The leader of a Facebook group demanding an election recount told members last weekend that he was worried about a crackdown by the social media giant.
“The bigger we get, the more nervous I’m getting,” the administrator of Nationwide Recount 2020 posted to the group’s hundreds of thousands of followers. “I do not want to lose this MAGA army!”
His backup plan “in case we disappear”? Find him on the right-leaning social media site Parler, instead.
Facebook and other social media platforms are facing a wave of conservative backlash over their crackdowns on efforts to delegitimize the results of the presidential election.
Facebook and Twitter are banning hashtags, individuals, and groups — including President Trump’s former chief strategist Stephen Bannon and groups affiliated with him — altering search results, labeling posts, down-ranking problematic content, and implementing a host of measures to ward off misinformation.
That is driving millions of new users to Parler, an alternate social media platform where conspiracy theories can thrive. The app, which has a free-speech doctrine, became the top new app download over the weekend on Apple’s App Store.
Social media reflects the fragmented nature of the current political divide, as many liberals celebrate a new president-elect while some conservatives hope to use tech platforms to sustain and organize a movement to challenge the election outcomes. Both Facebook and Twitter are cracking down in new ways, taking more aggressive approaches to policing misinformation about the electoral process this year than ever before.
The effort by Trump and his allies to contest President-elect Joe Biden’s victory is resulting in a high-stakes cat-and-mouse game for the social media companies. Since the election, Facebook and Twitter have labeled over a dozen posts by Trump and penalized some of his high-ranking campaign members and at least one family member. Facebook also took down a large group dedicated to “Stop the Steal," a hashtag associated with misinformation about electoral fraud, and a network of pages, which promoted #StoptheSteal and dozens of stories with unfounded claims of voter fraud, tied to Bannon.
Parler, which has become a haven for groups and individuals kicked off mainstream platforms, experienced its largest number of single-day downloads on Nov. 8, when about 636,000 people installed it, according to market research firm Sensor Tower. Parler now boasts 7.6 million user accounts compared with 4.5 million about a week ago, said chief operating officer and investor Jeffrey Wernick.
Social media companies have been determined to avoid a repeat of 2016, when Russian operatives abused their services to sow disinformation to American voters. Although the companies initially developed strategies to prevent interference by foreign actors, domestic misinformation, often spread by Trump and his allies, became a bigger threat as the 2020 election grew close.
Trump and his backers have used their social media megaphones to complain about the veracity of mail-in ballots in recent months, despite widespread evidence that mail-in voting is safe and secure. Trump also indicated before the election that he would refuse to accept the results if they were not in his favor.
In response, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies made policy decisions to ban calls for violence at the polls and to label premature declarations of victory. Facebook also disabled key parts of its service, such as the forwarding of messages, group recommendations, and political ads, ahead of the election.
Still, in the aftermath, “Stop the Steal” groups suddenly gained hundreds of thousands of members. Many of those groups pushed false claims that Biden bragged about committing voter fraud and that poll workers had been secretly filling out ballots for him.
Facebook took unprecedented steps in response, banning a large “Stop the Steal” group for inciting violence, as well as the hashtags #stopthesteal, #voterfraud, #sharpiegate, and other terms related to false claims of voter fraud. The company blocked live video and put some group posts on probation, requiring moderator approvals if group members have too many rule violations.
But the groups are adopting new tactics quickly, including frequent name changes. The Nationwide Recount 2020 group, for example, has changed its name five times since it launched on Thursday under the name “STOP THE STEAL.” It grew from 200,000 members to nearly a million over the weekend. The administrator said the group would not use terms such as “MAGA” or “Army” in any new name because “Facebook might find either word threatening,” according to posts viewed by The Washington Post.
Asked why it had blocked elements of “Stop the Steal” while allowing some related groups and events to proliferate, Facebook spokesman Andy Stone said the company was continuing to review additional activity for rule violations and "will take action accordingly.”
Parler was created two years ago in response to what critics viewed as Big Tech’s far-reaching moderation, and it boomed in popularity this summer when high-profile Trump surrogates started using it after Twitter for the first time labeled Trump’s tweets in May. The app, which features a Twitter-like feed of updates, has struck a chord with Republican voters, far-right organizers, and conservative pundits, in particular, who use it to shore up support for Trump and their causes.
Trump supporters flocked to Parler as the election dragged on and especially after Biden was declared president-elect.
“Hurry and follow me at Parler,” tweeted conservative radio host Mark Levin the day after the election was called for Biden. “I’m trying to encourage as many of you as possible to immediately join me there as I may not stay at Facebook or Twitter if they continue censoring me.”
One of Levin’s tweets was labeled and restricted by Twitter on Thursday after he called on Republican state legislatures to exercise the “final say” over choosing electors.