On Oct. 4, 2021, several disclosures became public that detailed what Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen said she learned from the company’s own internal documents. The documents contain many details that were not broadcast during her “60 Minutes” interview the previous day. She has filed those complaints with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.
On “60 Minutes,” CBS News correspondent Scott Pelley asked: “When and how did it occur to you to take all of these documents out of the company?” In response, Haugen said: “At some point in 2021, I realized, ‘Okay, I’m gonna have to do this in a systemic way, and I have to get out enough that no one can question that this is real.'”
A key through-line at the heart of the data was this from one of the disclosures: “Facebook has avoided or rolled back interventions for ‘groups’ and ‘narrow subpopulations’ that it knew reduced misinformation, violence, and incitement because those interventions reduced the platform’s growth.”
We reached out to both Haugen and Facebook’s media relations team with questions. However, we did not receive responses to our inquiries.
In reviewing all of the whistleblower disclosures, we have found what appear to be examples in our past reporting that bear out what Haugen was talking about. These connections lend credibility to her assertions about what she said was happening inside CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s trillion-dollar company.
The Capitol Riot
In the weeks before the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, we repeatedly reached out to specific Facebook media relations employees with urgent emails that warned of violent rhetoric inside a private group. The Texas-based, private Facebook group was named Alamo City Trump Train. Other groups included New Braunfels Trump Train and San Antonio Trump Train.
We joined Alamo City Trump Train around Nov. 1 just before Election Day (Nov. 3). Inside, we discovered that members used Facebook to coordinate real-time movements while harassing a Biden-Harris campaign bus and another vehicle driven by a staffer along Interstate 35 in Texas. The incident happened on Oct. 30 and made headlines across the country. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his approval of the violent incident. Biden and Harris were not on the bus.
Inside the group, we found plenty of references to pedophilia as alleged in the QAnon conspiracy theory. One of the posts even showed members recruiting others into QAnon. A group member said of the Biden-Harris campaign bus: “Mobile bus of scumbag pedophile trash! Traitors to their own country!” One group member referred to the effort as “#OperationBlockTheBus” in a post that received hundreds of likes and positive comments. We showed these and other QAnon-related posts to specific Facebook employees when we emailed them with questions. The company had previously announced that it would ban groups that openly supported QAnon. However, the company did not provide answers, nor did it ban the group at the time.
After our questions went unanswered in subsequent emails, we emailed the company one last time before Jan. 6. Once again, the email was sent to specific Facebook employees who had responded to our correspondence in the past. We showed that group members were posting about taking matters into their own hands. One member commented: “Stand back and stand by!” Another person said: “Be vigilant in defending this country by all means necessary.” He continued with capital letters: “We can’t fold to the EVILNESS THAT THEY CARRY. NO MORE NICE GUY.” Some even spoke of driving long distances over state lines to go where votes were expected to be counted ahead of the certification process in Congress on Jan. 6.
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.” And according to the Times, Lee was involved in organizing the caravan and blockade of the Biden-Harris campaign bus in Texas, thus specifically linking a Capitol riot attendee to the convoy organized inside the Alamo City Trump Train Facebook group. The New York Times reported that in addition to Lee’s attendance at the riot, he also helped to fund “dozens of caravans to meet at the Jan. 6 rally.”
The New Braunfels Trump Train and San Antonio Trump Train Facebook groups were also reportedly involved in the caravan. Screenshots showed real-time coordination also took place in at least one of them. Two lawsuits have since been announced by people who were on the bus. One of the lawsuits is against several Trump supporters who were said to have been involved in the incident. According to court documents, they are Eliazar Cisneros, Hannah Ceh, Joeylynn Mesaros, Robert Mesaros, Dolores Park, and “John and Janes Does.” The second lawsuit is aimed at local law enforcement for what the plaintiffs who were on the bus claimed was a failure to respond.
In a new development, we found data that showed at least seven additional people linked to these three Trump Train groups appeared to be in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. We made some of these findings inside a new and active private Facebook group that appeared to be created in the weeks following the riot. Four of the people seemed to confirm their presence at the insurrection with their own social media posts. The other three purported Jan. 6 attendees were mentioned in the lawsuit’s court documents:
Following the October 30, 2020 [bus] incident, members of the New Braunfels Trump Train—including Jason Frank—were identified in media reports and on social media as having taken part in the January 6, 2021 insurrection. Steve Ceh and Randi Ceh were also in Washington, D.C. that day. On January 7, YouTube user New Braunfels Trump Train posted a video entitled “January 6, 2021 will go down a day in history[U.S. flag emoji][U.S. flag emoji].” The video features a photo of Steve and Randi Ceh apparently posing in front of the Capitol steps as others are breaching or attempting to breach the building.
