Fake news, disinformation and the George Floyd protests
By Christina Georgacopoulos and Trey Poche | August 2020
Periods of civil unrest provide an opportune moment for bad actors to spread disinformation and manipulate public perception of events to divide society. Feelings of fear, frustration and resentment in the public can create a volatile information environment.
According to Pew Research, during the initial peak of the George Floyd protests on May 28, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag was tweeted a record 8.8 million times. In comparison, during the hashtag’s last peak in 2016 following the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, #BlackLivesMatter was tweeted 1.4 million times. To further illustrate the magnitude of the current protests, the ongoing Hong Kong protests were only mentioned 1.5 million times at their peak despite global attention and heavy media coverage.
“The combination of evolving events, sustained attention and, most of all, deep existing divisions make this moment a perfect storm for disinformation,” according to the director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, Graham Brookie.
Social media platforms have been flooded with genuine and authentic conversation about Black Lives Matter and racial justice throughout the George Floyd protests. But with so much activity happening online, it is ever more important to be vigilant against misleading claims and conspiracies. The circulation of mis- and dis-information during civil unrest can cause confusion, stoke tensions and distract from factually correct information. The George Floyd protests, which are occurring in communities already devastated by the global pandemic, are the perfect breeding ground for misinformation.
With the sheer amount of info circulating right now, it’s easy to mistake fact and fiction. Here is a list of prominent rumors about the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, debunked, fact-checked, and explained.
Source: Stephanie Keith/Getty Images
President Trump claimed that police did not use tear gas to clear apparent peaceful protestors outside of the White House on June 1. ABC News reported, “According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, ‘tear gas’ isn't a specific chemical compound but a blanket term for chemical agents used for riot control that cause temporary respiratory distress. Compounds including mace and pepper spray fit the CDC's definition.” The U.S. Secret service later admitted that police did use pepper spray.
Hundreds of Twitter and Facebook posts suggest George Floyd is not dead, The New York Times reported.
- A YouTube conspiracy channel, JonXArmy, shared a 22-minute video that falsely asserts George Floyd is alive, which was shared nearly 100 times on Facebook (mostly on Pages associated with QAnon, an online, anonymous forum). The video potentially reached nearly 1.3 million people. Youtube later removed the video, claiming it violated the site’s policy on hate speech. In thousands of other posts, users falsely claimed the Minnesota police officer who was responsible for the death of Floyd was an actor and the incident was orchestrated by the “deep state.”
George Soros, a billionaire investor and prolific Democratic donor, is blamed for funding the protests.
- For years George Soros has been painted as a villain by the far-right and been the target of numerous conspiracy theories.
- On Twitter, Soros was mentioned in 34,000 Tweets related to Floyd during a one week period
- On Youtube over 90 videos in 5 languages were shared connecting Soros with the protests during a one week period. Youtube did not remove the videos because they did not violate any of the company’s policies.
- On Facebook, 72,000 posts mentioned Soros the second week of the protests, up from 12,600 the first week. Of the 10 most popular posts about Soros, 9 featured false conspiracies linking him with the protests--all 10 were collectively shared over 110,000 times
Two of the top Facebook posts were from Texas’ agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, who said “I have no doubt in my mind that George Soros is funding these so-called ‘spontaneous’ protests. Soros is pure evil and is hell-bent on destroying our country!”
Soros's philanthropic group, Open Society Foundations, responded to conspiratorial allegations. "Those protesting the death of Mr. Floyd and police brutality across the nation do so out of a deep and abiding concern for their country; they don't do so for pay from these foundations or any other, as some cynics claim. Such assertions are false, offensive, and do a disservice to the very bedrock of our democracy, as enshrined in the First Amendment," Open Society said.
Some conservative commentators are asserting, with little evidence, that the riots and looting is being coordinated by antifa, the far-left antifacist movement.
- Vox reported that antifa is not a unified organization, but rather a loose ideological label for a subset of left-wing radicals who believe in using street-level force to prevent the rise of what they see as fascist movements.
- Trump Tweeted in late May that “ANTIFA led anarchists” and “Radical Left Anarchists” were to blame for the rioting and civil unrest. He referred to antifa as a “Terrorist Organization.” The FBI says there is no evidence the protest movement was hijacked by Antifa or any other "extremist" group.
- Trump tweeted that Martin Gugino, a peaceful protestor who was pushed down by Buffalo police, could have been an “antifa provocateur.” AP journalists reported that Trump was referring to a report from the One America News Network (OANN), which cited an uninformed blog arguing that Gugino was using antifa-like tactics, such as “a method of police tracking used by Antifa to monitor the location of police.” Top tech experts called that claim confounding.
- A fake “manual” of riot orders also appeared on Twitter that was supposedly created by Democrats to coordinate antifa activists. The manual was linked to an old hoax in 2015 surrounding the protests in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray.
- A Twitter account that claimed to be associated with “anifa” was actually linked to Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group. The Twitter account pushed violent rhetoric, ostensibly to paint peaceful protestors as violent. See the NBC News reporting.
- According to Sky News, “the #DCblackout hashtag was used to promote false claims that authorities in DC were somehow preventing the protesters from using their smartphones to communicate with each other. Twitter removed the hashtag - which was being noticed worldwide - from the "trending topics" section due to what it described as "co-ordinated attempts to disrupt the public conversation" around the protests.”
- The BBC reported that a photo of the US presidential residence apparently with all its lights off has been shared widely on Twitter, including by Hillary Clinton. However, a reverse image search reveals that the photo is old - taken in 2014 - and it's been edited to make it look like all the lights are off.
- As protests took place across the nation following the death of George Floyd, claims surfaced online that animals at the Chicago Lincoln Park Zoo escaped and roamed the streets after an alleged break-in.
- A photo falsely shows the Lincoln memorial covered in graffiti, vandalized. “The only vandalism at the Lincoln Memorial was graffiti at the bottom of the steps at street level, far away from the statue,” Mike Litterst, chief of communications for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said.
- A conservative news website published a story with a misleading headline: “NPR Wants People to Burn Books Written By White People.” The NPR story says nothing about book burning. Instead, it implores white people to examine their bookshelves and see if they are only reading authors that look like them.
- Public service announcement warns of a white supremacist who has been shooting at black people at traffic lights. He drives a white truck and was last seen in Mesa, Arizona. The AP found that state and local police officials in Arizona as well as organizations that track violence by white supremacists said they received no reports of a gunman targeting black motorists in Mesa, surrounding cities or elsewhere in the state last week. The Arizona ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center said that they also did not receive reports of the shooter.
- A news article suggests that an Abraham Lincoln monument was recently torched in Chicago. The AP found this to be false. A news article published in June falsely suggests that an Abraham Lincoln statue was burned in Chicago during protests that turned violent in the city. The incident happened in 2017, not recently.