Facebook on Thursday said it had taken down a rapidly growing group where some supporters of US President Donald Trump posted violent rhetoric and baseless claims that Democrats were stealing the election.
On Thursday afternoon, the “Stop the Steal” group, which called for “boots on the ground to protect the integrity of the vote”, was adding 1,000 new members every 10 seconds and had grown to 365,000 members in a single day.
“The group was organised around the delegitimisation of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” a Facebook spokeswoman said in a statement.
She said the move was in line with the “exceptional measures” Facebook was taking during “this period of heightened tension”.
The “Stop the Steal” group had prepared for Facebook to take action, directing new members to an email sign-up page “in the event that social media censors this group”.
Another group using the same name, but with different administrators, told its members that no threats would be allowed and that they should take precautions like using images with words rather than text. This group, which had more than 2,000 members, also said it would shift to become private in a few days.
Public Facebook groups can be seen, searched and joined by anyone on Facebook, while only members can see posts in private groups.
Facebook has billed groups as community forums for shared interests but watchdog organisations and social media researchers have argued that they can be hotbeds for hyper-partisan misinformation.
“Facebook has been enabling and amplifying the infrastructure that’s now being used to attack our democratic process,” Arisha Hatch, executive director of the racial justice group Color Of Change, told Reuters News Agency.
Facebook, which normally recommends groups to users that they may want to join based on their activity on the site, last week suspended these recommendations for political groups and new groups around the election.
The now-removed “Stop the Steal” group was run by the Trump action group Women for America First. The non-profit organised protests against COVID-19 restrictions and supported Trump during his impeachment hearing.
On Twitter, one of the Facebook group’s administrators, Amy Kremer, said: “The left is trying to steal an election and Social media is complicit,” she said. “This is outrageous!”
Unfounded and debunked claims about the integrity of the US election have been spread on social media by Trump and high-profile Republican accounts and the hashtag #StopTheSteal has gained momentum.
In what’s come to be known as #Sharpiegate, social media posts suggest that election officials in Maricopa County provided voters with Sharpie pens, which interfered with ballots being recorded, specifically those for Trump.
Arizona election officials say that voting with a Sharpie would have no impact on the votes being recorded by tabulation machines, and if there was an issue, there is a process that would prevent the ballots from being cancelled out.
A group of pro-Trump demonstrators, some of whom were armed and reportedly chanting “stop the steal”, forced a vote-counting location in Arizona to shut down overnight due to safety fears.
Arizona has permissive open-carry laws, allowing residents to bear arms in public places. Advocacy group Amnesty International said in a morning briefing on the election that such laws and “armed groups pose a risk to public safety and the human rights of others and must be denounced explicitly and strongly by all government officials.”
Amnesty also called for “an immediate ban of firearms at and around polling and vote-counting locations to ensure the safety of workers there”.
Facebook’s rules ban statements of intent or advocating for violence due to voting, voter registration or the outcome of an election.