This brought the number of Capitol riot attendees from these Facebook groups that were involved in the Biden-Harris bus incident to a total of at least eight people.
On March 30, we published another report after we discovered that the Alamo City Trump Train Facebook group was still active. Within hours of that story going up, Facebook removed the group from its platform. It’s unclear what happened to the Facebook groups for New Braunfels Trump Train and San Antonio Trump Train, as they appeared to either be hidden or removed by the platform.
Despite the violent nature of these events, Facebook has never responded to our questions, nor did the company appear to take action on the group prior to Jan. 6. On Aug. 17, we asked the company about our warnings ahead of the Capitol riot. We posed questions in an email thread in which the company was already replying to other topics. Facebook stopped responding in the thread after we brought up the Jan. 6 matter.
On Oct. 4, the morning after Haugen’s “60 Minutes” interview was broadcast, CNBC interviewed Antigone Davis, Facebook’s global head of safety. In the following video, Davis said she was “not particularly familiar” with our findings. (The moment begins at the 2:47 mark.)
Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen is set to testify in front of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Consumer Protection tomorrow. Facebook's Global Head of Safety @DavisAntigone, who testified in front of the same subcommittee last week, joined with Facebook's response.. pic.twitter.com/wICCx0ro6P
— TechCheck (@CNBCTechCheck) October 4, 2021
On Oct. 8, we inquired yet again with Facebook’s media relations team by email. The company did not respond.
Why didn’t Facebook take action on the Alamo City Trump Train group prior to Jan. 6, especially in the weeks following the bus incident? One of Haugen’s whistleblower disclosures provided insight into the way the company dealt with such matters: “Facebook’s [internal] records confirm that Facebook knowingly chose to permit political misinformation and violent content/groups and failed to adopt or continue measures to combat these issues, including as related to the 2020 U.S. election and the January 6th insurrection, in order to promote virality and growth on its platforms.”
Another data point in the disclosure contains a line from those very same internal company records. The following sentence was mentioned in reference to Facebook waiting until late 2020 to take action on the QAnon conspiracy theory presence on its own platform, thereby purportedly helping it to blossom: “We were willing to act only *after* things had spiraled into a dire state.” Yet another internal record stated: “Through most of 2020, we saw non-violating content promoting QAnon spreading through our platforms. Belief in the QAnon conspiracy theory took hold in multiple communities, and we saw multiple cases in which such belief motivated people to kill or conspire to kill perceived enemies.”
In fact, according to more of the company’s own internal research that Haugen said she copied while working there, Facebook not only served as a place for QAnon believers to meet and recruit but its algorithms also acted as somewhat of a recruitment tool. That’s because the act of “liking” official, verified political pages could lead users into automatically being recommended certain QAnon content and other conspiracy theories. (Bolded portions of this data were bolded in the whistleblower disclosure.)
After a small number of high quality/verified conservative interest follows (Fox News, Donald Trump, Melania Trump – all official pages), within just one day Page recommendations had already devolved towards polarizing content.
Although the account set out to follow conservative political news and humor content generally, and began by following verified/high quality conservative pages, Page recommendations began to include conspiracy recommendations after only 2 days (it took < 1 week to get a QAnon recommendation!)
Group recommendations were slightly slower to follow suit – it took 1 week for in-feed GYSJ recommendations to become fully political/right-leaning, and just over 1 week to begin receiving conspiracy recommendations.
Data attributed to Haugen said: “Only after and in response to the Capitol protest and public pressure did Facebook take certain steps to the above items on a temporary basis.”
One of those steps was to “reduce the strength” of Facebook Live videos, in terms of the speed to which they might be able to virally spread. One of the people who live-streamed on Facebook from Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6 was Tina Forte, a Republican who is running in 2022 to claim the seat currently held by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In one live video recorded from outside the Capitol before the riot began, she encouraged rally attendees at former President Donald Trump’s speech to “get your asses to the Capitol.”
