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‘Stop the Steal’ supporters, restrained by Facebook, turn to Parler to peddle false election claims

Alternative social media app Parler has surged in popularity as Facebook restricts groups spreading false election claims

Parler positions itself as the "free speech" alternative to Twitter and Facebook. And after the 2020 election, conservatives welcome that. (Video: The Washington Post)

The leader of a Facebook group demanding an election recount told members this weekend 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.

Facebook and other social media platforms are facing a wave of conservative backlash over their crackdowns on efforts to delegitimize the results of the presidential election. Facebook and Twitter are banning hashtags, individuals and groups — including President Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and groups affiliated with him — altering search results, labeling posts, down-ranking problematic content and implementing a host of measures to ward off misinformation. That is driving millions of new users to Parler, an alternate social media platform where conspiracy theories can thrive. The app, which has a free-speech doctrine, became the top new app download over the weekend on Apple’s App Store.

Social media reflects the fragmented nature of the current political divide, as many liberals celebrate a new president-elect while some conservatives hope to use tech platforms to sustain and organize a movement to challenge the election outcomes. Both Facebook and Twitter are cracking down in new ways, taking more aggressive approaches to policing misinformation about the electoral process this year than ever before.

The effort by President Trump and his allies to contest President-elect Joe Biden’s victory is resulting in a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game for the social media companies. Since the election, Facebook and Twitter have labeled over a dozen posts by Trump and penalized some of his high-ranking campaign members and at least one family member. Facebook also took down a large group dedicated to “Stop the Steal,” a hashtag associated with misinformation about electoral fraud, and a network of pages, which promoted #StoptheSteal and dozens of stories with unfounded claims of voter fraud, tied to Bannon.

Parler, which has become a haven for groups and individuals kicked off mainstream platforms, experienced its largest number of single-day downloads on Nov. 9, when about 880,000 people installed it, according to market research firm Sensor Tower. Parler on Tuesday boasted nearly 9 million user accounts compared with 4.5 million about a week ago, said chief operating officer and investor Jeffrey Wernick.

Facebook takes down a widespread network of pages tied to Stephen Bannon for pushing misinformation

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 Trump and his allies, became a bigger threat as the 2020 election grew close.

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. Trump also indicated before the election that he would refuse to accept the results if they were not in his favor.

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 false 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 false 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.

Facebook bans ‘STOP THE STEAL’ group Trump allies were using to organize protests against vote counting

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 Nov. 5 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.

The administrator, who goes by the name JoeAmerica76 on Parler, said Friday that the group was meant to bring awareness to online petitions. “I made it clear in the group everyone has to follow Facebook’s rules because I didn’t want the group to be banned,” he said in a Parler message. The Post sent messages to several other Nationwide Recount 2020 group administrators.

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

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 labeled Trump’s tweets in May. The app, which features a Twitter-like feed of updates, has struck a chord with Republican voters, far-right organizers 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 Biden was declared president-elect.

“Hurry and follow me at Parler,” tweeted conservative radio host Mark Levin the day after the election was called for 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 Levin’s tweets was labeled and restricted by Twitter last week 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 former Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R), 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.

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

The conservative alternative to Twitter wants to be a place for free speech for all. It turns out, rules still apply.

“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. Bongino holds an ownership stake in Parler.

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. Trump does not have an account, though many supporters this week have called on him to join.

Parler chief executive and co-founder John Matze said people are looking for a social media site where they can place “trust.”

“I think people are really just fed up with what’s going on on Twitter and Facebook and these other places that are just cracking down and trying to interfere with what people are trying to talk about during this time,” he said in an interview with Bartiromo on Fox Business.

It hasn’t been totally smooth sailing for Parler during the growth spurt — many people took to Twitter to vent that the app had been glitchy, a common issue growing tech companies face.

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. 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.

Trump allies, largely unconstrained by Facebook’s rules against repeated falsehoods, cement pre-election dominance

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 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 organization had provided Facebook with a list of more than 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 penalized 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 organization 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.

Correction: Jan Brewer is the former governor of Arizona. An earlier version of the story referred to her as the current governor.