“Stop the Steal” spreads across the internet after infecting Facebook

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In the wake of a Facebook ban and dimming electoral hopes for President Trump, the “Stop the Steal” movement is finding a home on smaller platforms and in-person rallies. A movement supporting Trump’s false claims of election fraud and hoping to halt the ongoing vote-certification process, Stop the Steal groups are currently promoting pro-Trump rallies in Arizona, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Georgia, and organizing through platforms like Parler and Discord.

“President Trump has the votes,” wrote Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon supporter newly elected to Congress, on Parler. “But the Democrats, Big Tech, and the Fake News Media are trying to STEAL this election. You and I cannot let that happen! This is the biggest VOTER FRAUD operation in American history…STOP THE STEAL.” Greene has 16,000 followers on the app.

The group grew to over 300,000 members in less than 48 hours

The Stop the Steal Facebook group, which launched on Wednesday, was filled with similar election misinformation about Democrats rigging the vote. It was organized by Republican operatives and had ties to the tea party, according to Mother Jones. The group grew to over 300,000 members in less than 48 hours — only to be banned by Facebook once moderators caught on. Over that short period, the group became a central hub for election misinformation, leaving users to look for new places to organize in the wake of the ban.

Facebook and TikTok have also moved to block hashtags that were used to spread election conspiracy theories on Thursday, like #StoptheSteal. Twitter told The Verge that it was “proactively” monitoring them. Big Tech’s efforts to curb voting misinformation have led users to organize on different platforms. On YouTube, One American News Network (OANN) posted videos declaring that “Trump won” the election, which YouTube limited somewhat but did not block outright.

Organizers have found the most success on Parler, a social network designed for conservatives put off by moderation practices of the major platforms. On Thursday, there were 8,697 posts on Parler with the #StopTheSteal hashtag. Many of these posts also mentioned — without evidence — the silencing of conservatives on Facebook and Twitter. Videos of Stop the Steal protests got upwards of 2,000 votes (Parler’s version of likes). The hashtag #VoterFraud had 18,426 posts, much of it focused on unfounded rumors regarding Democrats tampering with the vote.

The lax moderation standards have proved attractive for conservatives like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Rand Paul (R-KY) as well as former congressional candidate and right-wing conspiracist Laura Loomer who was previously banned on Twitter. The app, which launched in 2018, has added 4 million users this year, growing by 1 million in the past six weeks alone.

Parler differentiates itself from Facebook and Twitter in its refusal to moderate content the big tech platforms have banned, including hate speech and misinformation. The app’s community guidelines prohibit “unlawful acts” but little else. A spokesperson for the app told The Verge that he believes users spreading misinformation will only damage their own reputation and does not believe in content moderation rules even for extreme content like Holocaust denial. “I trust the system,” he told The Verge, “and don’t worry about the outliers.”

On Parler, the person with the handle @StopTheSteal shared unfounded rumors about voter fraud and urged followers to show up at Stop the Steal rallies across the United States. He also set up a Discord where users ranted about censorship on the big tech platforms, which does not actually exist, and promoted “stop the count” protests in Los Angeles and Norwalk, California.

At a rally at the capitol building in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Trump supporters carried signs reading “Stop the Steal” and waved American flags. Rep. Scott Perry (R-PA) joined the event, telling supporters, “We want the ballots and the votes that are counted to be legal, to be valid.” The comments insinuate this isn’t the case — although there’s no evidence to support that viewpoint.

Some affiliated groups have been stoked by seasoned political operatives, although most have few firm ties to the Republican Party. Right Wing Watch reported this week that some Stop the Steal events trace back to a Roger Stone associate named Ali Alexander, who launched a similar but less successful campaign in 2018. Alexander said in a Periscope stream on Wednesday that he was organizing “thousands and thousands and thousands of people” to attend rallies in contested districts across the country.

Progressive groups seeking to encourage the continued counting of votes have also started to organize over social media. “Count Every Vote” rallies have been held in states like New York and Pennsylvania over the last few days. Larger coalitions, like Protect the Results, have not activated their over 150 groups into mobilization but said on Thursday that it “remains vigilant.”

“As millions of votes are counted and with Joe Biden’s lead in several key states growing, the Protect the Results coalition is announcing that it will not be activating the entire national mobilization network [Thursday], but remains ready to activate if necessary,” the organization said in a statement on Thursday. “While the coalition will not be activating its national network, some local organizers may still hold ‘Count Every Vote’ events in their community.”

The app has become particularly active during the week of the 2020 election, when Facebook and Twitter went to greater lengths to stamp out misinformation about the vote. SoCal Trump Train Events & Rallies, a Facebook group with 12,100 members, urged people to join them on Parler on Thursday in anticipation of getting shut down.

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