In a recent investigation, we reported that she also heavily promoted the Jan. 6 date to what appeared to be at least tens of thousands of people. In her livestream, she posed with other Trump supporters who asked for pictures with her in front of the Capitol. She was somewhat of a celebrity to those who gathered there. Earlier in 2020, she also posed for photographs with the white supremacist Proud Boys leader several times and posted QAnon rhetoric and election fraud conspiracy theories such as “Stop The Steal.” Forte provided a statement to us that said she did not go to Trump’s speech on Jan. 6, nor did she enter the Capitol. She also called what happened on Jan. 6 “disgusting,” despite her social media posts that appeared to show her reacting a different way to the outcome of the riot.
As of October 2021, Forte was still active on Facebook with one personal profile and two pages. In an email, we previously asked Facebook if it made exceptions to policy enforcement for prominent figures. The company told us that all users, even those running for office, are subject to the company’s Community Standards policies.
However, Haugen’s whistleblower disclosures mention a “whitelist” policy, referred to as the company’s “XCheck” program. According to Facebook’s internal records in the disclosure, the company “routinely makes exceptions for powerful actors when enforcing content policy.” Another internal company document states: “Facebook’s decision-making on content policy is routinely influenced by political considerations … Communications and Public Policy teams … often block changes when they see that they could harm powerful political actors.”
As of October 2021, Forte’s presence on the platform totalled more than 100,000 followers.
An internal record copied by Haugen included a quote from an unknown Facebook employee that came just after Jan. 6: “We’ve been fueling this fire for a long time and we shouldn’t be surprised it’s now out of control.”
Foreign Recruitment of a Kentucky Woman
In 2017, a Facebook user named Kristina Cruz created a private group named Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters. By 2018, it had tens of thousands of members and added three additional administrators. However, all four admin accounts appeared to be fake, meaning they used photographs of other people to pretend to be Americans. At the same time, most of the members appeared to be real Americans, though the admins had hints of North Macedonian roots.
In our investigation, we found that an unwitting woman in Kentucky named Diane was recruited to be a moderator for the group. (Her last name has been omitted from our reporting for privacy purposes.)
On Oct. 1, 2020, we contacted Facebook about the group, explaining its apparent foreign origins and the fact that it recruited an unwitting American woman to run its operation. It took Facebook nearly a week to get back to us with answers. We now may know why there was such a long delay in receiving a response. According to The Wall Street Journal’s reporting on Haugen’s findings, she said that the company’s Civic Integrity team was “understaffed,” perhaps making it difficult to take swift action on even a small percentage of policy-violating content.
Despite the overwhelming evidence, a Facebook spokesperson eventually told us in an email that the action the company decided to take would be to reduce the group’s distribution, meaning it would be harder for Facebook users to stumble upon it. We emailed the company again to ask once more about the unwitting woman in Kentucky, in case the company did not read that part of our message. We did not hear back.
Days later, we noticed that the group was no longer accessible. It was either removed or hidden. Private groups can be hidden from view and become invite-only if the option is chosen by an admin. If this group was hidden and remained active, tens of thousands of American members were perhaps still inside and consuming misinformation.
Just like the Alamo City Trump Train Facebook group, the Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters group appeared to fall under the same explanation from Haugen’s whistleblower disclosure, with the company apparently not wanting to take swift action “in order to promote virality and growth on its platforms.”
Further, Haugen said in the disclosures: “To avoid criticism resulting from inevitable false positives when removing harmful content, Facebook chooses to ‘demote’ it instead, which it knows to be an ineffective response.” This lined up with Facebook’s initial answer to simply demote the Sarah Huckabee Sanders Supporters group by reducing its distribution.
It’s unclear exactly how Facebook’s numeric demotion works. However, the action appears to reduce the number of impressions in conjunction with a group’s visibility on devices. Facebook’s own internal documentation that was included in one of Haugen’s disclosures said that some content might not even be impacted if a Facebook employee took action and demoted a group more than 90 percent. In other words, reducing the potential reach of a group could potentially be ineffective.
The Failures of User Reports
On Oct. 11, 2019, we investigated a foreign, pro-Trump disinformation network of pages, groups, and accounts named “The BL,” which stood for “The Beauty of Life.” It had 55 million total followers and accounts associated with the network and spent more than $9.5 million on Facebook ads. Our investigation, along with Sarah Thompson’s reporting for Lead Stories, led to perhaps one of the largest takedowns in the history of Facebook. But it took multiple reports before it came tumbling down. “The BL” is closely linked to The Epoch Times, a far-right organization that was banned from advertising on Facebook in August 2019. The news was first reported by NBC News reporters Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins.
