News Clips: The president cited a report by a far right media outlet, tweeting, ‘the protestor could be an Antifa provocateur’.
‘Stay safe and lock and loaded’, that’s the warning in this Facebook post made Tuesday afternoon that claimed Antifa had three bus loads of members ready to hit neighbourhoods…
Police say rumours are circulating about threats that are not credible.
Where are you hearing this from? Is it online?
I guess online.
Rumours started spreading on social media this week of white supremacists coming into Bristol.
This is downtown Coeur d’Alene, with rumours of Antifa showing up. So everybody is out with their own firearms just to make sure that nothing goes down.
Jordan: So we’ve been down this road before. You know how this goes.
A huge story takes over the news cycle and right away the frauds and the scam artists and the disinformation flares up. And there are the usual reasons for this, from clout to politics, to just to mess with people. But this time, when the news cycle is dominated by anti-racist protests that are demanding justice for a black man killed by the police, and those protests are being met head-on with more violence from law enforcement. All of a sudden misinformation becomes really dangerous on the ground. Right now, this is happening seemingly in every town and city in North America. And there are so many false claims floating around, that it’s impossible to keep up.
Some of those false claims are coming from the police and yes, from the president. When that happens, the fake stuff on social media goes way beyond social media, and it starts to become dangerous on the streets. Dangerous enough to perhaps be a spark that ignites the powder keg that is America right now.
If bad actors can use social media posts to put real people in the streets with guns, how do you fight that with internet debunking? And when the debunks get a few dozen shares after the original fraud gets tens of thousands, how do you get the truth out? And how can we learn to tell the real from the fake for ourselves? Because nobody’s going to do it for us, there’s too much of it. No matter how hard they try. And today, we’ll talk to somebody who is really trying.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings and this is The Big Story. Jane Lytvynenko is a senior reporter with BuzzFeed news. She focuses among other things on disinformation, but I imagine right now it’s all disinformation. Hey Jane.
Jane: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Jordan: No problem. I’m going to start, because I’m going to ask you how things are going, and I’m going to introduce that by reading back to you the tweet that you wrote that prompted us to reach out to you for this episode.
And it was in the middle of, I think the second or third night of protests and the tweet is quote: “what an absolute disinformation shit show, holy crap.”
Jane: Yeah, that checks out.
Jordan: How bad is it out there compared to other things you’ve covered, which have also been bad?
Jane: Look, this has been an absolutely overwhelming year for disinformation overall.
It started out with the Coronavirus and there has been a lot of disinformation surrounding that in the first place. That disinformation didn’t really go away. But what we’re seeing now is a global movement for Black Lives Matter, which also has a huge audience and a huge amount of disinformation on top of it, which is really what prompted the tweet.
These are both giant global events, and it is really tricky to sift through the real information and the false information around them.
Jordan: Is the disinformation about both things coming from the same places? Are they shifting what they post about, or is there a distinct group of people spreading Corona virus disinformation, and another distinct group spreading Black Lives Matter and protest disinformation?
Jane: So, right now we’re in a situation where it’s a little bit of both. And with the Black Lives Matter disinformation, we’re still in early days. We’re trying to figure out how that mis- and disinformation spread. But it’s going to be a little while before we have conclusive research of the sort of social media paths that it took.
But we do know those paths with the Corona virus. Alongside of the sort of grifters who are selling vitamins that we saw, there were people maliciously spreading bad information, and we are seeing some of those people attempt to change the narrative around the Black Lives Matter protests as well.
One striking example was reported by NBC news last week. It showed that people on the far right have attempted to impersonate anti-fascist activists on Twitter. And we also know that people on the far right and white nationalist groups have used the coronavirus as a narrative jumping off point for false information as well.
Jordan: What’s the difference between the two in terms of disinformation, when one revolves around medical knowledge and science and stuff that maybe you can sort of prove online, and the other one is just, ‘well, this is what’s happening here’? And how do you combat that?
Jane: Yeah it has been really tricky, and I think that as far as comparisons between the two different events and the disinformation around them. We need to be a little bit careful. So with the coronavirus, what we saw was a lot of early confusion about what the virus is in the first place. At the beginning, there was some sort of conflicting public health information, and there were people who were selling miracle cures.
None of that really applies to Black Lives Matter protests. With the Black Lives Matter protests, the disinformation that we’ve seen, and the misinformation that we’ve seen, and the distinction there being deliberate or accidental spread of false information, is more photo and video based. So in order to keep police accountable for their actions, we’re seeing a lot of activists film and take photographs of what’s happening during the protests on the ground. And sometimes those photos and videos get taken out of context, whether that’s deliberately or accidentally.
And that’s really the large chunk of what we’re seeing right now and what we’re trying to dig further into.
Jordan: Just so I can get it clear, when you’re talking about seeing this video and stuff on the ground, is this mostly in the U S or are we seeing some of it in Canada as well?
