How Facebook incubated the insurrection

How Facebook incubated the insurrection

Stuart A. Thompson and Charlie Warzel write:

Dominick McGee didn’t enter the Capitol during the siege on Jan. 6. He was on the grounds when the mob of Donald Trump supporters broke past police barricades and began smashing windows. But he turned around, heading back to his hotel. Property destruction wasn’t part of his plan. Plus, his phone had died, ending his Facebook Live video midstream. He needed to find a charger. After all, Facebook was a big part of why he was in Washington in the first place.

Mr. McGee is 26, a soft-spoken college student and an Army veteran from Augusta, Ga. Look at his Facebook activity today, and you’ll find a stream of pro-Trump fanfare and conspiracy theories.

But for years, his feed was unremarkable — a place to post photos of family and friends, musings about love and motivational advice.

Most of his posts received just a handful of likes and comments.

That changed after the presidential election, when he began posting about what he believed was suspicious activity around the vote.

He saw a sharp rise in engagement — more than 50 comments and nearly a dozen shares.

On Nov. 6, he wrote that he’d “rather die on my feet than live on my knees,” garnering 106 comments and 134 likes.

A post about Democrats supporting slavery in the 1800s received even more attention. Within weeks, he was committing nearly all his time to sharing what he learned from the Stop the Steal movement. He started a Facebook group, Win the Win, with the goal of overturning the election results. Tens of thousands of people joined in just weeks. Mr. McGee, who uses the pseudonym Dom Lucre on Facebook, wrote in the group that a “storm was coming,” a common QAnon reference, getting 440 comments and 1,500 likes.

Suddenly he had followers: “Thank you for helping we the people to wake up and see the truth, and see how we’ve been lied to for way too long,” one commented. “Thank you Dom!”

By the time he drove from Tennessee to Washington to march on the Capitol, his Facebook group had swelled to more than 61,000 members, and he was eager to meet some of them in person.

“Everyone has some type of thing that gave them a spark,” he said in an interview last week. “Facebook just so happened to be mine.”

He’s not alone. Facebook’s algorithms have coaxed many Americans into sharing more extreme views on the platform — rewarding them with likes and shares for posts on subjects like election fraud conspiracies, Covid-19 denialism and anti-vaccination rhetoric. We reviewed the public post histories for dozens of active Facebook users in these spaces. Many, like Mr. McGee, transformed seemingly overnight. A decade ago, their online personas looked nothing like their presences today.

A journey through their feeds offers a glimpse of how Facebook rewards exaggerations and lies. [Continue reading…]

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