Misinformation Muddies Social Media Amid Protests, Riots

Why do people create misinformation on social media?

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Fake stories about recent protests and riots have kept fact-checkers and reporters busy, NPR reported. Reports of blackouts in Washington, D.C., disastrous images captured from TV shows, and other false reports have flooded social media in the last two weeks. Why do people create misinformation?

Woman using her smartphone
Fact-checking what you read on social media before repeating it as truth is paramount to not spreading misinformation. Photo by THE YOOTH / Shutterstock

Americans have vastly differing opinions about the protests and riots that have erupted around the nation—and even the globe—in the two weeks since George Floyd was killed in police custody in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, misinformation makes it difficult to make informed opinions on any subject, and this is no exception.

As NPR reported, misinformation is plentiful right now. One campaign revolves around a totalitarian shutdown of Washington, D.C. “There were claims spread under the #dcblackout hashtag that cellphones and other communication devices were blocked as part of a strategy to allow violent police reprisals to go unreported,” the article said. “Experts said that the #dcblackout hashtag seemed to be the work of a well-funded and organized internet campaign, and a successful one at that.”

Stopping fake info begins with understanding its purposes and goals.

Tunisia, 1987: A Misinformation Coup

Sometimes, stopping the spread of misinformation is as simple as putting on your skeptic’s hat and double-checking what you hear and read—and it’s hardly limited to social media.

“Misinformation is nothing new; governments have been making use of it since long before the advent of the digital age,” said Mehri Druckman, media literacy and training development expert. “In 1987, the Tunisian people awoke to a new Tunisian president—Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who delivered a speech on what he called a ‘Blessed Transformation.’ In his speech, he announced that his deposed predecessor, Habib Bourguiba, was unable to run the country due to mental instability.”

Since Tunisia’s media was state-run, it echoed Ben Ali’s claims about Bourguiba without fact-checking them, much less presenting opposing viewpoints. Due in part to this, Ben Ali established a dictatorship that lasted for 23 years.

The Manifesto of Misinformation

“It is important to understand that much of today’s misinformation isn’t necessarily about converting people to a new set of beliefs,” Druckman said. “Rather, it is about power—controlling the narrative. It is about reframing how people think about the world so as to limit how they can interpret their realities.”

Druckman said that in the United States, false information created both domestically and overseas polarizes people, reaffirming their beliefs and making them much more extreme. This leads to tension and infighting among the public, which detract from the facts and realities of a current event. Purveyors of misinformation in the United States, she said, can also parallel those of Russia.

“Like Russia, they promote messages with little basis in reality, implying that facts do not exist and nothing can be trusted. For example, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who runs the website Info Wars, sows doubt about actual events by subjecting them to a distorted form of media literacy techniques. As if stepping through a looking glass, he scrutinizes factual video and photographs for alleged proof of tampering, attempting cynically to prove that the truth is not true.”

Knowing why bad actors spread half-truths and inaccurate info can remind us to take a moment and verify what we hear or read before we repeat it. In turn, this can help stem the spread of misinformation.

Mehri Druckman contributed to this article. Ms. Druckman is a media literacy and training development expert. In 2015, she designed and managed IREX’s innovative Learn to Discern project, a citizen media literacy initiative that has since been featured in The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Christian Science Monitor, and the Columbia Journalism Review.