Conspiracy theories run rampant online amid Floyd protests

Misinformation about the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests is spreading rapidly online, adding to the chaos as nationwide demonstrations enter their second week.

The conspiracy theories range from claims that Floyd’s arrest was staged to others saying he is still alive, despite video evidence that the 46-year-old unarmed black man died in police custody after a white police officer in Minneapolis knelt on his neck for about eight minutes.

Other unfounded claims say Floyd’s death was part of an international conspiracy to destabilize the U.S., while some allege that former officer Derek Chauvin, who was charged with third-degree murder, is an actor.

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Twitter has been fertile ground for many of the unfounded claims. A search for the phrase “George Floyd is not dead” brings up dozens of results on the platform.

One account tweeted over the weekend that “George Floyd’s execution is part of a Russian military intelligence operation.” The post has more than 4,400 likes and 1,800 retweets without comment.

Another tweet, which claimed that Chauvin was pictured wearing a “Make Whites Great Again” hat, was retweeted more than 19,000 times despite Twitter warning that the image contained manipulated media.

But much of the misinformation has focused on the subsequent protests and who is organizing them.

“Whenever there is confusion or something people don’t know, there is an opportunity for misinformation to come in,” said Diara Townes, an investigative researcher at First Draft, an organization dedicated to fighting online misinformation. “A lack of reliable information creates a vacuum for bad actors to exploit with mis- and disinformation.”

One entity that has been painted as orchestrating the protests — or at least the more violent parts of them — is antifa, a term referring to radical activists who say they use direct action to fight against fascism.

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Proponents of the theory have pointed to social media accounts purporting to speak for antifa and encouraging violence, but those allegations have not been substantiated. Twitter took down an account with the handle @antifa_us this week that was tied to white nationalist group Identity Evropa after it posted a tweet inciting violence.

For years “right wing provocateurs have been impersonating antifa, using inflaming rhetoric and doing their best to create a boogeyman on the left,” said Joan Donovan, research director at the Harvard Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Baseless theories about antifa have also circulated widely on messaging platforms like Telegram and neighborhood sites like Nextdoor, according to Townes.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpIvanka Trump pitches Goya Foods products on Twitter Sessions defends recusal: 'I leave elected office with my integrity intact' Former White House physician Ronny Jackson wins Texas runoff MORE is among those who have blamed antifa for the protests, tweeting this week that he would label them a terrorist organization.

Evidence to back up the allegations has been minimal, even though there have been cases of fringe actors appearing at demonstrations.

“There's certainly some anecdotal evidence that there are some left wing extremists ... and right wing extremists who were participating in a protest around the edges and causing some of the problems. But of course that's not to say that these protests are not real and spontaneous,” said Paul Barrett, deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

Seeking to delegitimize protests by saying they’re organized or supported by outside forces is not a new phenomenon. Similar claims were made during protests over the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore in 2015 and a year earlier in Ferguson, Mo., after Michael Brown was shot by Officer Darren Willson.

Another common culprit for conspiracy theorists has been Democratic donor George Soros. And this wave of protests is no different.

“I think, unsurprisingly, the broad notion that the protests are in some way, a product of some type of conspiracy, that they're staged in some sense, and that George Soros might be behind them is once again prevalent in social media,” Barrett said.

He said the theory’s proponents aren’t just on the fringe either, and pointed to a recent post by Texas Agriculture Commissioner Sid Miller (R).

“I have no doubt in my mind that George Soros is funding these so-called ‘spontaneous’ protests,” Miller wrote in a Facebook post that has been shared more than 18,000 times. “Soros is pure evil and is hell-bent on destroying our country!”

The Open Society Foundation, Soros’s philanthropic network, said in a statement to The Hill that “such assertions are false, offensive, and do a disservice to the very bedrock of our democracy, as enshrined in the First Amendment.”

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There have also been more local cases of disinformation spread during the Floyd protests.

In Washington, D.C., the hashtag #dcblackout — a false allegation that the internet had gone down near the Capitol, blocking people from sharing photos from the protest — was started by an account with three followers and refuted by public officials and journalists alike. Twitter ultimately intervened and took accounts down, citing coordinated attempts to disrupt public conversation.

In Atlanta, a video was shared claiming some National Guardsmen deployed in response to protests were children.

But while misinformation can be harmful, Donovan is among those who argue that critics shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Donovan argued that even though bad actors will often use social media to spread disinformation, the medium is also a useful tool for uncovering and sharing the truth.

“What makes social media so powerful is that everyday people can upload footage that contradicts those in power. What gets difficult, though, is when foreign agents, trolls, provocateurs or domestic agents get involved in spreading counter narratives that are meant to deflect blame, or to muddy the water and confuse the public,” she said.

“Ultimately, people should try to vet the information that they're taking in. They should understand that protests are not monolithic and that each and every city is going to have a different strategy and a different way of going about it,” she added.