Trump supporters have run with the president’s claim that Democrats are trying to “steal” the election and are rapidly spreading misinformation about voting irregularities on social media. Right-wing protesters have adopted the phrase “stop the steal” as their mantra at rallies taking placing at vote-counting locations in Arizona and Philadelphia.
On Facebook, a group going by the name Stop the Steal quickly racked up more than 360,000 members beginning Wednesday. The group was a hotbed of misinformation and conspiracy theories. Members falsely accused Democrats of making fake copies of ballots, tricking Arizona Trump supporters to use sharpies in order to invalidate their votes, and getting the military to intervene in the counting process. As Ali Breland reported in Mother Jones, the Stop the Steal Facebook group has ties to Republican operatives: It was created by the nonprofit Women for America First, which Tea Party activist Amy Kremer founded in 2019 to organize anti-impeachment protests. Stop the Steal’s admins have also been encouraging members to enter their contact information on a website that’s registered to the Liberty Lab, a digital services contractor that caters to conservative clients like Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign and pro-Trump groups.
Facebook, which vowed to dramatically step up its anti-misinformation measures this week, shut the group down on Thursday afternoon. Before that, the platform was attaching labels to posts in Stop the Steal that violated its policies. The most common label, which included a link to Facebook’s Voting Information Center, read, “See the latest updates on the 2020 US Election.” In other cases where someone posted a known conspiracy theory, Facebook had been using a label reading “False Information. Checked by independent fact-checkers.” For example, the platform flagged a post questioning how tens of thousands of Biden ballots had been “suddenly discover[ed]” in Wisconsin. In reality, the spike in Wisconsin’s vote tally was expected because Milwaukee’s absentee ballots take longer to count. Facebook had been hiding videos about the Sharpie conspiracy theory behind “false information” labels, as well.
“In line with the exceptional measures that we are taking during this period of heightened tension, we have removed the Group ‘Stop the Steal,’ which was creating real-world events,” Facebook said in a statement. “The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group.” Indeed, the group had been creating pages for rallies in swing states and encouraging people to organize their own events connected to Stop the Steal. In a tweet reacting to the move, Kremer of Women for America First wrote, “The left is trying to steal an election and Social media is complicit.”
On Twitter, the hashtag #StoptheSteal gained traction among Trump supporters pushing similar conspiracy theories about ballot stuffing, Sharpies, and other forms of voter fraud. Defense One conducted an analysis finding that the hashtag took off within minutes early on Tuesday morning with thousands of mentions. It continued spread throughout the day, with a huge spike of 3,200 mentions late in the night. The hashtag seems to have been connected in many instances to misinformation coming out of Philadelphia, where people were falsely claiming that Democrats were stuffing mailboxes and breaking the rules by posting electioneering materials within 10 feet of polling places. Major purveyors of disputed information, such as the Philadelphia Republican Party, also used the hashtag. Twitter has been placing labels on misinformation about voting, but it doesn’t seem to be going after the hashtag itself.
Facebook and Twitter have been ramping up their anti-misinformation efforts for this election in order to avoid a repeat of 2016, when hoaxes and foreign interference caused chaos online. Beyond more aggressively taking action against false or questionable posts—even those written by politicians—the platforms have also put stricter limits on political ads. Twitter banned political ads, while Facebook instituted a blackout period for new ads in the week leading up to the election. Facebook is also indefinitely pausing all political ads following the election. The rapid emergence of “Stop the Steal” shows what the social platforms are up against—and, in at least Facebook’s case, how far their efforts have come.