'Patriot Party' Trump supporter groups grow rapidly on Facebook: study

PALO ALTO (Reuters) - Far-right backers of Donald Trump are drumming up support on social media for the idea of a “Patriot Party,” using references to militia groups and promoting a mix of conspiracy theories, according to a study published on Tuesday.

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The online campaign for a proposed alternative to the Republican Party has heavily promoted “Stop the Steal” events throughout the country, including the violent siege of Capitol Hill on Jan. 6, pushing the false claim that the former U.S. President lost November’s election due to widespread fraud.

Amid a rift with several Republican leaders over the Capitol riot, Trump has talked about forming a new political party, his advisers say.

However, Trump’s “Save America PAC” action committee says he has set aside the idea for now.

On Facebook, the effort appears to be decentralized but growing rapidly, with some “Patriot Party” groups gaining thousands of members in a matter of days, according to the research conducted by watchdog group the Tech Transparency Project.

Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the findings. Its critics say it has played an outsized role in enabling the spread of misinformation and calls for violence tied to the election, given its vast user base.

The world’s largest social network has taken some steps to curb those problems, banning the phrase “stop the steal” after the Capitol siege and permanently halting algorithm-driven recommendations of civic and political groups altogether.

It has also blocked Trump’s access to his Facebook and Instagram accounts over concerns of further violent unrest.

TTP said it found 51 groups and 85 pages on Facebook promoting Patriot Party iconography to tens of thousands of followers in a count it conducted on Jan. 20, more than half created since the Nov. 3 election.

Facebook has removed some of the accounts, including a group created Jan. 17 that gained 105,000 members over the eight days it existed, but enforcement has been “piecemeal” and dozens of others remain active on the platform, TTP said.

Some of the forums’ administrators have openly expressed support for far-right militias like the Three Percenters and the Oath Keepers, despite Facebook’s decision in August to ban “militarized social movements”.

A Jan. 6 post in a private “Patriot Party” Facebook group with more than 2,000 members steered members toward a external site urging them to “join your local militia,” a screenshot captured by TTP showed.

Support for the Patriot Party movement has also flourished on other social media platforms and online news sites, peaking around Inauguration Day on Jan. 20, according to data from media intelligence firm Zignal Labs.

Reporting by Katie Paul; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in New York; Editing by Kenneth Li and John Stonestreet