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An illustration of a Facebook logo with walls inside splitting up users into partisan groups
Thomas Pullin

Citizen Browser

Facebook Said It Would Stop Pushing Users to Join Partisan Political Groups. It Didn’t

According to Citizen Browser data, the platform especially peppered Trump voters with political group recommendations

Thomas Pullin

In the run-up to the 2020 presidential election, Facebook said it was taking “emergency” measures to prevent people from using the platform to spread misinformation or coordinate violence. Among those measures, CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified under oath before Congress in October, Facebook had stopped recommending all “political content or social issue groups”—a practice its own internal research has suggested steers users toward divisive and extremist content. 

Days after a riot organized at least partially on social media overtook the U.S. Capitol, Facebook reiterated in a Jan. 11 blog post that it was “not recommending civic groups for people to join.”

But contrary to Facebook’s claims, The Markup found the platform continued to recommend political groups to its users throughout December. We found 12 political groups among the top 100 groups recommended to the more than 1,900 Facebook users in our Citizen Browser project, which tracks links and group recommendations served to a nationwide panel of Facebook users. Our data shows Facebook also continued to recommend political groups throughout January, including after it renewed its promise not to on Jan. 11.

Facebook pushed political groups most often to the Trump voters on our panel. Almost one fourth of the top 100 groups suggested to Trump voters were political—and political groups accounted for half of the top 10 groups recommended to Trump voters. Some posts in those groups contained conspiracy theories, calls to violence against public officials, and discussions of logistics for attending the rally that preceded the Capitol riot. 

“We have a clear policy against recommending civic or political groups on our platforms,” Facebook spokesperson Kevin McAlister wrote in response to The Markup’s findings, “and are investigating why these were recommended in the first place.”

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Nearly a quarter of Trump voters received recommendations to join political groups, while non-voters received none

The 100 most commonly recommended political and non-political Facebook groups, by voter affiliation

Source: 1,917 panelists from The Markup/Citizen Browser throughout December 2020. Complete data available on GitHub.

A post in the “Rudy Giuliani [Common Sense]” group, which was recommended to 8 percent of Trump voters in our panel, called for Georgia’s governor and secretary of state to be hanged because of their refusal to overturn election results. 

That post was removed after The Markup contacted Facebook. 

In another group, “Donald Trump Is Our President,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was the target of a recent post. “Just wish they would have found her and marched her out of the building in handcuffs to citizen’s arrest,” a comment with 25 likes said. Facebook recommended the group to 19 of our panelists. The group is run by Ryan Fournier, co-chairman of the conservative group Turning Point Action. 

The administrator of a group recommended to 19 percent of Trump voters in our panel posted an event called “#StormTheCapitol” on Dec. 30, 2020, telling the 58,000 members in “Candace Owens for POTUS, 2024” to show up in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 6. 

Owens did not respond to a request for comment.

The administrator was later named among a group of Minnesotans who traveled to the D.C. rally. It is not clear if he went to the Capitol.

That group was among the three most frequently suggested political groups for our panelists who voted for Trump, along with “Tucker Carlson Fox News” and “Kayleigh McEnany Fan Club.” Each was recommended to one in five Trump voters on our panel.

Political groups were also suggested to our panelists who voted for Biden, albeit at a different rate—15 percent of the top recommended groups were political, but only two thirds were left-leaning. These political groups did not crack the top 10 most recommended groups. 

The political group most frequently recommended to Biden voters on our panel was a fan page for Steve Schmidt, the Republican founder of the anti-Trump group The Lincoln Project. This page was the 13th most recommended group, with 8 percent of Biden voters receiving a suggestion they join.

Our 115 panelists who reported not voting in 2020 received no recommendations for political groups at all. 

Most of the 97,443 groups recommended to our panelists were not political. The top recommended group for all panelists was for The Far Side comics, followed by groups for crafts, animals, relationships, cars, and recipes. (For the top 100 recommended groups, refer to our GitHub.)

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Trump and Biden voters were recommended drastically different political groups

Groups by how frequently they were recommended to our panelists

Source: 1,917 panelists from The Markup/Citizen Browser throughout December 2020. Complete data available on GitHub.

Facebook, when it announced it would halt political group recommendations, did not detail how it would classify groups as political. The platform has a mechanism that allows administrators to tag their own groups as “civic” or “political,” but except for the “Dan Crenshaw for POTUS 2024” group, the groups The Markup identified had not tagged themselves as political. 

