Facebook Groups Poses A Major Threat in This Election Season

— Misinfo Monday is a weekly series by Mozilla where we give you the tools, tips and tricks needed to cut the crap and find the truth. Our guest post this week comes from Kaili Lambe, Senior Campaigner at Mozilla Foundation. Check out more Mozilla Foundation campaigns here and for more Misinfo Monday posts, check back weekly on our blog or on our Instagram. —

Devastating wildfires are ravaging the US west coast. Spreading as quickly as the western wildfires is disinformation about the situation. As Oregon officials struggled to keep people safe, one state representative saw first-hand how disinfo can take hold when a fake Facebook account started sharing divisive (and false) news in her neighborhood Facebook Group.

Groups on Facebook can be great places to connect with classmates or find folks who share similar interests. More recently, Groups on the platform have become hidden breeding grounds for disinformation campaigns and organizing platforms for extremists. We’ve seen it with QAnon, the conspiracy theorists who believe a vast deep-state network of pedophiles is trafficking children. Even after Facebook said it was cracking down on QAnon activity on the platform, other Groups associated with it have continued to grow — by 3,000%, according to one researcher. Additionally, we’ve seen a corresponding surge in Facebook Group activity, including the spread of misinformation about Covid-19.

The group recommendation algorithm [is] the single scariest feature of the platform.

Facebook Groups Engineer

We’ve seen it with the growth of the anti-vaccine (or anti-vax) movement, which researchers say Facebook fueled by recommending groups on the platform that feature anti-vaccine content to new mothers. We’ve seen it with groups on Facebook that encouraged white supremacistspeople to bring weapons to the protests in Kenosha, WI — protests in response to Jacob Blake, a Black man, being shot in the back and left paralyzed by officer Rustin Sheskey. Facebook admitted it should have taken down the group sooner, before two people were killed.

In the words of disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz, “Facebook Groups are destroying America.”

The Facebook Group problem isn’t a new problem

Yet Facebook’s own algorithmic recommendation engines actively grow these networks by suggesting them to unsuspecting users. The company has known since 2016 when its own researchers presented evidence showing that “64% of all extremist group-joins are due to [Facebook’s] recommendation tools.” Ask engineers who helped create Facebook Groups and they might tell you what they told journalist Casey Newton: “The group recommendation algorithm [is] the single scariest feature of the platform.”

As of late, Facebook is reigning in Groups. We’ve seen this in how the company removed the group encouraging the carrying of arms to Kenosha protests (Facebook received 455 reports about the group). Now, Facebook is attempting to limit the growth of similar militia Groups by also removing them from recommendations. In addition to this, recently Facebook acknowledged this by discontinuing the recommendation of health groups on the platform to “prioritize connecting people with accurate health information.”

Facebook’s game-plan here is less a strategy and more a never-ending game of whack-a-mole, but with devastating consequences.

What can be done about this?

Sure there are steps that individuals on the platform can take, such as checking the source, author and contact page of news organizations before sharing links – or reporting posts for containing “false news.” But Facebook can’t keep up with reports fast enough, and this shouldn’t be individual Facebook users’ burden to bear. Facebook needs to take bold action. So what do the experts recommend they do?

We agree with researchers like Jankowicz, who suggests steps like making groups with more than 5,000 members public. That way, researchers can join and monitor groups and vet how they’re categorized. She also recommends eliminating Facebook Group recommendations.

Especially during the volatile US election season, Group recommendations pose a major threat. As former Mozilla fellow Renee DiResta says, “Propagandists and spammers need to amass an audience, and Groups serve that up on a platter.” Without recommendations, Groups that thrive on serving disinformation couldn’t grow at an exponential pace — removing much of what fans the flames of disinformation.

Check out more Misinfo Monday posts here. Mozilla, alongside civil society partners like Accountable Tech, Avaaz, Common Cause, Kairos Action, Let America Vote, Media Matters for America and UltraViolet have called for Facebook to stop Group suggestions until at least the US election results are certified. Add your name here.

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