Two experts tell Dazed why hoaxes spread during crises and explain how to avoid believing and fuelling false information
With every major political event, there comes a shroud of misinformation, hoaxes, and conspiracy theories, all of which thrive in our social media-dominated lives. Although Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook provide platforms for the public to share images unaltered by the mass media lens, they can also be breeding grounds for propaganda and false information.
The current protests against police brutality and systemic racism following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer last week are, sadly, no exception. Demonstrations started in the US last week after 44-year-old Derek Chauvin murdered Floyd, a 46-year-old African American man, by kneeling on his neck for nine minutes, ignoring his cries of “please, I can’t breathe”. Since his killing, Black Lives Matter demonstrations have spread across the world, with solidarity protests in the UK and across Europe, as well as in Australia, Brazil, Syria, and more.
The US is seeing its biggest civil uprising in over 50 years, with many saying it marks the symbolic end of Trump’s presidency. As millions take to the streets, the online rumour mill is churning once again – helped in no part by the US president himself, who is attempting to capitalise on the crisis for his own political gain.
“Discrediting the protesters is very clearly Donald Trump’s strategy,” Stephan Lewandowsky, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Bristol, tells Dazed. “He’s not accepted any kind of responsibility or expressed any understanding, so clearly there is an intent among certain people to (follow his lead and vilify the demonstrators).” Lewandowsky says that to do this, many people will resort to sharing misinformation to weaponize protesters and turn the public against them.
To keep you informed, BuzzFeed News has launched an ongoing list of hoaxes and misleading posts about the protests, from TikTok censorship to old photos masquerading as new ones. Here, Dazed speaks to experts about how to spot hoaxes and misinformation, and what you can do to avoid believing and fuelling them.
Hi. I'm keeping track of any disinformation, hoaxes, or out-of-context photos and videos about the Minneapolis protests.— Jane Lytvynenko 🤦🏽♀️🤦🏽♀️🤦🏽♀️ (@JaneLytv) May 29, 2020
If you see something, send it to me. My DMs are open and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org
CHECK THE SOURCE
“Most examples of fake news can be debunked pretty easily with a simple Google search,” explains Matthew Hornsey, a social psychologist at the University of Queensland Business School. “It would make the world of difference if people just slowed down before they liked or retweeted a post. Quickly passing on what seems to be a well-meaning message can do enormous harm.” One way of confirming the reliability of a photographic post is to do a reverse image search on Google – something that has been used to debunk recent pictures of buildings on fire, which have been falsely attributed to the current BLM protests.
Often, hoaxes can be disproved by simply clicking on the user who posted them. Twitter account @Breaking9II – which has since been suspended – shared a post suggesting that a McDonald’s had been set alight during the protests. For those who clicked through to the account, they would see that it described itself as a parody in its bio. If you do like or retweet a hoax post, the best thing to do is admit your mistake and tell your followers that the news is fake – this will stop it spreading even further.
“It would make a world of difference if people slowed down before they retweeted a post. Quickly passing on what seems to be a well-meaning message can do enormous harm” – Matthew Hornsey, social psychologist
ALWAYS REMAIN SKEPTICAL
Take everything you see on social media with a pinch of salt. For example, a recent video emerged on Twitter which purported to show an FBI agent being arrested at the current protests. As it turns out, the clip was filmed over a year ago, and there is no evidence that the man in it worked for the FBI (although he was being racially profiled by police). “People spread false information and then others pick it up and it circulates faster,” says Lewandowsky, “so the key thing for an individual is to be skeptical and check what you’re retweeting.”
Lewandowsky believes the key to ensuring the public remains skeptical is by encouraging them to be aware of the dangers of misinformation ahead of a crisis – this is known as ‘prebunking’. “You have to get ahead of the game,” Lewandowsky tells Dazed. “(For example with coronavirus), if you tell people ahead of time, ‘during a pandemic there is likely to be conspiracy theories, so look out for what’s going on – here are the signs’, there’s evidence to suggest that it makes them more resistant to being misinformed.” While a pandemic – which is caused by something largely out of human control – is very different to mass protests inextricably tied to political leadership, the idea of educating people about the possibility of misinformation is still sound. This can even happen on social media, and can be shared between friends, as opposed to having to come from experts.
BE AWARE OF MOTIVATIONS
In some cases, misinformation isn’t spread deliberately. “When people circulate these tweets (about the protests), I think it’s well-intentioned,” says Hornsey. “People want to alert their friends to the ‘secret knowledge’ they have.”
Unintentional spreading of false info can also be attributed to confusion, says Lewandowsky. “People don’t really know what’s going on,” he explains, “stuff goes wrong, things go viral, then you have this global game of Chinese whispers, and all of a sudden the message gets distorted. I think in a fast-moving crisis situation, we shouldn’t underestimate the capabilities of people to just get it wrong, rather than being malicious.”
However, although multiple people resharing a fake post might be accidental, Lewandowsky asserts: “Somebody had to start the chain, and that person must have known that what they were doing was wrong. You can’t condone that under any circumstances, and more often than not, you can assume there is a political motive behind it.”
Since the person deleted their own tweet after I called them out, I'll tweet about it again.— Matt Harris (@MatthewHarrisUK) June 1, 2020
This image is NOT from last night, it's a still from the TV Show Designated Survivor. Please don't spread misinformation. Things regarding DC are fucked enough as is. #DCBlackoutpic.twitter.com/B327j0LIKw
“A hoax rarely originates with good intentions,” Hornsey tells Dazed. “They originate from someone with an agenda, which is usually either selfish – to get attention – or malicious – to spread racist lies. Experts have warned that extremist groups are using disinformation during the protests to further inflame tensions and spark an overwhelming sense of confusion.
Researcher Ahmer Arif told Business Insider: “There are definitely a number of information operations at play here, constructing fake personas and parties that are presenting themselves as activists that may well be state-sponsored agencies.” Social media users should be aware of bots taking over hashtags and co-opting them for their own political gain – which likely aligns with the state, as opposed to those defending civil rights.
“For people who have vested interests in inflaming mistrust and hate, social media is their frontline, and they see you as their foot soldiers,” asserts Hornsey. “Misinformation is being used to undermine governments, promote racism, recruit radical extremists, and commit crime. If you don’t support these agendas, then don’t pass on information that you haven’t fact-checked.”
RELY ON REPUTABLE NEWS SOURCES
This may seem simple, but it’s the only reliable way to completely debunk misinformation. In many cases – especially when it comes to global protests – journalists will have seen the same fake news as the public, and will have properly researched to find out the truth, publishing the results online for you to quickly fact-check. It’s also worth sticking to well-known news sites like the BBC or The Guardian, who often have live reports when a major political event is occurring.
If you’re determined to get your news from Twitter, stick to reputable news accounts, or follow verified reporters. “If an account has a blue tick and says it’s a reporter, then you can have a fair degree of confidence that (what they’re tweeting) will be correct,” says Lewandowsky.
It’s worth keeping in mind, however, that certain news sources may demonise protesters, showing footage of police officers kneeling in solidarity, but witholding videos of them using unjust violence against demonstrators.
this isnt just propaganda, this is a long term strategy to rewrite this event as violent on the protesters side--showing only THIS SIDE in images while finding a way to distract from what the cops r doing. This is a scheme, and they know what theyre doing https://t.co/XWAXJMgkxR— Rin🦇🕸GET A VPN|| BLM (@rinsux) June 2, 2020