The details, emerging from researchers who have combed the service in recent days, shed new light on how Facebook services were used to bring attention to and boost attendance at the rally, which turned violent when a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol while Congress was in session. The attack resulted in the death of a Capitol Police officer and four other people.
Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg has sought to deflect blame, noting the role of smaller, right-leaning services such as Parler and Gab.
"I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate, don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency,” Sandberg said in an interview Monday that was live-streamed by Reuters.
She noted that last week the company took down content affiliated with the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory and the Proud Boys extremist group, as well as content affiliated with the pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” movement seeking to delegitimize election results. She said there was likely to be some content on Facebook because the company’s enforcement was “never perfect.”
A growing body of evidence shows Facebook played a much larger role than Sandberg suggested.
The #StopTheSteal hashtag was widely used on the service until Monday, when a search on Facebook reported that 128,000 people were talking about it and in many cases using it to coordinate for the rally, according to Eric Feinberg, a vice president with the Coalition for a Safer Web.
And two dozen Republican Party officials and organizations in at least 12 states posted on Facebook to coordinate bus trips to the rally, according to research by the left-leaning media watchdog group Media Matters for America, which published screenshots of the fliers and memes.
“BUS TRIP to DC … #StoptheSteal. If your passions are running hot and you’re intending to respond to the President’s call for his supporters to descend on DC on Jan 6, LISTEN UP!” wrote the Polk County Republican Party of North Carolina in a Facebook post that is no longer publicly available.
In a statement, Facebook spokeswoman Liz Bourgeois said, “Sheryl began by noting these events were organized online, including on our platforms — with the clear suggestion we have a role here.”
“She was making the point, which has been made by many journalists and academics, that our crackdowns on QAnon, militia and hate groups has meant large amounts of activity has migrated to other platforms with fewer rules and enforcement,” Bourgeois added. She denied that Sandberg sought to deflect blame.
Facebook has been at the center of controversies over its role in the organizing of far-right events since at least 2017, when the service played a central role in the promotion of a white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville in which a woman was killed.
Throughout 2020, Facebook was a hub for organizers of protests against government restrictions related to the coronavirus — including when armed demonstrators entered the Michigan Capitol — and other pro-Trump rallies calling for election results to be decertified.
Facebook banned several far-right figures from its service after the Charlottesville violence and last year belatedly blocked organizing for protests that opposed government orders related to the pandemic. And immediately after the November election, Facebook said it was banning or labeling misinformation about election results, including taking action against the term “Stop the Steal” and banning a large group affiliated with it.
Bourgeois said that the actions taken to limit the reach of the term “Stop the Steal” in the election’s immediate aftermath were temporary. She said the hashtag was blocked again Monday, five days after the Capitol event.
The proliferation of such events raises questions about the lines between misinformation and real-world action. The company may act to limit the spread of false information, but has been hesitant to restrict people from organizing events based on their beliefs — even when those beliefs are based on misinformation.
Feinberg’s searches for the banned hashtag #StopTheSteal and the affiliated hashtags #DoNotCertify, #WildProtest and #FightForTrump on Facebook and Instagram as recently as Monday revealed hundreds of posts promoting the rally, according to a review by The Washington Post.
Some of that promotion included Instagram posts with detailed maps of the Capitol and a guide to the speakers there.
A meme posted on Facebook on Jan. 5 called for “Operation Occupy the Capitol” and promoted the hashtag #1776Rebel, according to a screenshot posted by Media Matters, referencing the year America freed itself from British rule. The post also included a quote from Abraham Lincoln: "We the people are the rightful masters of both Congress and the Courts, not to overthrow the Constitution but to overthrow the men who would pervert the Constitution.”
The existence of the post was first reported by NBC News. Media Matters showed that it was circulated by Republican Party officials in Georgia, Texas, North Carolina and Oregon.
On Dec. 28, a Facebook account called Women for America First posted about a march for Trump in Huntington Beach, Calif., with a photo of a bus and a link to a website at trumpmarch.com.
And the New Hanover County GOP of North Carolina wrote in a Facebook post advertising bus seats: “This is a call to ALL patriots from Donald J Trump for a BIG protest in Washington DC! TAKE AMERICA BACK! BE THERE, WILL BE WILD!”