Facebook bans content pushing ‘stop the steal’ conspiracy

Social media giants expand crackdown on misinformation after deadly riots at U.S. Capitol

Social media companies are expanding their crackdown on misinformation by fringe groups and conspiracy theorists that helped build the frenzy among President Donald Trump’s supporters ahead of last week’s deadly uprising at the U.S. Capitol.

On Monday, Facebook began scrubbing its platform of all content that includes “stop the steal” phrases and any other content that continues to claim the 2020 election was stolen.

»RELATED: Big Tech shuts down Parler as CEO defends content on site

The social media giant previously paused all ads in the U.S. about politics and elections in November, around the same time that it excommunicated the “Stop the steal” movement for repeatedly echoing the president’s false claims that widespread voter fraud got Joe Biden elected and cheated the incumbent out of a second term.

Following last week’s Capitol siege, Facebook and other social media companies also permanently removed Trump’s accounts, and along with it his immediate ability to rile up his supporters with more misinformation that could lead to additional violence during his final days in office.

“In this moment, the risk to our democracy was too big that we felt we had to take the unprecedented step of what is an indefinite ban, and I’m glad we did,” Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg told Reuters in an interview Monday.

»RELATED: 2 Capitol Hill police officers suspended over riot

The president is now without his favorite method of communicating with supporters who violently stormed the Capitol Jan. 6 to interrupt and potentially overthrow a joint session of Congress voting to confirm Biden’s Electoral College victory. The ballots reportedly had to be rushed out of Senate chambers to be saved from the angry mob.

Five people died during the insurrection and dozens of arrests are underway nationwide for those who participated in the attack. At least one individual responsible for securing the Capitol has also been arrested on charges he took part in the melee.

»PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Facebook to ban Trump until at least Biden’s inauguration

The FBI on Monday warned that armed protests were being planned by affiliate groups in all 50 states ahead of and possibly during Biden’s inauguration next week.

In his first public statement about the Capitol assault, Trump said Tuesday that he took no responsibility, and despite telling his supporters to “fight like hell,” Trump said his words were “totally appropriate” and that he called for “no violence” before the riots began.

In a Monday blog post, Facebook executives cited their concerns that a larger conflagration had the potential to erupt if Trump’s incendiary messaging on social media was allowed to continue.

“We began preparing for Inauguration Day last year. But our planning took on new urgency after last week’s violence in Washington, D.C., and we are treating the next two weeks as a major civic event,” reads a statement by Guy Rosen, the company’s vice president of integrity, and Monika Bickert, its vice president of global policy management.

“We are now removing content containing the phrase ‘stop the steal’ under our Coordinating Harm policy from Facebook and Instagram,” they said.

»BEFORE THE RIOT: Trump supporters heckle Sen. Mitt Romney aboard flight to DC

This week, Twitter also acted in response to the riots, suspending more than 70,000 accounts associated with the far-right QAnon conspiracy.

Twitter said it was determined to remove any online behavior “that has the potential to lead to offline harm.”

In many cases, a single individual operated numerous accounts, driving up the total number of affected accounts, the company said in a blog post.

“These accounts were engaged in sharing harmful QAnon-associated content at scale and were primarily dedicated to the propagation of this conspiracy theory across the service,” the company said.

Twitter’s sweeping purge of QAnon accounts, which began Friday, is part of a crackdown that also includes its decision to ban Trump from the service over worries about further incitement to violence.

The suspensions mean some Twitter users will lose followers, in some cases by the thousands, the company said.

The QAnon conspiracy theory is centered on the baseless belief that Trump is waging a secret campaign against “deep state” enemies and a child sex trafficking ring run by satanic pedophiles and cannibals. Twitter has been trying to rein in QAnon for months, removing more than 7,000 accounts in July.

Twitter’s suspensions followed a flurry of actions by tech giants that silenced rival social media platform Parler, a magnet for the far right.

Parler was forcibly removed from web servers just after midnight Monday for many of the same reasons that the president was blocked on social media.

Amazon Web Services said it made the move because Parler violated its terms of service by failing to address the gradual increase of violent content on its site, according to Reuters, citing an email by an AWS Trust and Safety team to Parler.

Later in the day, Parler filed suit against Amazon, arguing that the decision to shut down its hosting was tantamount to a “death blow.”

In the last few weeks, AWS contacted Parler about 98 examples of posts “that clearly encourage and incite violence” and said the platform “poses a very real risk to public safety.”

Parler now needs to find a new web-hosting service if the app is to continue to provide its services.

Losing access to the app stores of Google and Apple — whose operating systems power hundreds of millions of smartphones — severely limits Parler’s reach, though it had continued to be accessible via web browser.

Late last week, Google and Apple erased Parler from their app stores, saying the company had failed to moderate “egregious content” posted by users to plan violence at the Washington rally.

Trump supporters are now claiming these bans by private companies amount to illegal censorship and an infringement on their free speech rights, despite terms and conditions by the platforms that prohibit misinformation and threats of violence.

Notably, U.S. law respects a private company’s right to do business with whomever it chooses in spite of the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech, according to legal experts.

In his statement Tuesday, Trump also addressed the recent social media suspensions, saying the actions had only further infuriated his supporters and caused the potential for more violence.

“It causes a lot of problems and a lot of anger,” Trump said to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before departing for Texas to reportedly tout his administration’s immigration policies in an appearance at the border wall. “There’s always a counter-move when they do that.”

Many Trump supporters flocked to Parler in recent months to avoid a growing crackdown on misinformation taking place on the other platforms.

In November, Parler became the top new download on the Apple App Store, with users hailing the ability to post unfounded and disputable facts without excessive content moderation.

After losing the election, Trump refused to concede and pushed a false voter fraud conspiracy as GOP operatives filed multiple lawsuits seeking to upend Biden’s victory.

During the entire disinformation campaign, Facebook and Twitter continuously labeled the president’s posts with fact-checks, but Trump and others were still able to keep up the falsehoods mostly unabated.

But that changed after the uprising at the U.S. Capitol last week, with many voices accusing the platform of stirring up deeper resentment among Trump supporters over the election’s outcome.

Before the Capitol attack, reports said, Parler users had openly discussed bringing weapons and wielding them against lawmakers once inside congressional offices and chambers.

Parler CEO John Matze said in a statement Monday that the platform does not condone violence and has “worked hard to construct a system” to “remove prohibited content.”

“Nobody has presented any credible piece of information or evidence that, you know, there is any problems on Parler that don’t exist on other platforms,” Matze said Monday. “This really is a double standard. ... We see all sorts of nasty threatening content on Twitter, much more of it actually, in our opinion, and, actually, a lot of content that’s deleted from Parler still remains on Twitter to this day in the form of screenshots. So I don’t understand, you know, what this is really about. Because it is not about holding everybody to account equally. It is about giving preferential treatment to certain people.”

Information provided by The Associated Press was used to supplement this report.