Nov 5, 2020 - Technology

Facebook groups are turning into election disinformation vectors

A screenshot of a flagged post that appears in a private Facebook group

Screenshot: German Marshall Fund

Public and private Facebook groups are becoming vectors of disinformation about ballot counting, as the results of the presidential race remain unclear and states finish tallying votes under individual state laws and timelines.

Driving the news: Facebook took down a public group called "Stop the Steal" that quickly amassed hundreds of thousands of members Thursday. Yet conspiracy theories and false claims continue to circulate widely in other groups, including private ones predating the election that have been repurposed as disinformation repositories.

What they're saying: "In line with the exceptional measures that we are taking during this period of heightened tension, we have removed the Group 'Stop the Steal,' which was creating real-world events," a Facebook spokesperson told Axios.

  • "The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group."

Yes, but: The group was just one prominent example of many now packed with inflammatory and false claims and calls to real-world action. With Facebook already struggling to deal with an enormous global glut of misinformation, private groups in particular can easily escape notice because only certain content review teams at Facebook can see inside them, as compared to the wide-open visibility of public groups.

Now, private groups formed months ago to protest coronavirus-related shutdowns are becoming hotspots of election misinformation, according to screenshots shared exclusively with Axios taken by researchers from the German Marshall Fund.

  • Originally coronavirus-related, some of these groups then went on to spread misinformation about the source of wildfires in Oregon. Those rumors remained in those groups after Facebook banned such false information about the fires.

Between the lines: It's easy for groups that spread misinformation about one topic to move onto others depending on the news cycle, remaining sources of false information that members keep coming back to.

  • And the issue with private groups could only grow. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last year outlined his long-term vision for the company, which entails focusing more on getting users connected in private groups.

Facebook does mark misinformation in private groups to an extent. For example, in a screenshot from one group, Reopen Missouri, a post about Michigan "finding" almost 200,000 votes for Biden was marked with a "missing context" label.

  • Other screenshots, from groups named Unmask New York State, Reopen NC, Reopen Wisconsin, Re-Open Louisiana, Virginians for Constitutional Rights 2020 and Reopen NJ, show that these groups have shifted their topics of conversation to vote-counting in the past 24 hours.
  • They include claims like Democrats committing vote fraud, vote tampering and the sharing of articles from the Gateway Pundit falsely claiming suitcases of ballots were being rolled into a Detroit election facility.

Be smart: "With these groups, Facebook is playing whack-a-mole with disinformation," Karen Kornbluh of the German Marshall Fund told Axios. "They're extinguishing the fire after the fact."

Go deeper