Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg made headlines for saying the mob attack on the U.S. Capitol was “largely organized” on other platforms, suggesting Facebook had done better than others at taking down dangerous content.
Not only is that assertion false, according to research by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), but it ignores the fact that Facebook spent the past year allowing election conspiracies and far-right militia activity to proliferate on its platform, laying the groundwork for the broader radicalization that fueled the Capitol insurrection in the first place.
For months, TTP has watched extremist groups use Facebook to organize and incite members, fueled by President Trump’s baseless allegations of voter fraud and a “rigged” election. Despite Facebook’s new move to suspend Trump’s account and other recent actions, the militant movement it allowed to flourish for so long threatens to continue its campaign of violence heading into President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration, and beyond.
For TTP, one of the first signs of mounting danger came from “boogaloo” groups, which we reported in April were using Facebook to prepare for a second civil war, often citing conspiratorial fears about coronavirus lockdowns. Members of private boogaloo groups flagged by TTP later engaged in real or attempted violence—an ominous warning of how online radicalization can spin out of control.
But that was just the beginning. Since last fall, TTP has documented numerous instances of domestic extremists discussing weapons and tactics, coordinating their activities, and spreading calls to overthrow the government on Facebook, up to and including the mob attack on the Capitol, which left at least five people dead. Much of the activity took place in private Facebook groups—insulated communities that allow people to organize out of the public eye while still having access to a large online following.
Here are some of the key takeaways from that research:
- Militant groups had planned a nationwide effort to “back up” police on Election Day against supposed antifa and Black Lives Matter protests. The event carried the logos of the Proud Boys and anti-government militias and was circulated in private far-right Facebook groups with thousands of members.
- Self-declared “patriot” groups on Facebook have ramped up their recruiting efforts tied to the election. Some of these groups promoted the Jan. 6 event at the Capitol.
- Talk of overthrowing the U.S. government increased dramatically in Facebook groups monitored by TTP following the declaration of Biden as the winner of the 2020 vote.
- A pro-Trump Facebook group required prospective members to declare if they would be willing to die for their country in order to join, in what may be a sign of growing extremism.
- Calls to “occupy Congress” were rampant on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the deadly Capitol riot, making no secret of the event's aims. Two different “occupy” event listings were written in a Nazi-style font and began circulating on Facebook in December.
- Since the insurrection, new posts promoting violence, including on Inauguration Day, have popped up on Facebook.
Below is a more detailed rundown of Facebook activity spotted by TTP before and after the Nov. 3 vote.
The Pre-Election Period
In the weeks preceding the November election, members of various “patriot” Facebook groups organized efforts to intimidate voters at the polls—an early sign of trying to shape the outcome of the election by force.
On Oct. 27, an individual posted to the private Facebook group Ohio Patriot Action Network, as well as to other militia and pro-Trump groups and his personal profile, that veterans should bring their “iron” to the polls—a winking reference to weapons. The same user would go on to post threats to assassinate Joe Biden and other elected officials on his personal Facebook profile, saying “fair warn to ALL Military Snipers! Biden wins… they all GO DOWN!! Say farewell now before you can’t!!” (TTP reported these threats to appropriate authorities at the time).
That same week, the administrator of a private Facebook group called “Patriot Riders” posted a Facebook event for an “Election Day Evening Block Biden Ride” in Johnson City, Tennessee, aimed at disrupting a local Democratic party event at voting precincts. The cover photo for the event featured the logo of the Three Percenters, an anti-government militia movement with a “track record of criminal activity ranging from weapons violations to terrorist plots and attacks,” according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Reports from the Capitol attack have highlighted the military- and police-style preparation of many of the rioters, who were kitted out in bulletproof vests, helmets and batons. Videos show the organized nature of some in the crowd, with one group moving in a disciplined line toward the Capitol building. According to a report from The Guardian, some rioters communicated on a walkie-talkie app, with one saying, “This is what we fucking lived up for. Everything we fucking trained for." This kind of activity was not a surprise to TTP, which has been monitoring how patriot and militia groups on Facebook have put a growing emphasis on tactical training and weaponry.