To determine whether or not a group recommended to our panelists was political, The Markup looked at the group’s name, its “about” page, and its rules; and for groups that were public or that accepted our request to join, we read through recent posts in the group’s “discussion” feed to assess whether the group mentions politicians, political commentators, movements, parties, or ideologies. In some cases, as with the “Ben Shapiro Fans” group, the group’s own rules instructed members to “not post content unrelated to Ben Shapiro or politics.”

When possible, we contacted administrators for all the groups mentioned in this story. Of those that responded, the Candace Owens for POTUS, 2024 and Steve Schmidt fan club groups told The Markup they consider their groups “political.” The Giuliani fan group’s administrator, Patricia Brackett, said in a Facebook voice message that her page was meant for Trump supporters.

“Politics, I wouldn’t say that because I’m not for either side,” she said. “I’m for a man who I know can change the future and do good for this country.”

There are limitations to some of our findings. Our group of Citizen Browser panelists is small compared to the millions of Facebook users in the United States. The group recommendations shown to the 508 Trump and 1,214 Biden voters in our panel are not necessarily representative of what such voters are experiencing in the larger world of Facebook. Our panel also skews older, more educated, and whiter than the general population, and we are particularly short on Trump voters and Latinos. (Read more about how we built the panel and the custom browser that panelists use to automatically send us Facebook data here.)

However, Facebook does not provide data on its group recommendations for users, and nobody has to date found a way to otherwise access that data. Through Citizen Browser, we’re able to provide a rare look into the groups Facebook chooses to broadcast to hundreds of people in the United States.

Among the top recommended political groups for Biden voters, most were rife with anti-Trump posts. 

A member of “Joe BIDEN POTUS 46 Official” posted a meme aimed at belittling Trump voters as overweight, gun-toting trailer park residents. One comment on the post described the image as “One of 70 million other deplorable ignorant ungrateful loser [sic].”

Another meme, in the “Last Week Tonight” group for fans of the political commentary program, suggested that Trump voters were incestuous terrorists. 

If Facebook and other social media companies are serious about meeting this moment, they will make systematic changes on their platforms.

Sen. Ed Markey

In one group that follows a conservative commentator, “Dr. Steve Turley Fans,” recommended to 18 Trump voter panelists, a member asked for advice on how to “stay positive and focused” if the events on Jan. 6 failed to change the election’s outcome.

The replies varied, from suggesting prayer to staying optimistic—but one was more sinister. 

“At some point in time, it may come down to simple blood-shed,” a top reply said. 

The original poster responded, “I know this and I feel like I was made for that moment which is thrilling and completely terrifying also.”

The group remains active, and the post was still up at press time.

Shown our findings, Sen. Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, called on Facebook to act. 

“If Facebook and other social media companies are serious about meeting this moment, they will make systematic changes on their platforms to stop prioritizing user engagement and advertising dollars over the wellbeing of our society and democracy,” he said in a statement.

Jessica González, co-CEO of Free Press and lead organizer of several coalitions that seek to stop hate speech on digital platforms, said Facebook has a history of announcing improvements to its platform that later fall flat. 

“Their policy looks good on its face but they’re narrowly interpreting that policy so it doesn’t apply when things really get hot,” González said.  

It’s unclear how Facebook chooses which groups to recommend to any given user—but its suggestions are powerful.

Documents examined by the Wall Street Journal last May show Facebook’s internal research found 64 percent of new members in extremist groups joined because of the social network’s “Groups you should join” and “Discover” algorithms. Facebook declined to comment to the Wall Street Journal about how it addressed the issues with groups but told the outlet that it has improved policies since 2016.

In the past year, Facebook groups have been linked to deaths at a protest in Kenosha, Wis., and the growth of the QAnon conspiracy theory, as well as providing a recruiting ground for hate groups

Our analysis showed that for our panelists, the political groups Facebook recommended did not necessarily have much to do with their social connections: Panelists who voted for Trump were only recommended to join a political group containing one of their friends 1.4 percent of the time—for Biden voters it was 2.4 percent of the time.

González said group recommendations are likely a symptom of Facebook’s data profiles, which the social network creates to help advertisers find their target audience. 

“The use of personal data to target people who may be vulnerable to those kinds of messages is something that I think Congress needs to get at with data privacy legislation,” she said.

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