Misinformation About George Floyd Protests Surges on Social Media

On Twitter and Facebook, hundreds of posts are circulating saying that George Floyd is not actually dead.

Conspiracy theorists are baselessly arguing that George Soros, the billionaire investor and Democratic donor, is funding the spreading protests against police brutality.

And conservative commentators are asserting with little evidence that antifa, the far-left antifascism activist movement, coordinated the riots and looting that sprang from the protests.

Untruths, conspiracy theories and other false information are running rampant online as the furor over Mr. Floyd, an African-American man who was killed last week in police custody in Minneapolis, has built. The misinformation has surged as the protests have dominated conversation, far outpacing the volume of online posts and media mentions about last year’s protests in Hong Kong and Yellow Vest movement in France, according to the media insights company Zignal Labs.

At its peak on Friday, Mr. Floyd and the protests around his death were mentioned 8.8 million times, said Zignal Labs, which analyzed global television broadcasts and social media. In contrast, news of the Hong Kong protests reached 1.5 million mentions a day and the Yellow Vest movement 941,000.

“The combination of evolving events, sustained attention and, most of all, deep existing divisions make this moment a perfect storm for disinformation,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “All of it is toxic, and make our very real challenges and divisions harder to address.”

The collision of racial tensions and political polarization during the coronavirus pandemic has supersized the misinformation, researchers said. Much of it is being shared by the conspiracy group QAnon and far-right commentators as well as by those on the left, Mr. Brookie said.

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President Trump himself has stoked the divisive information. Over the past few days, he posted on Twitter that antifa was a “Terrorist Organization” and urged the public to show up for a “MAGA Night” counterprotest at the White House.

Along with that, people are experiencing high levels of fear, uncertainty and anger, said Claire Wardle, executive director of First Draft, an organization that fights online disinformation. That creates “the worst possible context for a healthy information environment,” she said.

Twitter and Facebook did not immediately have a comment.

Here are three significant categories of falsehoods that have surfaced on social media platforms about Mr. Floyd’s death and the protests.

The unfounded rumor that Mr. Floyd is alive is emblematic of the misinformation narrative that a newsworthy event was staged. This has become an increasingly common refrain over the years, with conspiracy theorists saying, among other examples, that the 1969 moon landing and the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School were hoaxes.

On Friday, the YouTube conspiracy channel JonXArmy shared a 22-minute video that falsely asserted Mr. Floyd’s death had been faked. The video was shared nearly 100 times on Facebook, mostly in groups run by QAnon, reaching 1.3 million people, according to data from CrowdTangle, a tool that analyzes interactions across social media.

Jon Miller, who runs the JonXArmy channel, did not immediately respond to requests for comment. YouTube said on its site that it had removed the video, citing its policy on hate speech.

On Twitter, posts stating that “George Floyd is not dead” were also tweeted hundreds of times over the past week, with the phrase peaking at 15 mentions in a 10-minute span on Monday morning, according to Dataminr, a social media monitoring service.

In thousands of other posts on Facebook and Twitter, people falsely stated that Derek Chauvin, the Minnesota police officer who was charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter in Mr. Floyd’s death, was an actor and that the entire incident had been faked by the deep state.

The false idea that Mr. Soros funded the protests spiked on social media over the past week, showing how new events can resurrect old conspiracy theories. Mr. Soros has for years been cast as an anticonservative villain by a loose network of activists and political figures on the right and has become a convenient boogeyman for all manner of ills.

On Twitter, Mr. Soros was mentioned in 34,000 tweets in connection with Mr. Floyd’s death over the past week, according to Dataminr. Over 90 videos in five languages mentioning Soros conspiracies were also posted to YouTube over the past seven days, according to an analysis by The New York Times.

On Facebook, 72,000 posts mentioned Mr. Soros in the past week, up from 12,600 the week before, according to The Times’s analysis. Of the 10 most engaged posts about Mr. Soros on the social network, nine featured false conspiracies linking him to the unrest. They were collectively shared over 110,000 times.

Two of the top Facebook posts sharing Soros conspiracies were from Texas’ agriculture commissioner, Sid Miller, an outspoken supporter of Mr. Trump.

“I have no doubt in my mind that George Soros is funding these so-called ‘spontaneous’ protests,” Mr. Miller wrote in one of the posts. “Soros is pure evil and is hell-bent on destroying our country!”

Mr. Miller did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A spokeswoman for Mr. Soros said, “We deplore the false notion that the people taking to the streets to express their anguish are paid, by George Soros or anyone else.”

The unsubstantiated theory that antifa activists are responsible for the riots and looting was the biggest piece of protest misinformation tracked by Zignal Labs, which looked at certain categories of falsehoods. Of 873,000 pieces of misinformation linked to the protests, 575,800 were mentions of antifa, Zignal Labs said.

The antifa narrative gained traction because “long-established networks of hyperpartisan social media influencers now work together like a well-oiled machine,” said Erin Gallagher, a social media researcher.

That began when Mr. Trump tweeted on Sunday that “ANTIFA led anarchists” and “Radical Left Anarchists” were to blame for the unrest, without providing specifics. Then he called antifa “a Terrorist Organization.”

Dan Bongino, a conservative political commentator who has unsuccessfully run for a House seat several times, then took up the call. On the “Fox and Friends” television show on Monday, Mr. Bongino said antifa activists were responsible for a “sophisticated” attack on the White House and called it an “insurrection.”

He did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Those assertions soon spread around social media. More than 6,000 Facebook posts linking the antifa movement to the protests appeared in the last seven days, collecting over 1.3 million likes and shares, according to The Times’s analysis.

And on Twitter, a fake “manual” specifying “riot orders” that was supposedly issued by Democrats directing antifa activists to stir up trouble circulated prominently. But the so-called manual was a resurrection of an old hoax linked to the April 2015 riots in Baltimore over the death of Freddie Gray in police custody, the fact-checking website Snopes reported.

Sheera Frenkel contributed reporting. Ben Decker contributed research.

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