The activity in a Facebook group called “FLORIDA PATRIOTS” provides a good illustration of this trend. In October, one member called for “well armed” citizens to “join our emergency response unit in all zones,” while another requested information on how to “train and meet up and prep.” Similar requests popped up in the “Oregon Patriots (save Oregon)” Facebook group, with one member warning not to openly share logistical details about training sessions, saying “that’s not really a Facebook conversation.”
These same groups appeared to ramp up their activity around Election Day.
The “FLORIDA PATRIOTS” posted a nationwide message outlining plans to provide backup to police confronting antifa and Black Lives Matter on Nov. 3. (False, right-wing rumors that antifa and BLM planned riots around the election were debunked by fact checkers.) The message featured the logos of the far-right Proud Boys, the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers, suggesting they were part of the effort. The Oath Keepers are a radical antigovernment group that “claims tens of thousands of present and former law enforcement officials and military veterans as members,” according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. TTP reported this call to arms to appropriate authorities at the time.
During this period, TTP also observed an escalation of threats to Biden and other Democratic politicians on Facebook. For example, a member of the “Pro-Police, Pro-Military, Pro-Trump” group in early October said Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar should be “sent to Guantanamo Bay,” a comment that sparked replies like “Just shoot the bitch” and “she needs a drone strike.” The threats to Omar remained active on Facebook as of this writing despite TTP and BuzzFeed highlighting the threat back in October.
At the same time, the rhetoric among these far-right groups began to bend toward insurrection talk. In the giant “Stop the Steal” group—which Facebook only removed after the election—members posted openly about overthrowing the government if Biden was declared the winner. “So IF they give this to Joe, how do we go about over throwing the government,” one individual wrote to the group’s 338,000-plus members on Nov. 4, prompting replies like, “They come for our guns, but we give them the ammo first.”
One member of the “Stop the Steal” group on Nov. 3 called on others to “Gather up arms and meet at election headquarters quickly,” in response to claims that conservative poll watchers were not being permitted to view the counting of votes in swing states. This same individual had previously posted on Facebook about taking over election infrastructure and removing Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer by force. (Whitmer was the target of a kidnapping plot last fall.) BuzzFeed reported on Jan. 8—two days after the Capitol riot—that copycat “Stop the Steal” groups were still flourishing on Facebook, providing a continuing space for such threats.
News of Biden’s victory sparked increasingly violent talk in pro-Trump and militia groups on Facebook, which allowed the threats to freely circulate.
The Florida-based administrator of a Facebook militia group called “Eagle Team 1 LLC,” for example, posted frequent calls to “take down” the government. “The politicians in Washington DC are the biggest threat 2 our country and democracy than any foreign standing Army,” read one typical post. Members replied with slogans like “locked and loaded,” indicating a willingness to take up arms.
Another group called “Take America Back. California Chapter” ramped up its recruitment drive, posting on Nov. 10 and Nov. 12 about an assembly of “Echo Company, California State Militia, 2nd Regiment,” which was described as a “defense” resource for people who want to “maintain life, liberty and property during any ‘Severe Controversy’ that may arise.”
A member of the Facebook group “Patriot Riders,” meanwhile, called for people to organize in their local areas, posting on Nov. 7, “I urge all PATRIOTS to develop rapid responce teams in your communities, neighbor hoods and cities to defend against all threats.”
This individual also made violent threats on his profile, including a Nov. 10 post that stated, “TRAITORS MUST HANG,” with an image of nooses in the gallows titled “Government Repair Kit.” Rioters at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 used this same kind of imagery, erecting a wooden frame with a noose dangling from it just outside the Capitol. (The individual described above remains active on Facebook and continues to post threats as of this writing.)
TTP also observed militia members on Facebook using increasingly extreme language in describing their cause in the post-election period.
A Facebook group created on Nov. 17 called “WE THE PEOPLE” required prospective members to answer a series of questions, including one that asked if they would be willing to be a martyr. The “yes or no” question read “Do you support our Freedom , Rights , Constitution of the United States And are willing to fight or maybe even Die for YOUR COUNTRY ?”
