Opinion | How Facebook Incubated the Insurrection

Ms. Hayden, Mr. McGee and Mr. Panayides shared an entrepreneurial streak. They expressed a desire for connection with others and sought to achieve it online. But their attempts at conventional influencing (via modeling, reality television, running a small business and sharing motivational content) brought only modest attention.

It wasn’t until they tapped into an ecosystem charged by hyperpartisan politics that they were able to access the levels of engagement they desired. In each case, these newfound influencers recognized the opportunity and had the digital savvy to siphon off a portion of the attention and outrage generated by the news cycle for themselves. Quickly, they seized on hashtags and refined their messages, occasionally posting the same thing numerous times — testing their language to see what would take off. Most realized that the same post on a personal page generated only scant attention compared with the likes, shares and comments it could get on a group page.

Facebook groups for like-minded people are where lies begin to snowball, building momentum, gaining backers and becoming lore. Organizers refine their messages and titillate followers with far-fetched predictions and analysis, often recasting Mr. Trump’s loss as part of a master plan to get re-elected.

They’re also a way to bring together disparate conspiracy factions into a larger movement. Not long after his group took off, on May 6, Mr. Panayides laid out what was, essentially, his growth strategy to his followers. “This is not a group for socialising,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re a 5G person, you come from QAnon, you’re a mad super believer in all this stuff that’s happening, or you’re just new to the group, you’ve just had your eyes open, you have to understand, we’re a mixed bag.”

This combination of radicalized groups has led some experts to sound the alarm. The Stop the Steal movement, they say, served as a kind of mass radicalization. Mainstream Republicans joined with more extreme voices for the first time. Similarly, anti-vaccination and Covid-19 denialist groups have seen a demonstrable uptick in participation.

Still, it’s unclear what kind of real-world changes will come to pass through groups like Win the Win. Mr. McGee said he would use it to protest and to collect signatures for petitions, but one petition he posted got hardly any attention. He requested donations, but no one sent money.


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