Emails from a Snopes reporter alerting Facebook communications staffers to violent rhetoric on the platform largely went ignored ahead of the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot. New reporting links those specific warnings of future violence to acts that were carried out that day.
Just prior to Election Day (Nov. 3, 2020), Trump supporters surrounded and attempted to block a Biden-Harris campaign bus. The incident happened on Oct. 30, 2020, along Interstate 35 in Texas. Our reporting documented that the location of the bus was coordinated in the private Alamo City Trump Train Facebook group. The word "block" was specifically used in the group's posts. Members commented with glee about the dangerous act, as reported in the story. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his approval after it happened. Biden and Harris were not on the bus.
The New York Times later reported that a man named Keith Lee "spent the morning of Jan. 6 casing the entrances to the Capitol." During the riots, he carried a bullhorn. "Mr. Lee called out for the mob to rush in, until his voice echoed from the dome of the Rotunda."
According to the Times, Lee was involved in organizing the caravan and blockade of the Biden-Harris campaign bus in Texas. The newspaper also reported that Lee helped to fund "dozens of caravans to meet at the Jan. 6 rally":
In the months leading up to the riot, Mr. Lee had helped organize a series of pro-Trump car caravans around the country, including one that temporarily blockaded a Biden campaign bus in Texas and another that briefly shut down a Hudson River bridge in the New York City suburbs. To help pay for dozens of caravans to meet at the Jan. 6 rally, he had teamed up with an online fund-raiser in Tampa, Fla., who secured money from small donors and claimed to pass out tens of thousands of dollars.
House Democrats cited Lee's purported actions during former U.S. President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial.
Following the bus incident in Texas, Snopes reached out to Facebook. The purpose of the email was to request a statement about dangerous QAnon activity that was found in the Alamo City Trump Train Facebook group.
On Oct. 6, weeks prior to the bus being blocked, the social media platform had announced it would ban all groups that supported QAnon content.
A Snopes reporter sent this email to a Facebook spokesperson on Nov. 2:
Good afternoon. We have just published a breaking story about QAnon activity that litters the private Alamo City Trump Train Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/3208800589241453/.
The group was used to organize efforts to follow, surround, and "block" (their word) a Biden-Harris bus in Texas last Friday. One post read "#OperationBlockTheBus RN," posted during the incident, and had 142 likes.
Please let me know if Facebook would like to provide a statement for us to add to the story.
After hearing nothing in return, a follow-up message was sent to the company the next day. Facebook did not respond.
On Nov. 5, two months before the Capitol riot, we reported in a second story about the same Facebook group after finding disturbing and violent rhetoric. The messages hinted at future violent acts much like the siege on the Capitol.
For example, one group member said: "No more nice! It's gotten us nowhere. #FightFireWithFire."
Another person who spoke of heading to ballot-counting locations said it was time to "hold those people accountable." "Stand back and stand by!" said another Trump supporter, referring to a statement from Trump directed at the extremist group the Proud Boys. One member said of the aftermath of the election that the country needs to be defended "by all means necessary."
We reached out to Facebook for comment the same day. Our email noted "several disturbing election-related cases of violent rhetoric" that we found in the group. Later on Nov. 5, Facebook provided this statement that had nothing to do with our request:
"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." - Facebook Company Spokesperson
We replied that their confusing statement had nothing to do with the Alamo City Trump Train Facebook group. We asked yet again for a statement about the group.
The company did not respond.
On Nov. 6, we reached out to Facebook for the final time, bolding one part of the email for emphasis:
This Alamo City Trump Train group has members who are discussing driving to battleground states where votes are being counted, and taking matters into their own hands. They also discussed how many members are also members in a San Antonio Trump Train group.
I have attached screenshots of some of the violent rhetoric we found in Alamo City Trump Train group after Election Day. These are the same people who discussed "blocking" a Biden-Harris bus on a highway last week, something they did, and it was organized on Facebook. The word "block" was their word. I attached a screenshot of their "#OperationBlockTheBus" post.
We also detailed multiple instances of QAnon activity in the group in our story. Does Facebook have a statement to provide about Alamo City Trump Train, Facebook Group #3208800589241453?
Facebook never responded.
Two months later to the day, the Capitol was violently breached and stormed by Trump supporters following a rally on the nearby Ellipse at which Trump repeated baseless claims about the 2020 election being "stolen" and "fraudulent." The rally coincided with Congress assembling to count the state-certified electoral votes from that election. Lee, who The New York Times reported had organized the bus-blocking incident in Texas, was present with a bullhorn at the riot, which left five dead and 140 police officers injured. Two other law enforcement officers were reported to have committed suicide within days after Jan. 6.
We reached out to Facebook prior to publishing this story, but did not hear back by a specified deadline.
The Alamo City Trump Train Facebook group, with its history of QAnon content, was still online and active.