In 2019, a group of right-wing political operatives promoted a fundraising website to build a section of border wall, and the site later became the subject of a money-laundering investigation. Now the same operatives are behind a Facebook group dedicated to delegitimizing election results that don't favor President Donald Trump, which went viral Thursday.
On Thursday afternoon, Facebook took down the page, called "Stop The Steal."
As members of the group repeatedly called for violence and a civil war, leading to turmoil inside Facebook, the group expanded at a rapid pace Thursday morning, topping out at about 350,000 profiles. The group pointed users to organized events, including one in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on Thursday afternoon with a "#StopTheSteal" branding.
Facebook initially barred the group from appearing in searches involving the election and even direct searches for "stop the steal," but members of pro-Trump Facebook groups, as well as other social media networks and email lists, drove users directly to the Facebook group's URL.
Citing repeated "worrying calls for violence," Facebook pulled the group down by 2 p.m. ET.
"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. The group was organized around the delegitimization of the election process, and we saw worrying calls for violence from some members of the group," a Facebook spokesperson said.
Several other smaller "Stop the Steal" groups remain on Facebook. A spokesperson said Facebook was "continuing to review additional content and will take action accordingly."
While the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories was a major cause for concern in the run-up to the election, disinformation researchers have said they saw no evidence of major misinformation campaigns' having gained traction on Election Day. But they also warned that the coming days would prove challenging.
As Facebook monitored the situation Thursday and internally discussed how to respond, employees grew frustrated about Facebook's lack of enforcement against the growing group, according to a senior Facebook employee who asked not to be identified, lacking authorization to speak on the record.
"People are frustrated and tired and are looking for leadership to be decisive," the employee said. "So far, we're disappointed."
The Facebook group included administrators Dustin Stockton and Jennifer Lawrence, who served as the public relations contacts for #WeBuildTheWall, a fundraising site that went viral on Facebook last year and pitched itself as a crowdfunded border wall.
The Justice Department charged four people involved with #WeBuildTheWall, including former White House aide Steve Bannon, with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and conspiracy to commit money laundering in August. Stockton and Lawrence were not charged. Stockton, a longtime Bannon associate, has claimed that his home was raided in connection with the investigation. Bannon has pleaded not guilty and is scheduled to appear in court in May.
When reached for comment, Stockton responded that NBC News reporters were "doing the devil's work and need redemption."
"I have spent years of my life helping people NOT become radicalized by giving them positive objectives and platforms," he said. "That's what we're doing at 'Stop The Steal,' undoing the incredible damage of you and your media colleagues' gaslighting."
The group was started by the pro-Trump organization Women for America First, which was first reported by Mother Jones.
Content from the "Stop The Steal" was quickly shared across dozens of long-standing, more mainstream conservative pages and groups, according to an analysis by Fabio Giglietto, an associate professor of communication at the University of Urbino Carlo Bo in Italy. Giglietto used CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned social media analysis tool.
Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, said the group grew remarkably swiftly because it appropriated infrastructure from previous pro-Trump social media campaigns that have rebranded over the last four years.
Word-of-mouth promotion of "StopTheSteal" within other pro-Trump Facebook communities, on other social networks and in email lists helped it gain tens of thousands of users every hour despite algorithmic throttling by Facebook. The #StopTheSteal hashtag got a push on Twitter from pro-Trump influencers Tuesday shortly after the polls closed, but the hashtag failed to trend on election night.
"When you add resources and dedicated staff whose job it is to make these event pages and to make those connections really clear, you're able to scale and stay ahead of mitigation efforts much better than any organic movement where you're not being paid to organize," Donovan said.
Anticipating a Facebook ban, "Stop The Steal" drove users to a separate website with no Facebook affiliation, allowing the 350,000 users who had already showed interest to organize events without regulation by Facebook.
"When people feel like their voice is threatened, they're going to mobilize. They're going to go out and have their say," Donovan said. "But it really matters the discipline and organization that they bring to their public organizing, because if they feel like violence is their only way of being heard, then we could see tragedy."