North America

As George Floyd protests continue in the US, so does the spread of online misinformation

Demonstrators set a fire during a protest near the White House in Washington DC. Source: Getty Images North America

Misinformation about the death of George Floyd and the protests that have erupted since has been spreading online.

Digital misinformation about the death in custody of George Floyd and the ensuing week-long protests against police brutality is now running rampant in the US.

Conspiracy theorists on social media have claimed George Floyd is not actually dead, while others are insisting billionaire investor George Soros is somehow funding protesters.

On Monday, Twitter also revealed an account claiming to belong to an Antifa group that had been spruiking violent rhetoric during the protests was actually linked to a white nationalist group based on Europe's far-right Identitarian movement, Identity Evropa.

The account, which has since been suspended for inciting violence, fired off tweets such as: "Tonight's the night, Comrades" and "Tonight we say 'f--- the city' and we move into the residential areas... the white hoods... and we take what's ours". 

Antifa, short for anti-fascist, is an umbrella term used to define various far-left groups who stand together in opposition to proponents of the far-right. The movement does not have a leader or governing body, a formal membership process, or a unified ideology.

The Identity Evropa tweets followed unsubstantiated claims by US President Donald Trump that the Antifa movement was behind the looting and property damage that has accompanied the peaceful protests of the past week.

Meanwhile, Twitter has said it is also "actively investigating" the #dcblackout hashtag after online accounts pushed false and misleading tweets during a night of unrest in Washington DC.

Twitter said it has "suspended hundreds of spammy accounts" under its platform manipulation policy.

A spokesman for the company also said: "We're taking action proactively on any coordinated attempts to disrupt the public conversation around this issue".

Many of the accounts tweeted about a supposed communication blackout that occurred between 1:00 and 6:00 am local time, however, Alaina Gertz, spokeswoman for the Metropolitan Police Department said there had been "no confirmation of a cellphone blackout", labelling the claims "misinformation". 

Demonstrators kneel in Los Angeles during a protest over the death of George Floyd.
Demonstrators kneel in Los Angeles during a protest over the death of George Floyd.
AP

Other misleading tweets depicted an image of a major fire next to the Washington Monument, but a reverse image search revealed that the picture was a scene from the American television program "Designated Survivor", which was set in Washington.

Alex Engler, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who specialises in artificial intelligence and policy, said he calculated upwards of 30,000 retweets of false or misleading content shared under the #dcblackout hashtag. 

The tweets were subsequently shared as screenshots on Facebook and Instagram.

Officers pepper spray a protester while pushing him back during a demonstration in Washington DC over the death of George Floyd.
Officers pepper spray a protester while pushing him back during a demonstration in Washington DC over the death of George Floyd.

Amid the backdrop of nationwide protests of Mr Floyd's death, Mr Engler said people wanting to spread misinformation know how to make emotionally charged content that aligns well with preexisting outrage so it is ripe for sharing.  

He said he observed inauthentic accounts retweeting content with the hashtag #dcblackout, but they had low follower counts. 

"The bots are not actually there to spread the disinformation," he explained. "They're used to make the material seem true and seem trustworthy. Then you have actual people with actual networks disseminating this."

Additional reporting by Claudia Farhart, AFP.

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