There was never credible evidence that fraud would be or was a significant factor in the election, but niceties such as accuracy were never something to which Trump paid much attention. The president was raising hundreds of millions of dollars by touting alleged fraud and was keeping open the possibility that maybe he might somehow hang on to his power, so he kept up the refrain: The election was being stolen.
A galaxy of conservative figures latched on to the idea as well. Trump’s long served as the ox to the right wing’s oxpeckers, setting the agenda for fringe activists and right-wing media personalities to fundraise and build audiences. So when Trump started talking about fraud, so did his echo chamber.
The claim that the election was stolen was the trigger for the violence that erupted at the Capitol last week. Were Trump to have accepted the results of the election in November, when the race was called, there would have been no effort to bring thousands of people to Washington on Jan. 6 to block the final step of his election loss. There would have been no storming of the Capitol.
In the days since that occurred, social networks have tried to both distance themselves from the events of last Wednesday and lock down their systems to prevent any involvement in future violence. We’ve seen the big players, Twitter and Facebook, limit the president’s use of their networks to keep him from potentially inciting new violence.
On Monday, Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg said in an interview with Reuters that her platform was, if anything, at a distance from the effort to organize the protests. She emphasized that the site had removed content discussing possible violence in the days before.
“Our enforcement’s never perfect, so I’m sure there were still things on Facebook,” she continued. But: “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.”
Perhaps. It is certainly the case that tools such as Parler, which was removed from key application stores for its lack of content moderation, played a more obvious role in setting up the events themselves. But Sandberg should not pat her company on the back too hard: It is still a potent vehicle for misinformation.
The New York Times’ Kevin Roose built a Twitter account that pushes out data on the top 10 best-performing link-posts on the site from U.S.-based pages each day. It tracks the creators of the individual items which receive the most interactions — shares, reactions and so on. And day after day, the best-performing content comes from right-wing creators.
Consider Dan Bongino. Bongino is a former New York City police officer who now runs a right-wing website and contributes to Fox News. For all of his performative consternation about social media companies in the wake of Trump’s ouster from Twitter and Facebook, Bongino manages to consistently produce some of the best-performing content on the site.
Between Nov. 2 (the day before the election) and Jan. 7 (the day after the riot), Bongino averaged not only one of the top 10 best-performing items on each day for which Roose collected data, but two. Fully one-fifth of the top 10 best-performing items over that period were posts by Bongino’s media team.
That includes things like this.
Bongino, like the rest of the conservative mediasphere, was all in on claims that the election was stolen. On dozens of occasions over the past year, he has elevated claims similar to those being made by Trump. Bongino’s claims, like Trump’s, were flagged as misinformation on multiple occasions. But again, his posts were consistently among those with the most engagement.
Since Nov. 2, about 3 in 10 of the top 10 posts each day were from right-wing media or right-wing personalities. Add in Fox News, and that figure jumps to 4 in 10.
An additional 15 percent were from Trump himself, his campaign or members of his administration. Posts from national or local news outlets made up about a quarter of the top 10 posts over that time, most of them clustered around the day the election was called or the events on Capitol Hill.
Posts from President-elect Joe Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris or left-wing media outlets and personalities were in the top 10 only about two dozen times over that period. By comparison, posts from celebrities or focused on religion or entertainment were in the top 10 about twice as often.
Part of this is that Bongino and Trump know how to stoke the sort of interest that does well on the platform. When there was a debate after the 2016 election about whether Trump’s or Hillary Clinton’s campaigns had more effectively used Facebook, both camps agreed that Trump’s visceral approach to the platform was better for engagement, giving his campaign an advantage.
But it means that even if Facebook, as the largest social media platform in the world, didn’t actively help with the organization of the protests, it was almost certainly an active part of spreading the misinformation that drove interest in the protests in the first place.