Black Lives Matter fights disinformation to keep movement strong: NPR
Kerem Yucel / AFP via Getty Images
On May 25, 2020, George Floyd died below the knee of Minneapolis cop Derek Chauvin and protests erupted around the world. Support for Black Lives Matter – the movement that actually started as a hashtag in 2013 – has grown. To this day, social media posts continue to call for racial justice and an end to police brutality.
But also online are publications riddled with disinformation, including those specifically targeting BLM. Activists say these derogatory messages are part of a global effort to undermine the movement and its message.
One article, for example, falsely claims that the government identified it as a terrorist group. Another who circulated widely claimed that BLM activists severely beat a group of elderly white people. This post was debunked by fact checkers who discovered the photos were of South Africans and had been online for years. It was deleted, but Jorden Giger, an organizer of Black Lives Matter in South Bend, India, says there is still a lot of misinformation online designed to create confusion and mistrust.
“Like the reports going around that BLM is going to vandalize businesses in downtown areas, that we’re targeting specific white communities, you know, that sort of thing,” he says. “It makes our supporters say, ‘OK, I don’t want to get involved in this.’ So when that kind of lies and the disinformation just isn’t controlled, you know, people will believe it, if you don’t take the lead or respond appropriately. “
Giger says that’s why BLM launched a effort to stop disinformation and urges people to submit details of suspicious articles or stories to the Black Lives Matter website.
WinBlack / Pa’lante, a non-partisan group created after the 2016 presidential election, monitors misinformation targeting people of color. Hundreds of organizers across the country formed a digital war room in last year’s election. They’ve tracked bots that automatically send out scripted disinformation, often from Russia or other foreign governments trying to sow discord in the U.S. They tracked so-called blackface digital accounts that steal images to impersonate black people and spread disinformation. Ashley Bryant, one of the co-directors of WinBlack / Pa’lante, says they also found conspiracy theories on Black Lives Matter.
“It went from George Floyd not being dead to, you know, George Soros funding the protests and attacks on BLM where there are foreign actors, there are fake accounts claiming to be Antifa – all for actually just building this violent narrative around BLM, ”she says.
Deen Freelon, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina who studies digital politics, points to specific cases of misinformation about Black Lives Matter protesters engaging in violence.
“There was a false story about allied Black Lives Matter protesters setting fires in Oregon. So they connected to the wildfires there,” he says. “Also claims that Black Lives Matter is run by white people and that there has been some misinformation out of the Spanish language.”
Freelon says Twitter has been careful to remove state-sponsored disinformation from foreign actors. Facebook says it has also taken several steps, including working with non-partisan and independent fact-checkers to eliminate the spread of false stories.
Information found to be false may be removed for violation of social media standards. This is not the case with online posts which are technically considered an opinion – it’s harder to fight.
“Examples there include things like the notion that BLM is anti-white, which, of course, is an opinion, that it’s a hate group,” Freelon says. “That it’s sort of anti-family, that it’s morally equivalent to extreme right-wing groups, and then there are things that kind of blur the line between fact and opinion.”
Critics of Black Lives Matters, like Mike Gonzalez, a member of conservative think tank The Heritage Foundation, say it’s the movement’s supporters who are being duped.
“I think Black Lives Matter is one of the biggest sources of disinformation,” says Gonzalez, who is the author of an upcoming book on organization and Marxism.
“They have good Americans, good Americans, well-meaning Americans who don’t want to see racial injustice, and rightly so, they put signs on their lawns about Black Lives Matter,” he says. “They (BLM) have manipulated the good nature of many people who think that what they are doing, in my opinion, is trying to promote a philosophy that will not be good for this country, will destroy this country and destroy our way of life. “
And then right-wing pundits like Rudy Giuliani, Candace Owens, and Carol Swain amplify often baseless anti-BLM messages to a wider audience. On a Fox News talk show last July, Giuliani said, “Black Lives Matter wants to come and take your house away from you. They want to take away your property.”
Valerie Macon / AFP via Getty Images
On a YouTube show the next day, Swain said, “They (BLM) are using black people to advance a Marxist agenda.”
During her video post on Twitter, Candace Owens described the BLM protesters as “crazy far-left Antifa thugs who know exactly what they’re doing.”
Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the three co-founders of Black Lives Matter, answers some of these issues on their YouTube channel.
“I have to set the record straight. Am I a Marxist?” she asks. Khan-Cullors explains that she believes in Marxism but scoffs at comments online that say she is pushing a Communist agenda.
“I try to make sure people don’t suffer,” she says. “I work so that people don’t go hungry and these comments I’ve received have been incredibly hurtful. It means that some people don’t take BLM’s work seriously.”
Tomiko Brown-Nagin, dean of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, says some of the misinformation surrounding Black Lives Matter may have come from the old-fashioned anti-civil rights playbook from the 1960s. The FBI led by J. Edgar Hoover and segregationists have repeatedly used disinformation in an attempt to smear this movement.
“So opponents called activists non-violent or violent when they were overwhelmingly non-violent,” Brown-Nagin said said. “Martin Luther King Jr. and members of his inner circle have also been said to be Communists or Communist sympathizers.”
Much like the civil rights movement of recent years, Black Lives Matter has seen its support rise and fall after months of protests and the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin. While polls show a large majority of African Americans continue to support the movement, overall support has fallen from record levels seen after Floyd’s death. It’s hard to measure how much of this loss is due to misinformation, but what is certain is that the battle to control what people think of Black Lives Matter and its influence continues.