Jane: We do focus primarily on the US and because of the size of the US protests, a lot of the information that we have about the Black Lives Matter protests is coming from the US, but I do want to be really careful here and say that just because the size of Canada’s protests are smaller, just by way of the population comparisons, that doesn’t mean that Canadians are not vulnerable to mis- or disinformation. I have not had a chance to personally dig into Canada based mis- or disinformation, but what we do know about the information environment in Canada is we also have sort of hyper-partisan political outlets that have been loose with information in the past.
And also we know that social media is borderless. So whatever’s happening in the US will impact social media in Canada as well.
Jordan: One of the things I really want to ask you about, because it fascinates and terrifies me in all this, is the fake information that seems designed to drive real life confrontations. I’ve seen a couple of news stories where residents of small towns showed up and lined the street holding their guns because they’d been told via Facebook that buses of anti-fascist anarchists were coming to their town. And so there was a peaceful Black Lives Matter march, and they’re marching past people holding AR-15s, and they were asked about it afterwards and they said ‘we only came out like this because we were told we had to defend our town’.
Jane: So this Antifa or anti-fascist activist narrative has been in development for a very long time. I’ve been covering disinformation since November, 2016. And even then, when we had mass protests, whether it was around the women’s March or any issues that came up in 2018, we saw false claims about antifascist protesters hitting the streets, and aiming to cause violence. As a matter of fact, I remember pretty distinctly, Fox news running a segment on an Antifa revolution is how they put it, which never happened. So it’s really important to understand the context here and the sort of longevity of this narrative.
And we are absolutely seeing that narrative strike fear into people on social media. There was one post, the screenshot of which was going around. This was a post to a Facebook group of somebody who created an account claiming to be affiliated with Antifa, which of course there’s really no way of verifying it, saying we will cause violence and we will cause violence against white people specifically. That goes directly against all the messaging of the protests and the protesters who have really called on peaceful demonstrations and not violent ones. But that doesn’t mean that people are not falling for this false narrative.
One of the most striking things that we’ve seen is a little bit complicated, so bear with me here. But it has to do with piles of bricks that people online thought were being left around so that protesters are encouraged to sort of grab a brick and throw it at property, or other people doing damage.
My colleague, Craig Silverman dug into a lot of those claims and shown that the piles of bricks were left either from construction sites, or had sort of perfectly reasonable explanations of why they were there. The primary narrative around this, on social media, which was false, is that it was police who were leaving bricks for the protestors.
But that narrative got flipped on its head when the white house tweeted and posted to Facebook, a video that they have deleted maybe an hour or two after posting, saying that it was anti-fascist demonstrators leaving bricks for peaceful protesters. There was no evidence for the claims made in that video.
And as a matter of fact, one of the clips that they used was already debunked. But it really shows how the same imagery has sort of been co-opted to fit different types of narratives and really sort of strike fear into people as they try to figure out what’s going on on the ground from posts that are being spread online.
Jordan: I’ve seen screenshots. And I don’t know, again, if these are real or not, of Facebook invites for protests at the same time in the same place. And one of them will be, march for justice for George Floyd, and the other one will be like, march to defend our town from antifascists, and they seem like they’ve been made by the same person. Like they’re designed to lure opposing groups of people out there.
Jane: Black Lives Matter organizers have definitely warned protestors about fake posters that they’re seeing online, and that’s an issue that we saw, especially early on when the protests U S wide we’re just gearing up. It’s really tricky to figure out who might be behind these, or the ultimate goal, until we have a chance to really investigate this.
But it’s pretty safe to say that any protests that are calling for violence are going against the messaging of the movement, which again, calls for it to be a peaceful movement.
Jordan: When there is so much going on, both with Corona virus and these protests. And, you know, as you said, the misinformation and disinformation comes in a flood. How do you choose which are the most important to debunk, which ones you go after and how you kind of focus your energy? Cause there’s only a few of you folks doing this work and there’s millions of posts.
Jane: For us, we look at spread and popularity. So one thing that we worry about a lot is legitimizing posts that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. So we wouldn’t debunk something that has only been shared by 10 people or that doesn’t have a wide audience.
We look both, using our own tools, to figure out the spread of something on social media, but we also take tips from people who came across something on social media and are sort of trying to figure out whether it’s real or false. And those tips are generally pretty helpful because it means even if we’re not seeing something on social media, if a handful of people have independently sent me the same post, that bears more investigation. And that community health, that crowdsourcing, has been incredibly helpful in understanding what we need to address in this moment. What kind of questions people have in this moment.
Jordan: How do you handle, and you touched on this a bit ago, but when some of the disinformation is coming from theoretically trusted sources? You mentioned the white house. We’ve also seen news releases by the police in various U S cities that are immediately contradicted by video evidence, and how much trouble does that cause?
Jane: With our process of debunking disinformation, it’s really important to understand that what we’re looking for is either evidence that confirms what we see, or refutes what we see. And as a matter of fact, with the Black Lives Matter protest, we created three different categories for the information that we find online. One is unverified, which means that we’re not able to find evidence either confirming or denying what the post has claimed. One is misleading, which means that the information in the post or video or image is real, but maybe taken out of context or sort of misrepresented. And one is false, which is when we have exact evidence to unimpeachably say what you’re looking at is not true. And those categories have been really helpful for us because instead of sort of relying on what officials tell us, we try to look for other angles of photos or videos that are taken to sort of figure out what is going on. We try to look for other evidence, or for similar claims of people who were on the ground. So when it comes to authority figures who might be spreading false information, we have that concrete evidence to rely on, to say either they are accurate or inaccurate either way.
