(Written by Sheera Frenkel)
The first post in the new Facebook group that was started Wednesday was innocuous enough. “Welcome” to Stop the Steal, it said.
But an hour later, the group uploaded a minute-long video to its Facebook page with a pointed message. The grainy footage showed a crowd outside a polling station in Detroit, shouting and chanting “stop the count.” Below the video, which was quickly shared nearly 2,000 times, members of the group commented “Biden is stealing the vote” and “this is unfair.”
The viral video helped turn the Stop the Steal Facebook group into one of the fastest-growing groups in Facebook’s history. By Thursday morning, less than 22 hours after it was started, it had amassed more than 320,000 users — at one point gaining 100 new members every 10 seconds. As its momentum grew, it caught the attention of Facebook executives, who shut down the group hours later for trying to incite violence.
Even so, the Stop the Steal Facebook group had done its work. In its brief life span, it became a hub for people to falsely claim that the ballot count for the presidential election was being manipulated against President Donald Trump. New photographs, videos and testimonials asserting voter fraud were posted to the group every few minutes. From there, they traveled onto Twitter, YouTube and right-wing sites that cited the unsubstantiated and inaccurate posts as evidence of an illegitimate voting process.
Stop the Steal’s rapid rise and amplifying effects also showed how Facebook groups are a powerful tool for seeding and accelerating online movements, including those filled with misinformation. Facebook groups, which are public and can be joined by anyone with a Facebook account, have long been the nerve centers for fringe movements such as QAnon and anti-vaccination activists. And while Stop the Steal has been deleted, other Facebook groups promoting falsehoods about voter fraud have popped up.
“Facebook groups are powerful infrastructure for organizing,” said Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory. She added that the Stop the Steal Facebook group helped people coalesce around a baseless belief that the election was being unlawfully taken from Trump.
Tom Reynolds, a Facebook spokesman, said the social network removed the Stop the Steal group as part of the “exceptional measures” it was taking on the election. “The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group,” he said.
Stop the Steal was born on Facebook on Wednesday at 3 p.m. Eastern time as the outcome of the presidential election remained uncertain. About 12 hours earlier, as the vote counts showed a tight race between Trump and Joe Biden, Trump had posted without evidence on Facebook and Twitter that “They are trying to STEAL the Election.” Trump has since repeated that assertion openly in remarks from the White House and on social media.
The idea of a stolen election quickly spread among Trump’s supp orters, including to a Facebook user named Kylie Jane Kremer. Kremer, 30, a former Tea Party activist, runs a conservative nonprofit called Women for America First. She created the Stop the Steal Facebook group.
In an interview Thursday from a protest in Atlanta, Kremer said she had started the Facebook group after speaking with conservative activists and seeing social media posts about voter fraud. She said she wanted to help organize people across the United States on the issue and centralize discussions over protests and rallies.
“I knew other people saw this the same as I did, that there were people out there trying to steal the election from the rightful person,” Kremer said, referring to Trump. “I wanted us to be able to organize to take action.”
Once the Facebook group was live, she said, it took off. Hundreds of members joined within the first hour. Then people began sharing videos — including the one showing people chanting “stop the count” in Detroit — and photographs, which were quickly shared to other Facebook pages and groups.
”It was like lightning in a bottle,” Kremer said. “The group grew so fast we were struggling to keep up with the people trying to post.”
Many of the posts shared anecdotal stories claiming voter fraud or intimidation against Trump’s supporters. One post asserted that poll workers counting the ballots were wearing masks with the Biden campaign’s logo, while another said that Trump’s supporters were purposefully given faulty ballots that could not be read by machines.
Many of these posts, images and videos have been proved false. Some of the photos and images were edited or otherwise manipulated to back the idea of election tampering. Facebook has removed or labeled some of those posts, though new ones are appearing faster than the company’s fact-checkers can take action on.
Others posted about violence. One member of the Facebook group wrote Wednesday, “This is going to take more than talk to fix.” Underneath that post, another member responded with emojis of explosions.
On Thursday morning, the Stop the Steal Facebook group’s growth skyrocketed further, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analytics tool.
That was when right-wing figures such as Jack Posobiec, a pro-Trump activist, and Amy Kremer, Kremer’s mother and a founder of a group called Women for Trump, began posting about the Facebook group on Twitter. Ali Alexander, a political operative who previously went by the name Ali Akbar, also tweeted dozens of times about the Stop the Steal movement to his 140,000 Twitter followers.
Their messages, which were shared thousands of times, were a rallying cry for people to join the Stop the Steal Facebook group and take action in local protests against voter fraud.
“In just it’s first couple hours, more than 100,000 people joined the Women for America First, Stop the Steal Facebook Group,” Posobiec wrote. In comments below his post, many people cheered the Facebook group’s popularity.
The tweets helped send more people to Stop the Steal. Interactions with the Facebook group soared to 36 posts a minute on Thursday morning, up from roughly one post a minute, according to CrowdTangle data.
Posobiec, Alexander and Amy Kremer did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
At Facebook, executives were notified of the group by Facebook moderators as they began flagging posts for potential calls for violence and protests to disrupt the vote. The company also received calls from journalists about the group and its explosive growth. By midmorning, executives were discussing whether they should remove Stop the Steal, said one employee involved in the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly.
Facebook took down the group on Thursday at 2 p.m. Eastern.
Kremer said that she was angry that Facebook had removed her group and that she was in discussions with the company to reinstate it. She accused Facebook, along with other social media companies, of censoring the Stop the Steal movement.
“Facebook had other options,” she said. “They were flagging our posts and we could have worked with them. But this is what they do, they censor.”
Still, Kremer said that before the group was taken down, its members had successfully organized events in dozens of cities. She has set up another website about voter fraud and was now directing people to it, she said.
On Facebook, dozens of new Stop the Steal groups have been created since the company removed Kremer’s group. One had nearly 10,000 members. Another had just over 2,000.
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