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ProPublica: Facebook hosted a surge of misinformation and threats ahead of Jan. 6


After the January 6 insurrection, Facebook removed some of the most troubling posts that tried to incite violence or spread lies about the legitimacy of the presidential election. But a team of reporters from ProPublica and The Washington Post has now found at least 650,000 posts on Facebook spreading lies about the election outcome or threatening political violence. And they were posted in the weeks between Election Day and January 6. Some of those posts even called for executions. We'll note here that Facebook's parent company, Meta, pays NPR to license NPR content.

Craig Silverman of ProPublica helped lead the investigation into the Facebook post. Craig, we've known for a while how Facebook's internal systems, its algorithms, helped double down on lies and disinformation. But what surprised you about this new investigation?

CRAIG SILVERMAN: I think one of the surprising things was, one, you get a sense of the volume of this kind of material. But connected with that was our reporting about what was going on inside the company found that Facebook disbanded a task force that was specifically focused on looking at activity, violative activity, in American political groups on Facebook. And they did this, you know, weeks before January 6. And so it's not a surprise, then, to see the volume that's there when you realize that internally, the company started really backing off its enforcement and oversight of groups after the election had happened. And then, so of course, then, it makes sense that we would see this surge of, you know, violent threats and of posts and content undermining the results of the election.

MARTÍNEZ: So it sounds like they weren't even looking for all this stuff that was flowing all over their site. Now, out of all the Facebook posts, Craig, that you and your team analyzed, which did you find maybe especially troubling?

SILVERMAN: Well, one of the things that kind of stood out when it came to specifically the death threats was kind of how casually people, you know, average American citizens, were talking about hanging political figures, were talking about shooting the traitors. It was like this was normalized conversation to be happening in these groups. And I think that's the thing that stood out to me is people - of course, there were extremist groups active around and on January 6. But the content that we were seeing in these political groups on Facebook was just from average folks who were not necessarily part of extremist groups. And, you know, one of the examples we give in the story is a gentleman who's a retired police officer living in Missouri, where he was running a group with thousands and thousands of members. And he was filling it with complete lies about the election. And there were tons of, you know, violative death threats in that group. But to him, this was just sort of like, well, you know, I don't believe that the election was fair and this is the way we should be expressing it. And I think that that was, really, quite surprising.

MARTÍNEZ: Did you find any suggestion at all that Facebook knew and then intentionally ignored what was going on?

SILVERMAN: So what it seems to be more is that Facebook, you know, scales up its oversight and enforcement around big events like an election. And then its plan is to really relax that and move back to its normal state, which has, you know, less oversight. And so I think it's less about them seeing, yes, there's tons of threats and tons of content that violates our policies, and we're just going to leave it there. But it's more that their plan was to relax things after Election Day. And they - not only did they not sort of alter that plan when they saw how bad things were getting, but they, in fact, took an additional step of disbanding its specialized unit focused on elections integrity.

MARTÍNEZ: What has been Facebook's response to your reporting?

SILVERMAN: Well, the first thing is that they did not respond at all to the data findings. So they're not questioning that, you know, there were at least these hundreds of thousands of posts. And we looked at a slice of data. So we're not even saying that's all of what was on Facebook. It's definitely much higher. But what they are emphasizing is that, you know, the blame for January 6 lies at the feet of Donald Trump and others who were spreading these lies. It is not Facebook's fault. And they also said that they don't feel that they stepped back their enforcement of groups. And I think if people read the story, they'll certainly see that there's clear evidence of the steps that they took and they didn't take between Election Day and January 6.

MARTÍNEZ: And last thing really quick - there are other platforms, Parler, Gab. They helped to get information on January 6. How does their influence, their impact compare to Facebook?

SILVERMAN: There's no question that other platforms, as you said, like Parler and Gab, had similar types of content and some very extreme stuff there. But the thing to remember with Facebook is that it is almost ubiquitous in the United States. And as I said before, you have, you know, average people on Facebook engaging in this kind of stuff. So the reach is much greater.

MARTÍNEZ: Craig Silverman is a national reporter for ProPublica. Craig, thanks.

SILVERMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.