As protests against police brutality and systemic racism, sparked by the death of unarmed black man George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, grip the nation, so too does misinformation. On social media, rumors and conspiracy theories are flourishing on every band of the political spectrum. Videos of both peaceful and brutal arrests have been held up as evidence of police officers’ reasonable and unreasonable behavior during demonstrations, only then to be proven to be months or years old. Some have claimed that Russian operatives or white supremacists were involved in either killing Floyd or in fomenting violent demonstrations. Others, especially those in far-right fringe groups, have claimed that their longtime Jewish boogeyman, George Soros, is the one to blame. Still others hold that Floyd isn’t even dead.
None of the misinformation reflects what is happening on the streets. Reality is far more complicated and diverse than a single inflammatory tweet can capture, and the demonstrations seem to come from a groundswell of genuine rage and heartbreak rather than an orchestration on anyone’s part. People who study such movements say the country hasn’t seen anything like the last week’s events since the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and conspiracy theories about who might be behind the movement only distract from demonstrators’ calls for reform.
That said, misinformation can’t be ignored either. On Sunday, President Trump officially endorsed the widespread claim that antifascist activists are behind violence at the uprisings, for which there is no real evidence, by threatening to designate them a terrorist organization. NYPD commissioner Dermot Shea amplified a dubious claim that demonstrators are hiding caches of bricks near places they intend to loot. (Some theorists blame antifa for the bricks, and others, a police or government attempt to discredit demonstrators.) Conspiracy theories aren’t just for 4chan anymore—they’ve seeped into everyday discourse, inextricable from the news itself.
Misinformation loves misery. The quality of information people circulate tends to suffer during and after any crisis. “Theories and rumors are ways to make sense of things that can be overwhelming and difficult to understand,” says Brian Houston, who researches disaster-related mental health and communication at the University of Missouri. “The fundamental mechanisms that are going on are the same whether it’s a protest or a hurricane.” The idea that so many Americans are fed up with how people are being treated by law enforcement is tough for some to process, so they turn to shadowy alternative explanations. Still, Houston thinks the conversations around the ongoing protests are particularly saturated with rumor and misinformation. “Hurricanes and pandemics are still political, but this is a supercharged moment for group identity and social identity,” he says. “Our political values are activated so quickly.” That’s why many of the theories being bandied about are so familiar: They’re the conspiracy theory equivalent of stump speeches.
In left-leaning misinformation circles, the overwhelming information to avoid is the violence and destruction of property that has accompanied protests. “I think the hard truth is that among the pain, anger, and protest, there are some who are taking their justified rage to dangerous places, and there are some who are taking advantage of that pain for their own ends,” says Adam Klein, who studies propaganda and extremism at Pace University. “It is easy, and perhaps politically expedient, for some to find a boogeyman in all this to blame it on.” The most common scapegoats have been Russian operatives and especially neo-Nazis and alt-righters. There is little evidence for either theory. “Are [white supremacists] coming and watching? Sure,” says Spencer Sunshine, a longtime researcher of the far-right. “But for practical purposes, they’re irrelevant actors. Nobody is organizing this shit.”
The same holds true for the preferred targets of right-wing conspiracy theorizing: antifa, and, in the outermost fringes, antifa supported by a puppeteering Jewish global elite. It’s just another way to make the anger seem foreign and constructed. “For over 1,000 years, we have had this narrative of blame that relies on pointing to an outside group,” says Stanislav Vysotsky, who studies far-right and far-left movements at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “The outsider changes but the narrative is always the same.” And really, the outsider in conspiracy theories about shadowy puppet masters barely changes: In the Middle Ages it was the Jews; in the 1920s it was anarchists, and also the Jews; in the 1950s it was the communists, and also the Jews. In this environment, the idea of militant antifascists—who do not seem to be driving protest or violence in any significant numbers—is extremely easy to substitute into the time-honored formula.
For some, conspiracy theorizing is a sort of mental self-preservation, for others it’s a concerted strategy to win the former category over to their way of thinking. In either case, people are especially vulnerable to such persuasions right now. “Two weeks ago we were talking about rumors related to Covid-19. The environment and systems of misinformation were fully activated,” Houston says. “Then we go right into this crisis. People were primed for misinformation and ready to accept spectacular explanations, and it’s cascading.” Which means it’s especially important to keep sights on what is definitely true, no matter how uncomfortable it is: Another unarmed black man was killed by the police, and America is in the streets demanding justice.
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