In the weeks before the November 2020 election and subsequent Capitol insurrection, podcasts and Facebook postings lit up with allegations of massive voting fraud and calls for violence to address the spreading myth of a stolen presidential election. Social media companies, including Google and YouTube, allowed the use of their platforms to spread the myth and whip up pre-insurrection hysteria. And recent investigations indicate social media companies had the technology to intervene but didn’t. Misinformation sites flourished, including one formed by a Missourian, United Conservatives for America, with more than 11,000 group members on Facebook.
Facebook waited until after the Jan. 6 attack to curtail that latter group’s activities, which prompted founder Jerry Smith to complain to a Washington Post/ProPublica reporter: “Are you going to do away with their free speech? If someone thinks it’s not a fair election … why can’t they have their opinion on whether it’s a fair election or not?”
Freedom of expression is a right that all Americans should exercise and defend. But all should be able to recognize the difference between responsible free expression and deliberate misinformation that incites violence. It’s not always easy to draw a clear line, particularly when it involves internet communications. The kinds of violent discourse outlined in separate investigations by the Brookings Institution, ProPublica and The Washington Post underscore the need for tighter checks by social media companies on the radical groups using their services.
The big lie wasn’t something President Donald Trump invented on the morning of Jan. 6, 2021, before he unleashed thousands of supporters to attack the Capitol. Rather, Trump’s foot soldiers had spent previous weeks and months flooding the internet with wild, unsubstantiated assertions that Democrats were plotting to steal the election. Smith, for example, posted in August 2020 that “DEMS Are Pushing For Vote By Mail. Another Way For Them To Steal The Election.” That was just one posting that prompted the unfiltered conspiracy-mongering by thousands of his other members. Facebook didn’t intervene until it was too late.
Crazed rants on other group sites talked of lynchings, civil war and shooting traitors. They were so voluminous — 10,000 per day — that Facebook either couldn’t keep up or stopped trying. It did crack down completely on QAnon groups before the election. But then Facebook relaxed its focus, just as a new crop of radical groups was surging forward between November and Jan. 6, the ProPublica/Post investigation found.
A Brookings analysis of podcasts yielded similar findings, with a particularly sharp increase in big-lie advancement by prominent Trump backers like Steve Bannon, Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh, each of whom devoted half or more of their episodes to election-fraud conspiracy theories.
The insurrection might have come as a huge surprise to most Americans, but these investigations suggest it should’ve been no surprise at all, especially for their social media hosts.