Broken Promises

How Facebook Profits from the Insurrection

Facebook suspended President Trump and announced other actions after the U.S. Capitol riot. But it continued to push ads for military gear next to insurrection posts.

Facebook has been serving up ads for weapons accessories and body armor alongside election misinformation and insurrection talk in “patriot” and militia groups, according to research by the Tech Transparency Project (TTP), revealing an alarming blind spot in Facebook’s moderation efforts just days before an inauguration threatened by extremist violence.

TTP’s research, shared with BuzzFeed News, showed how Facebook continued to run ads for things like gun holsters and rifle enhancements in these far-right groups after the deadly Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot. BuzzFeed also reported that such ads had been flagged internally by concerned Facebook employees.

Facebook promised days later to pause ads for gun accessories and military gear until after the inauguration, but TTP and BuzzFeed continued to find them after Facebook’s announcement. The findings highlight how Facebook profits from extremist content, contributes to radicalization, and struggles to meet its enforcement promises.

TTP spotted the advertising via a monitoring profile it uses to track far-right and militia movements on Facebook. The account’s only activity involves “liking” Facebook pages and joining Facebook groups that are engaged in far-right and militant activity; it does not interact with user posts or communicate in the groups.

Maintaining a profile like this has provided a first-hand look at the kind of content pushed by Facebook’s algorithms. Below is a timeline of TTP’s investigation on the military gear ads.

January 13, 2021

TTP identified multiple advertisements for weapons accessories and body armor alongside election misinformation and insurrection content in Facebook patriot and militia groups. BuzzFeed News, which reported on the findings, also noted that Facebook employees had flagged some of the same ads internally at the company. 

Slideshow: Military gear ads on Facebook

 

 

 

 

 

January 15, 2021

Public officials took notice. In a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, Sens. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) urged Zuckerberg to “take immediate action” to remove ads that promote or sell products “designed to equip white nationalists, neo-Nazis and other domestic extremist organizations to engage in violent insurrection and seditious conspiracy” against the U.S. Constitution and government.

The attorney generals of Washington, D.C., Illinois, New Jersey, and Massachusetts also called on Facebook to halt such advertising, highlighting the fact that many rioters at the Capitol “wore military-style tactical gear in preparation for a confrontation”—the same type of gear featured in the Facebook ads.

That same day, TTP also found that Facebook's algorithms were recommending “Suggested Pages” for nationalist and militia groups in between ads for military-style body armor, potentially fueling radicalization. Militia pages continue to be active on Facebook despite the platform’s August 2020 crackdown on “militarized social movements.”

See how it works:

TTP has previously documented how Facebook’s recommended pages create an echo chamber for white supremacists.

January 16, 2021

Following the backlash from lawmakers and others over the weapons accessories ads, Facebook announced it was “banning ads that promote weapon accessories and protective equipment in the US at least through Jan. 22, out of an abundance of caution.”

“We already prohibit ads for weapons, ammunition and weapon enhancements like silencers. But we will now also prohibit ads for accessories such as gun safes, vests and gun holsters in the US,” the statement read.

January 17, 2021

However, on the following day, ads for armor and weapons accessories had still not been removed. TTP also found Facebook pushing an ad for bulletproof body armor and backpacks next to a recommendation for a page belonging to the Three Percenters, which the Anti-Defamation League describes as an anti-government extremist militia.