a spike in user reports of violent content.

As a top executive urged restraint against stifling political speech, one employee protested, saying in a popular internal message that Facebook has been “fueling this fire for a long time,” according to the Journal. (Facebook declined to comment to the Journal on internal company deliberations.)

Avaaz’s Quran called Sandberg’s deflection “very dishonest.”

“It indicated that instead of learning the painful lessons of what happened on Jan. 6 and Facebook’s role in it, the leadership of the company was seeking to shift the blame away,” Quran said. “When she said that, it was like, ‘Wow, this is a sign of a real problem, and a reminder why these platforms need to be regulated.'”

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