Jordan: How has the national media specifically mainstream TV in the United States been, about getting the truth out there, not falling for this stuff as it percolates on social media? Because I know we talk about it all the time, how strapped media organizations are. And are they getting this stuff right regularly?
Jane: So one really tricky thing for news organizations right now, is that even good faith efforts to verify or debunk or report on the protests can be overwhelming. Because the news industry has suffered a lot of losses both this year and in the longterm. We are sometimes seeing reporters uncritically say that what’s posted on social media is true. And that can be really dangerous because we need to be able to verify the social media posts before we report on them. However, I do also want to say that, especially with local media outlets, there has been a real good faith effort to debunk disinformation as well. So it’s not all bad news.
I sort of swell with pride, seeing local news outlets do fact checks on the air, which is not something that we’ve seen four years ago. So as much as we need to be careful with reporting on what’s happening with social media, there also seems to have been some progress being made in people being aware that this is a problem in the first place.
Jordan: In the same vein, and I know the answer probably hasn’t changed much since the last time we talked, but how have the social media platforms themselves been handling this?
Jane: It’s been really tricky. The influx of false information has been really huge. And even though Twitter has begun labeling certain posts as misleading and Facebook has outside fact-checkers that they rely on to get correct information to people, that good information doesn’t always get to the people who already saw the false information. So with social media platforms, there’s definitely still a ways to go. And as my colleague Anne Helen Peterson recently reported, a lot of the problem is presenting itself on local Facebook groups.
It’s also presenting itself on local focused apps, like Next Door. So that is the type of thing where we as debunkers cannot necessarily be in every local group in the world at the same time.
Jordan: I think we get you to do this every time too, but you mentioned the piles of bricks and you mentioned the rumours of Antifa infiltrating neighbourhoods and protests.
Are there any other popular or insidious ones spreading out there that people who haven’t dug into this should be aware of?
Jane: There’s been a lot. Our list, a running list of hoaxes, and debunks, I think is almost at 50 individual debunks that we’ve looked at. So instead of focusing on sort of what is already out there, I would really encourage people to be careful with what they amplify and what they share in the first place.
One really good tip is to keep an eye out on the surroundings in the photo or the video that you’re watching. Do the surroundings match the place where the person says it was filmed or does it look like a different city? Does the weather match the weather of other photos or videos from that protest?
It’s also really important to keep an eye on who the account sharing the original information is. We’re seeing a lot of people spread false information for online clout. So in order to get, either followers or just more eyes on that accounts content, try to find if any sort of local reporters or local activists from the ground tweeted the same thing instead.
And do try to search any extremely viral posts in your preferred social media engine, alongside the words fact-check. People like me, debunkers, fact-checkers, are working really hard to make sure we knock down as much false information as possible. So if there is a fact check for it, that will come up in your search engines.
So I think we’re just at the beginning of this sort of false narrative, that are going to be circulating around the police brutality protests. And it’s really important to be proactive and also to correct if you got something wrong. There’s no shame in accidentally falling for misinformation, especially right now.
Jordan: A last question, and it may be a little off to the side of the actual reporting that you’re doing.
What is the end goal here? Is it just to confuse people? Is it to hopefully turn these protests violent? Do we know anything about that?
Jane: That’s a great question that we don’t really have an answer to. Like I said, there is some evidence that white nationalist groups are seeking to hijack the narrative around the protests.
The protests have also spawned a huge political response. So it might be that politicians are using conspiracy theories, which we’ve seen in the past, to sort of bolster their audience. Sometimes it is to change what people think or how people feel about the protests. Which is why it’s so important to rely on accurate information around them.
It’s, you know, it’s tricky. There’s no one goal. I’ve spoken to early on, a 16 year old boy, who spread a hoax about his uncle being missing from the protests, just as a way of getting social media popularity. So we are definitely seeing both nefarious reasons for spreading false information and less nefarious reasons for spreading false information.
Jordan: Great. So everybody wants to get in on it now, basically. Jane, thank you so much. I hope you get a couple of days off soon.
Jane: Well, I went to an Island with no cell reception this past weekend, and that was a gift.
Jordan: There we go. Alright. Stay safe. And thank you very much.
Jane: Thanks for having me
Jordan: Jane Lytvynenko, senior reporter for BuzzFeed news. That was the Big Story. If you would like more and there is no disinformation on our site, you can find at thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can find us on Twitter @thebigstoryFPN. Today, we will share Jane’s running list of Black Lives Matter hoaxes for your information and preparedness.
Send it to all your friends. You can also of course, find this podcast and all of the Frequency podcasts in your favourite player. If you like them, give them a rating. Give them a review. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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