As Twitter blocks white supremacists posing as anti-fascists, FBI appeal is flooded with images of cop violence

The confusion of physical and online protests merge


Comment Anyone who has ever been involved in a demo will know its key defining characteristic is confusion. With protests across America over the death of George Floyd, systemic racism, and police brutality moving into another day, the internet has become as much a battleground as the streets.

An example of the confusion comes in the form of a Twitter account – @ANTIFA_US – that purported to be part of the anti-fascist movement “antifa.” The account actively incited violence, and worked to stir up fear, at one point encouraging people to march beyond city centers and “move into the residential areas... the white hoods....”

In this case, it was determined that the account was not run – as it clearly and repeatedly implied – by anti-fascists, but apparently by the very people that that group targets: a white-nationalist group, Identity Evropa.

Twitter suspended the account, not over the content but its rules over manipulation. The account had tried to boost its profile online by setting up a constellation of fake accounts that retweeted and amplified its violent messages. Twitter’s system caught the manipulation – this time.

In its efforts to cut down on misinformation, Twitter was also tracking and killing hashtags. Perhaps the best example this week was #DCblackout, a tag specifically and purposefully designed to spread anger and confusion. And the campaign proved successful: it hit the top trending hashtags and so guaranteed itself a much larger audience.

Snowballing

Again, thanks to Twitter’s, and social networks', decision to actively push and promote messages on its own platform to drive constant use, the ability to snowball a message, account, or trend is abused by those seeking to push misinformation.

The #DCblackout hashtag was a coordinated effort to add fear and confusion into an already highly charged situation by claiming that protests in Washington DC were being actively silenced by the government through some kind of internet blackout.

The campaign also allegedly used hacked legitimate accounts to push past Twitter’s monitoring systems. That was a riskier proposition – because people tend to notice when their own account suddenly starts tweeting messages they didn’t write – but shows the level of strategic thinking and effort put into the misinformation effort.

There are some unpleasant issues surrounding this apparent success: first, the hashtag still made it into global trends; second, it continues to be extremely easy to create huge number of fake accounts in order to amplify carefully designed messages; and third, Twitter would not have caught it if the message had been picked up by more legitimate accounts earlier.

Police violence

In the meantime, an effort by the FBI to track down people fomenting violence in the physical world has shown the extraordinary flipside of the internet: the ability to capture and amplify things that would otherwise have been unnoticed.

“The FBI is seeking information and digital media depicting individuals inciting violence during First Amendment protected peaceful demonstrations,” the federal law enforcement organization posted online and on Twitter.

It was, undoubtedly, looking for citizens to send pictures or videos of violent infiltrators but instead the Twitter thread has been inundated by examples of police violence and abuse – people attacked for no reason; extreme use of unnecessary force; and other egregious examples of abuse of power.

It says something about the state and culture around American policing that no one expects the FBI to investigate clear abuses by the cops but much like the video of George Floyd that sparked the protests in the first place, it has exposed some ugly truths that would previously have been glossed over.

The problem comes in identifying which ugly truths are real, and which are manipulations. And the answer isn’t actually very difficult: Twitter and social media need to change how their platforms work to make it harder to create fake accounts and to favor those accounts that are legitimate, even if the content those accounts produce is less exciting and gets fewer hits. ®


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