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How the 'Stop the Steal' movement outwitted Facebook ahead of the Jan. 6 riot

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Facebook is in such a bad public relations crisis right now that it's reportedly going to announce a major rebranding this week. All of this stems from leaked documents from inside the company. NPR has reviewed some of that leaked material. Among the revelations, Facebook prepared for the possibility of violence around the 2020 election, but the company did not prepare for Trump supporters who used Facebook to help organize the January 6 siege on the U.S. Capitol. For more we've got NPR tech correspondent Shannon Bond with us this morning. And just a note - Facebook is among NPR's financial supporters.

Shannon, thanks for being here.

SHANNON BOND, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: All right. So as I just noted, Facebook, according to the leaked documents, was getting ready to deal with possible violence after or around the 2020 election. What did that preparation look like?

BOND: I mean, that's right. The company had spent years preparing for hacks or foreign interference. It didn't want to have a repeat of 2016. So one thing it did was roll out what it calls break-the-glass measures. This was an emergency playbook to keep the platform safe by, you know, stemming the spread of potential misinformation, calls to violence. And largely, this seemed to work. There were not major incidents on Facebook on Election Day. Employees were feeling relieved. But then in the hours after voting ended, they started noticing this group called Stop the Steal growing really quickly. And it was calling for violence, claiming the election had been stolen from Donald Trump. All of these things broke Facebook's rules.

MARTIN: OK. So it's in clear violation of Facebook's own protocols. What did the company do about it?

BOND: It shut down the group, but new, similar groups started popping up and growing faster than Facebook could keep up with. Some of these break-the-glass measures I mentioned tried to slow this down and tried to limit the number of people who could join groups. But it just didn't work. Meanwhile, Facebook was also rolling back a lot of the other emergency measures, sort of reducing its ability to rein in, for example, some hate speech and misinformation. It's not really clear why Facebook decided to do that at this point. But internal messages from Facebook employees show many were really upset about the decision. The company's own researchers had been warning for a long time there were big problems with what Facebook calls civic groups that are devoted to politics. One posted on Facebook's internal message board on January 6, quote, "Rank-and-file workers have done their part to identify changes to improve our platform but have been actively held back," referring to management.

MARTIN: So what does Facebook's management have to say about that?

BOND: Says the responsibility for January 6 lies with the people who stormed the Capitol and the people who incited them, not with how Facebook handled these groups. And the company says it invested a lot in planning for the election, did a lot of work to take down harmful groups and posts and that focusing just on these break-the-glass measures doesn't capture everything else it did to protect the election.

MARTIN: So your reporting is just some of what we've heard come out in recent days based on these internal Facebook documents. Can you just remind us where they came from?

BOND: That's right. They came from a whistleblower named Frances Haugen who worked at Facebook until earlier this year. And when she left, she took thousands of pages of internal research, discussions, other material. She first shared them with The Wall Street Journal, also with federal regulators and Congress. And then they have been recently shared with a consortium of media outlets, including NPR. So we can expect more news stories coming about Facebook as news organizations continue to dig through this material. Haugen is testifying to U.K. Parliament today. This afternoon Facebook released its quarterly earnings. It has this big developers conference later this week. So there's plenty of time for the company to address these criticisms head-on. We will see what it has to say.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Shannon Bond. We appreciate it, Shannon. Thank you.

BOND: Thanks Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.