Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg seemed scarcely able to contain his annoyance Thursday as he bobbed, weaved, and otherwise mostly evaded House Energy and Committee members’ questions in a hearing on social media’s role in promoting extremism—and particularly questions about his company’s culpability in providing a platform for radicalizing and organizing the insurrectionists who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
As it happened, no one was able to ask Zuckerberg about a report issued the day before from the Tech Transparency Project demonstrating that hundreds of militia groups remain active on Facebook, organizing and recruiting, as well as spreading disinformation and promoting violence—well after the insurrection. But then, Zuckerberg’s testimony made all too clear that the social media giant’s response to the problem would continue to be muddled and half-hearted, as the report indicated.
Zuckerberg was defiant about Facebook’s role in the insurrection during Thursday’s hearing, titled “Disinformation Nation: Social Media’s Role in Promoting Extremism and Misinformation.” He told Congressman Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania, the subcommittee cochair—who wanted to know “how is it possible for you not to at least admit that Facebook played a central role in facilitating the recruitment, planning, and execution of the attack on the Capitol?”—that the blame primarily laid elsewhere.
“I think that the responsibility here lies with the people who took the actions to break the law and do the insurrection,” he said. “And secondarily, also, the people who spread that content—including the president, but others as well—with repeated rhetoric over time, saying that the election was rigged and encouraging people to organize, I think those people bear the primary responsibility as well.”
When asked by cochair Jan Schakowsky of Illinois about Facebook taking money “to run advertisements to promote disinformation,” Zuckerberg replied that “we don’t allow misinformation in our ads. And any ad that’s been fact-checked that’s false, we don’t allow to run as an ad.”
This was at best misleading: Facebook, in fact, does run ads containing misinformation if they are political in nature—because the company has repeatedly insisted it won’t fact-check political ads. Zuckerberg has argued that “political speech is important” and so the company doesn’t want to interfere with it—which gives politicians and political groups open license to lie freely on Facebook.
Eventually the Democrats who were trying to hold Zuckerberg’s feet to the fire for providing a platform that profits from “engagement” algorithms that wind up radicalizing thousands of users came to despair of ever getting a straight answer from the Facebook CEO. After getting a runaround to his question about whether or not Zuckerberg signed off on a reduction in a company plan to tackle extremist misinformation, committee chair Frank Pallone of New Jersey ended his discourse curtly, turning to Google CEO Sundar Pichai in frustration.
That defiant approach to the problem comports with the company’s running failure to shut down some of the same far-right factions that supported the insurrection, as detailed in the Tech Transparency Project’s report, despite its long-running promises to bring the problem under control.
The TTP was able to identify 201 militia pages and 13 militia groups on Facebook as of March 18. Some 70% of them had the word “militia” in their name.
Moreover, not only do militia pages persist on Facebook, but TTP found that the platform is actually pushing people toward them: 34 of the militia pages identified by TTP (17%) were actually auto-generated by Facebook. Most of these had the word “militia” in their names.
But the reason the term continues to thrive on Facebook was explicit in the response given to BuzzFeed by a company spokesman about TTP’s report: "We'll review the accuracy of the claims and the content referenced as soon as we have access to this report. We have banned over 890 militarized social movements and removed more than 3,400 Pages, 19,500 groups, 120 events, 25,300 Facebook profiles and 7500 Instagram accounts representing them; but simply using the word 'militia' does not violate our policies."
“After nearly a year of promises to curb the organizing of militia groups on the platform—a threat that culminated in the attack on the Capitol January 6—Facebook has shown that they are not capable of handling the dangers posed by their platform despite their claims to Congress and the public,” TTP director Katie Paul told BuzzFeed News.
Of the 201 militia groups the TTP identified, more than 20 were created after Facebook’s crackdown last August. Some were formed in December 2020 or later, such as the Texas Militia, which launched its page even as the attack on the Capitol was under way on Jan. 6. Its creator and administrator claimed that “modern technology has enabled radicals to subvert the process by which we elect our representatives.”
“We must be prepared…to defend our rights and prevent [the] takeover of our great nation by radicals, uphold the Constitution, and preserve our way of life,” he added.
BuzzFeed also found that Facebook’s algorithms continue to push users down far-right rabbit holes. Upon visiting the page for the East Kentucky Malitia (a deliberate misspelling to avoid detection), Facebook directed their reporter to the pages of Fairfax County Militia and the KY Mountain Rangers. Once there, the algorithms directed the reporter to the Texas Freedom Force.
The Texas Freedom Force, as it happens, was identified as a “militia extremist group” by the FBI in an affidavit it filed in January while charging one of its members, Guy Reffitt, with multiple felonies for participating in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack. Reffitt, you may recall, notoriously warned his adult children he would kill them for “treason” if they turned him in to federal authorities after the insurrection.