Leaked Facebook Papers Show How the Company Fueled Capitol Riots

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg is accused of downplaying Facebook’s role in the Jan. 6 Capitol Riots after Frances Haugen’s leak of internal documents. Credit: World Economic Forum, CC BY-SA 4.0

The fallout from Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s leaked internal documents continues. CNN reported on Friday that documents from the leak show that the company played a bigger role in inciting the Jan. 6 Capitol Riots than they’d previously admitted.

Facebook’s COO Sheryl Sandberg initially dismissed the company’s role in fueling the riots and claimed that the company actually worked to stop the political groups in question from organizing, telling Reuters that:

“We know this was organized online. We know that. We… took down QAnon, Proud Boys, Stop the Steal, anything that was talking about possible violence last week. Our enforcement’s never perfect so I’m sure there were still things on Facebook. I think these events were largely organized on platforms that don’t have our abilities to stop hate and don’t have our standards and don’t have our transparency.”

But the documents from Haugen’s leak tell a different story about the company’s role in the attack on the Capitol. Documents show that Facebook scrambled to control the information being spread on its platform long after the bulk of the activity had taken place, effectively trying to stop the rioters when it was already too late.

New documents show that Facebook was aware of its inability to stop harmful political groups

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Haugen alleges that “Facebook misled investors and the public about its role perpetuating misinformation and violent extremism relating to the 2020 election and January 6th insurrection.”

Facebook has vehemently denied Haugen’s logic and says that she has selectively framed documents to distort the image of the company.

“The responsibility for the violence that occurred on January 6 lies with those who attacked our Capitol and those who encouraged them. We took steps to limit content that sought to delegitimize the election, including labeling candidates’ posts with the latest vote count after Mr. Trump prematurely declared victory, pausing new political advertising and removing the original #StopTheSteal Group in November,” Facebook spokesperson Andy Stone said in a statement to CNN.

A crucial document in Haugen’s leak was an internal analysis of the methods by which the Stop the Steal and Patriot Party movements used Facebook to disseminate information.

“Hindsight is 20:20,” reads the analysis. “[A]t the time it was very difficult to know whether what we were seeing was a coordinated effort to delegitimize the election, or whether it was protected free expression by users who were afraid and confused and deserved our empathy. But hindsight being 20:20 makes it all the more important to look back to learn what we can about the growth of the election delegitimatizing movements that grew, spread conspiracy, and helped incite the Capitol insurrection.”

The analysis concluded that Facebook’s countermeasures were inadequate for contending with the popularity of Stop the Steal on its platform. The authors acknowledged that Facebook was incapable of seeing the users involved as a potentially dangerous group and instead treated them individually, which stifled the company’s efforts to stop the groups tremendously.

“Almost all of the fastest growing FB Groups were Stop the Steal during their peak growth. Because we were looking at each entity individually, rather than as a cohesive movement, we were only able to take down individual Groups and Pages once they exceeded a violation threshold. We were not able to act on simple objects like posts and comments because they individually tended not to violate, even if they were surrounded by hate, violence, and misinformation.”

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