Local Republican Parties on Facebook Spread Claims of Fraud
New evidence shows local parties remained loyal to Trump while espousing conspiracy theories.
In the wake of the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, numerous state and county parties moved to censure Republican members who voted against Donald Trump. This has revealed that support for Trump is not confined to the national level but runs deep in the state and local parties as well. The focus on censure tells only part of the story, though. Local Republican parties have pushed false narratives about the results of the election and about what happened on January 6th.
We recently wrote about our research project that collected data on the online presence of Democratic and Republican parties for each of the 3,141 counties in the United States prior to the 2020 election. In the weeks between Election Day and January 6th, numerous posts from county GOP Facebook pages mentioned fraud, or shared news stories calling into question the legitimacy of the election. You can see just a few examples from some of the more popular local party Facebook pages below. Several parties even organized transportation to the January 6 “Stop the Steal” event that ended with a deadly siege on the Capitol.
Using data from Crowdtangle, we flagged any posts from Republican party Facebook pages that mentioned “fraud”, “steal”, or “stole.” Between the day after the election and January 6th, 9.9% of all Facebook posts from Republican pages mentioned fraud. For comparison, only 7.5% mentioned COVID-19 — we searched for all posts mentioning “covid” or “corona”. Below we plot the percent of posts each day that mention fraud or COVID-19 each day. Mentions of fraud start to increase on November 4th (4.3% of posts) before spiking on November 6th at 16%.
Fraud remains a popular term throughout the post-election period until the events of January 6th where supporters of Donald Trump stormed the capitol building. On the 5th, 10.5% of posts on Republican Facebook pages referenced fraud; on the 7th this drops to only 4.8%. Although Facebook began removing posts that mentioned “Stop the Steal” after January 6th, they did not take this action until January 11th, several days after we saw the drop in posts.
While it is good to see a decrease in posts about election fraud, local parties are not abandoning conspiracy theories. We also tracked mentions of antifa across the same pages. On January 7th, antifa was referenced in 5.1% of all local party Facebook page posts. Some of these posts conflated what happened on January 6th to protests over the summer — claiming that Joe Biden had never condemned any of the violence or damage — while many directly pinned the events of January 6th on antifa. Although this never reached the same level as mentions of fraud it still became an important story among Republican activists.
These posts are not limited to a few counties either.
Below we map the counties where a local Republican Facebook page has mentioned antifa since January 6th. In total, 223 local Facebook pages had mentions of antifa between January 6th and February 15th and the pages mentioning them are spread across the country. In addition to these social media posts, local party chairs have come under scrutiny for making similar claims at public forums and to the media.
Our evidence is clear, local Republican party activists remain strongly committed to Trump. In the lead up to January 6th, they spread claims of fraud to the Republican base. After the violence at the Capitol, they moved to discussions of antifa. The fact that official political parties are an important conduit of conspiracy on Facebook speaks to the difficulty that Facebook has in regulating its platform. The recent decision to “not suggest” political groups is one way to try to limit the reach of these organizations.
Although local parties are often seen as weak institutions, they can be important. The Christian Right first became important within the Republican Party by becoming involved in local parties and demonstrating their importance. The fact that local parties are so committed to Trumpism then means that it is likely that Donald Trump will remain an important player in Republican politics no matter how much leaders like Mitch McConnell rebuke or ignore him.
Facebook posts from:
Pierce County: https://www.facebook.com/PierceGOP/posts/10164486020470366