On Thursday, Facebook disbanded a group of 365,000 supporters of President Donald Trump who had joined together to “Stop the Steal.” The Big Tech company claimed that the Trump supporters organized in order to attack the election process and called for violence.
“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.”
While the Associated Press’s Barbara Ortutay and David Klepper faulted the group for sharing “baseless claims of voter fraud,” the reporters acknowledged that “calls for violence were not immediately apparent.”
Facebook appears to have acted against the group due to complaints from the Center for Countering Digital Hate, which pressured the platform to remove the group. The center shared a screenshot of one post in the now-banned group that read “Neither side is going to concede. Time to clean the guns, time to hit the streets.”
Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, faulted Facebook for acting slowly to silence the group.
“There is a systemic issue with Facebook groups being exploited by people spreading misinformation, hate and inciting violence,” Ahmed claimed. “It’s a problem they have known about for a long time and they continue to fail to take proper action. It’s generally only when a lot of attention is placed on something that they act.”
All the same, he argued that Facebook’s decision to remove the big “Stop the Steal” group “sent a message to others.”
A copycat “Stop the Steal” group had grown to nearly 13,000 members shortly after Facebook removed the first one. In the new group, administrators cautioned people to keep their posts civil and to vent their frustrations without making threats. They announced they would remove any post calling for violence.
Chris Barron, a spokesman for the now-deleted group, said that “Stop the Steal” was organizing peaceful protests and had been working hard to police comments to avoid incitement to violence. He also said Facebook had given the group no warning before banning it, and that Facebook was allowing political opponents to organize protests without any ban.
“If Facebook wants to become the arbiter of truth then they’ve got a lot of work to do,” Barron told Reuters.
As election results have come in, President Trump has insisted that unscrupulous Democratic officials are attempting to “steal” the election from him. He and his campaign have presented many troubling anecdotes about poll watchers getting turned away from monitoring the counting of ballots, out-of-state voters casting ballots in key states, and troves of votes going to Biden by overwhelming percentages that strain credulity.
While media outlets seem far too quick to denounce Trump’s claims as entirely baseless, they have yet to be verified. The president has engaged in hyperbole on the issue, which likely makes supporters and opponents nervous.
Social media companies have gone overboard in censoring skeptical claims about the election. Twitter has put up warning labels in front of “Stop the Steal”-themed Trump tweets and tweets from his prominent supporters like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
I don’t like the rhetoric around stealing votes and not counting votes. Every legal vote should be counted. But it’s not Twitter’s job to declare that voter fraud isn’t real or that the election results are confirmed. It is and they aren’t. We should be patient.
— Tyler O'Neil (@Tyler2ONeil) November 5, 2020
Some content may indeed cross the line, however. On Thursday, Twitter suspended an account used by former Trump campaign manager Steve Bannon after he posted a video in which he reportedly called for the beheading of FBI Director Christopher Wray and infectious diseases expert Anthony Fauci. A Twitter spokesman cited the company’s policy against glorifying violence.
If the “Stop the Steal” group truly was inciting violence, Facebook may have been justified to act against it. Deleting the entire group seems an extreme response, however, especially if Facebook is indeed allowing conspiratorial left-wing groups to proliferate and organize protests.
Too often, it seems Big Tech companies employ a liberal bias when it comes to countering alleged misinformation. After all, Facebook and Twitter rushed to suppress The New York Post‘s bombshell Hunter Biden corruption story, even though it was well-sourced and further evidence confirmed the story’s claims.
While Trump’s campaign has yet to provide surefire evidence that Democratic officials are “stealing” the election, it is also not clear that the officials are entirely above board. Twitter and Facebook should not suppress one side of the debate while the debate plays out. If indeed the Trump campaign’s claims prove baseless, that should embarrass the “Stop the Steal” movement. If they do not, Twitter and Facebook risk putting their thumb on the scale in a way that abets potential fraud.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.