Despite Sheryl Sandberg’s effort to point the finger at other platforms for the U.S. Capitol riot, TTP identified numerous examples of Facebook users promoting the Jan. 6 rally as an opportunity to “#OccupyCongress.” “[S]upporters should storm DC in January 6th #occupycongress and the senate, prevent the vote by a force of nature,” read one post, which included the hashtag for Trump’s Make America Great Again slogan.
In the “Take America Back. California Chapter” Facebook group, a member on Dec. 23 issued a call to “OCCUPY THE CAPITAL JANUARY 6, 2021,” with a poster that included details of the event. The poster included the words “Operation Occupy The Capitol” in the Fraktur font, which is commonly associated with the Nazi regime in Germany. Another post in a Facebook group called “The Patriot Party” included the hashtag #OccupyCongress and the slogan “The Great Betrayal,” alongside text that read, “If they won’t hear us, they will fear us.”
Supporters of militia and extremist groups became increasingly overt about their role in the Jan. 6 rally in the days and hours leading up to the event. In a Facebook group called “Mouthy Patriots,” a member posted an announcement stating that Oath Keepers would be deploying to Washington on Jan. 5 and 6 to “Protect Events, Speakers, & Attendees.” On the morning of Jan. 6, a member of the Facebook group “Under the Liberty Tree” posted a meme featuring the Three Percenter logo that said “WE CANNOT WE WILL NOT COMPLY. Prepare to Take America Back.”
It was one of several militia-linked memes with calls to action that popped up in far-right Facebook groups hours before the attack on the Capitol, suggesting they may have served as dog whistle to supporters attending the rally in Washington that day. (Republican Rep. Lauren Boebert of Colorado also tweeted that morning, "Today is 1776," echoing a slogan used by far-right groups to reference a new revolution and violent uprising against the government.)
In the days since Jan. 6, Facebook has continued to allow discussion of insurrection and is even profiting from it. Research by BuzzFeed and TTP found that Facebook was pushing ads for weapons accessories and military gear to users who engage in militia and far right groups on the platform. (Facebook later paused such ads until after the inauguration.)
Following the Capitol riot, TTP also spotted a number of still-active Facebook posts that equated the insurrection with the American Revolution or tried to organize new militias.
Perhaps more alarmingly, TTP found Facebook posts making new calls for violence, including around the Inauguration. One post referred to Jan. 20, Inauguration Day, as a "Tiananmen Square moment" for self-styled patriots. These messages remained active on Facebook despite the company's statement that its teams are "working 24/7 to enforce our policies around the inauguration."
CNN reported on the new posts identified by TTP on Jan. 18. In response to the report, Facebook said it removed the Tiananmen Square post, and told CNN it had "proactively detected" and was removing the "Patriot Party" group that featured the militia organizing message.
Facebook not only facilitated organizing for the Jan. 6 event in Washington that culminated in the deadly Capitol riot; it has spent the past year failing to remove extremist activity and election-related conspiracy theories stoked by President Trump that have radicalized a broad swath of the population and led many down a dangerous path.
Throughout 2020, Facebook’s efforts to curb violent activity and disinformation were either too late or ineffective or both. It banned a boogaloo network in June after members of Facebook boogaloo groups were linked to a terrorism plot and murder, but its enforcement of the new policy fell short. Over the summer, Facebook banned militia groups, but it failed to take down the page for a militia event that led to the deadly shooting of two protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The company’s new crackdown on the phrase “stop the steal” came only after the mob attack on the Capitol.
TTP watched with growing alarm starting this fall as a broad range of “patriot,” militia, and pro-Trump groups grew increasingly bold on Facebook with their organizing efforts, recruitment, and training of new members, and talk of weapons, violence, and government takeovers. As the nation heads toward Inauguration Day and contemplates life under a new Biden administration, Facebook’s massive reach and patchy, inconsistent moderation mean it’s likely to continue to be a gathering space for extremist groups that seek to do harm.