Getty Images / WIRED
Arguments about the upcoming US presidential election are getting heated in Canton, the county seat of Stark County in the swing state of Ohio. Stark County is an emblematic patch of America in northeastern Ohio, with a population of over 370,00; it voted for Obama twice before swinging all the way to Trump in 2016. And, like communities up and down the country, Stark County’s hidden dramas aren’t being played out on the streets, they’re being played out on local Facebook groups.
In the past few months, the tide of misinformation, hyper-partisanship, and conspiracy theories running rampant at a national level has trickled down to the small, local groups where the people of Stark County congregate to discuss everything from politics to the latest Canton gossip. Facebook groups have grown more important to the site’s long-term strategy since a March 2019 speech by chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, in which he outlined a new approach prioritising closed spaces, like groups, over the public “wall” that made Facebook famous. But groups have been criticised for their role in spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories; politically partisan groups are often stuffed with like-minded people, meaning nasty or misleading posts goes unchallenged and unreported.
The king of them all is QAnon, a baseless conspiracy theory alleging that president Donald Trump is fighting a cabal of elite Satan-worshipping paedophiles. The theory has been likened to a cult, linked to violent incidents and labelled a domestic terror threat by the FBI. Facebook – still reeling from the backlash for its mismanagement of disinformation during the 2016 campaign – recently took action against QAnon, removing some of the most egregious groups and pages disseminating the baseless theory.
But at the local level, policing this content is tricky: posts on small groups generally have insufficient reach to be reported or removed, and they can be subtle enough to be invisible to an untrained eye. In the same breath, pro-QAnon posts in local groups may prove more convincing to people than something spread via huge and largely anonymous pages.
Sure enough, many of these posts found their way into Stark County’s Facebook communities. A Facebook event page called STARK COUNTY TRUMP TRAIN PARADE is promoting a real-life rally in Stark County, which has over 2,500 people signed up as “going” or “interested”. One post on the event wall showed an old teal Chrysler, its windshield emblazoned with “WWG1WGA” – a battle cry among QAnon believers, standing for “Where we go one we go all”. Comments under the picture included: “I can’t wait to make things such as this!!!!,” “#WeAreQ”, and “It’s a dangerous addiction 🤣”. The Trump Train event page was shared in a Facebook group called Stark County And Beyond Trump Supporters, a public group with just over 500 members: few by Facebook’s standards, but enough to make a difference at the ballot box, and more likely to fly under the radar of misinformation clampdowns.
What’s going on, however, is not limited to avowedly Trump-supporting groups – or even just political groups as a whole. Look at the Canton, Massillon, Alliance, & surrounding Crime group, which has over 7,500 members. Founded in 2014, it was originally intended “for the people of the Canton area to spread the word of crime.” Following recent events – including the coronavirus pandemic, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the ongoing election campaign – group admin Ryan Rider allowed a change of tack in response to demand. It is now a “crime, news, and information” group, he says, with politics increasingly crowding out all other discussion.
“There seem to be a lot more Trump supporters than Biden,” says Rider, who is a Trump supporter. “We have members who will claim it is a Trump group, however we have never cared who joins. This just goes to show the silent majority in our country.” Rider says he has noticed Facebook is increasingly cracking down on posts about QAnon as the site’s policies have hardened in recent weeks. Some persistent Stark County-based QAnon advocates have been suspended from the site, put in what Rider calls “Facebook jail”.
“The censorship in this country is getting out of hand – if you are a conservative they do everything they can to shut you up. It is starting to remind me of communist China to be honest. They call it fact-checking, but often it is just a liberal opinion check.” Nevertheless, the group’s admins “will usually remove things that go against the [Facebook] fact check,” its rules state, “This is not because we want to but because we loose [sic] advertising for the group if we keep too many,” the admins explain. In what seems like a reaching-across-the-aisle move, the group also forbids members from calling others racist. “The exception is something actually racist like a name,” the rules state.
Asked if he supports the QAnon theory himself, Rider says, “Tricky question to be honest, but I support anything that cleans up our country and helps kids.”
The group is also used by Democrat supporters. One of them is Madi Davis, who says the election is a “nightmare for anyone seeking truth and facts”. She enjoys trying to engage her opponents in the comments of Facebook groups. “More often than not it comes down to supporting your opinions with credible facts, versus memes and other people’s opinions,” she says.
It is telling that one of Stark County’s most vital political groups germinated out of a community busy discussing crime in the local area. The crime rate in and around Canton is nearly twice the US national average; violence and civil disorder come up constantly as discussion themes in Stark County’s local Facebook groups, with local crimes being shared as a reason to vote one way or another. Horror stories about alleged juvenile criminals – often African-American – spread like wildfire in Facebook groups.
Madi Davis thinks juvenile sentencing is often too strict, and is worried that Facebook groups may be whipping up racial tensions. She is also concerned about a rash of recent local incidents where children were killed by gun violence, blaming Ohio’s loose gun control laws – another key election issue. “We have quite a few very vocal local activists in my hometown that are a part of the local crime watch pages and protest pages,” she says. Local Trump supporters see the same Facebook posts and draw the opposite conclusions: citizens should preserve the right to bear arms, and teenage criminals should be locked up for longer.
This is just one divisive issue among many others – and the gap between the two camps is growing by the day. Stark County locals say that social networks are awash with bitter partisan tensions ahead of November 3. “Some anti-Trumpers will beat you up for supporting him,” says Tracy Ambrose, a mother-of-five who was born and raised in Stark County and is backing Trump. “I think with all the tension going on, people are afraid to speak in public because they may get harmed,” she says.
Erin Wheeler, a former finance professional and current stay-at-home mother, agrees. “Things are much more emotionally charged than in 2016,” she says. But at least Facebook groups can give her some insights into her town’s political leanings, given that people don’t always express themselves freely offline. “I’m more comfortable talking [about politics] to strangers than people I care about,” she says.
She’s not the only one to feel that way. The New York Times recently outlined evidence that the political posts which go most viral on Facebook are largely pro-Trump, suggesting the social network could be home to America’s “silent majority” because these “revealed preferences” are “often a better indicator of how [voters will] act than interviewing them at diners, or listening to what they’re willing to say out loud to a pollster”.
Social media is generally associated with younger people, but that picture is changing. According to Pew Research Centre, the proportion of younger people on social media has plateaued, but among older people it is still climbing– and this cohort seem likely to be more opinionated and post more often than the young.
Polls and analyses might give a bird’s-eye view of an election campaign but, especially in the age of coronavirus, Facebook groups provide a fascinating window into how things are playing out on the ground in a key city in a swing state. Ohio is on an electoral knife-edge, though national polls show Joe Biden currently enjoys a healthy but not insurmountable lead. Whether the polls are right or the “silent majority” will sweep Trump to re-election, these Facebook groups will play a vital role in the coming weeks, as Ohioans are trapped indoors with election-mania reaching fever pitch.
More great stories from WIRED
🌐 TikTok was conquering the world. But Trump’s battle heralds the ugly birth of a new splinternet
🎮 We now know everything about the next-gen consoles. So which should is better – the PS5 or Xbox Series X?
🎬 Why Netflix keeps cancelling your favourite shows after two seasons
🔊 Listen to The WIRED Podcast, the week in science, technology and culture, delivered every Friday
👉 Follow WIRED on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn
Get WIRED Daily, your no-nonsense briefing on all the biggest stories in technology, business and science. In your inbox every weekday at 12pm UK time.
Thank You. You have successfully subscribed to our newsletter. You will hear from us shortly.
Sorry, you have entered an invalid email. Please refresh and try again.