Some readers may not be familiar with “The BL.” According to Facebook, the company waited months until the Friday afternoon before Christmas that year to announce that it had been removed. By the time the holiday season wrapped up, it was out of the news cycle.
Part of the investigation into “The BL” looked at hundreds, if not thousands, of fake accounts. These fake accounts helped to populate and manage the many pages and groups that were created for “The BL.”
Over more than two months, we manually reported hundreds of fake accounts several times each using Facebook’s report function that is open to all users. This meant that we submitted a total of thousands of manual reports, one-by-one. More than 95 percent of the time, Facebook’s support team responded and said that the accounts were not fake, even though they all were. The failure rate for Facebook’s manual report system was likely higher than 95 percent. Eventually, Facebook acknowledged they were all fake and removed them at the same time that the entire network was brought down on Dec. 20, 2019.
Internal documents from Facebook that were obtained by Haugen said that, in general, it was “impossible for human reviewers to keep up with” the “volume of decisions” for “content-level enforcement.” The company’s solution was apparently to “apply classifiers to make content-level decisions at scale.”
The same disclosure detailed a document from September 2019, the month before we began investigating “The BL.” It described “levers” that teams could use to change how various parts of Facebook permit certain actions. There were mentions of the possibility of “reviewing fewer user reports” and ignoring “benign” user reports, which might have been why our user reports failed so often.
Anti-Mask Group Subverts Policies, Facebook Shrugs
In September, we reported that Facebook was knowingly allowing the promotion of a website that sells extra-small-sized “fake masks.” These products were purchased by anti-mask parents for their children to wear in school to appear as though they complied with COVID-19 guidelines. Such masks might appear to others to look effective. However, the website associated with the company that sold the masks said: “These masks do nothing at all.”
This promotional activity on Facebook is still allowed today by accounts, pages, and groups, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics published that 173,469 child COVID-19 cases were reported in the U.S. between Sept. 23 and 30.
One of the groups that we reported on was Moms Against Masks. While inside the private group, we witnessed an admin post on Sept. 4: “Facebook has put a restriction on this page until October 2nd requiring Admin approval for posts. It is noted that future violations may shutdown the page.” In the remainder of the same post, the administrator advised members to consider using “code words or abbreviations such as M for *ask or C for *ovid or V for *accinated to avoid Facebook algorithms.”
Haugen’s whistleblower disclosures describe that some of “levers” were purportedly turned off after Election Day in 2020 when the company thought they were no longer needed. She also showed in the documentation that they were turned back on after the violent nature of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot. Haugen wrote: “They reverted back to these safer defaults only after the insurrection flared up.” According to the disclosure, this “roll back” was a “temporary” measure.
One of those “levers” referred to “requiring admins [to] review and approve posts in civic groups that accumulate four strikes.” The admin in Moms Against Masks mentioned that a similar action had been taken on its group after an unknown number of strikes. Whether the lever was on or off, this admin advised group members to get around the penalty by using “code words.”
As of mid-October, more than one month after the admin made this post, the group was still active, even after we emailed Facebook’s press team and published our findings for the company to see.
After the release of Haugen’s whistleblower disclosures, Facebook employees tweeted a statement that spent the first half of the message calling into question Haugen’s personal credibility.
Facebook Statement on today's Senate Subcommittee Hearing. pic.twitter.com/j6mOpEt9P8
— Andy Stone (@andymstone) October 5, 2021
In sum, the evidence we presented in this report from our past investigations is laid out in combination with Facebook’s own internal documents and research that Haugen says she copied before leaving the company. We never received answers from Facebook on the matter involving the Trump Train groups and the Capitol riot. The platform initially chose only to demote a foreign, pro-Trump group, even after learning that an unwitting Kentucky woman had been recruited to moderate its content for around two years. Thousands of tests conducted by Snopes reporters showed that its user report systems failed the vast majority of the time. And an anti-mask group lives on, despite the fact that Facebook knows it’s pushing fake masks for children and attempting to subvert detection of policy-breaking content.
Note: Our reporting on the Jan. 6 Capitol riot has been passed along to the offices of each member of the select committee that is investigating the violent insurrection.
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