Black Lives matter protesters, far-right demonstrators gather in London
Experts warn that if misinformation in these groups is not detected in a timely manner, they will grow.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS – A scattered network of Facebook groups that emerged in the US in April to protest the coronavirus quarantine has become a center for disinformation and conspiracy, finding new targets for attacks. The latter include the Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide protests against racial injustice..
These groups, with a total audience of more than a million people, continue to be active after most states eased coronavirus restrictions..
Many have expanded their topics.
One group transformed from Open California to California Patriots for Law & Order. The group’s latest posts mock the Black Lives Matter movement and change its slogan to White Lives Matter. Group members use foul language against blacks, calling them “animals,” “racists,” and “bandits,” in direct violation of Facebook’s hate speech standards..
Other groups have become platforms for promoting conspiracy theories about the protests, hinting that demonstrators are being paid to participate and that even the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African American who died in police custody, was faked..
The Associated Press analyzed recent posts in 40 of these Facebook groups, most of which were organized by conservative organizations or gun rights activists. In June, attacks on nationwide protests over the killing of black men and women following Floyd’s death were found to be the main topics of discussion..
Some groups post hundreds of messages a day, which are often only available to members of those groups..
“If Facebook does not actively seek disinformation in these spaces, they will go unnoticed for a long time and will grow,” said Joan Donovan, director of research at the Shorenstein Center for Media and Public Policy at Harvard University..
“Over time, people will pull other people in there, and they will continue to organize,” she added..
Facebook said it knows about these groups and uses technology, and relies on users to identify problematic posts. Previously, the company promised to search for materials that violate its rules – both in closed and public sites on its website. But the social network hasn’t always been able to deliver on that promise..
Soon after the emergence of these groups, they were filled with misinformation about the coronavirus and conspiracy theories, including claims that masks were “useless” and that the US government intends to forcibly vaccinate people or that COVID-19 is a fiction invented to diminish the chances of President Donald. Trump for re-election this fall.
Posts in these closed groups are unlikely to be verified by Facebook or independent fact checkers, Donavan said. Facebook is engaging media from all over the world, including the Associated Press, to fact-check its site. However, members of these closed groups have created their own closed world and tend to agree with what is stated in the publications, so it is unlikely that they will complain about them on Facebook or send them to fact checkers for verification, added Donovan..
At least one group, ReOpen PA (“Open Pennsylvania”), has asked 105,000 of its members to adhere to the theme of reopening businesses and schools in Pennsylvania, and has also introduced rules against publication of racial justice protests and conspiracy theories about the effectiveness of masks..
But most other groups don’t moderate their pages as carefully..
For example, some groups in New Jersey, Texas, and Ohio call systemic racism a fiction. A California group member posted a flyer that said, “White men, women, and children! You are the enemies ”, which was falsely attributed to the“ Black Lives Matter ”movement, and its falsity has been repeatedly refuted.
Another group falsely claimed that a black man brandished a weapon outside a St. Louis home where a white couple confronted demonstrators with firearms. Dozens of members of several groups have promoted the non-factual theory that liberal billionaire George Soros was paying people to take part in racial justice protests..
Members of two groups, Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine and Ohioans Against Excessive Quarantine, also regularly refer to demonstrators as “animals,” “bandits,” or “paid for” marauders..
One member of the Ohio People group wrote on May 31: “The focus is shifting from the voice of free people protesting against tyranny to lawless bandits from a well-known racist group that is the source of violence and unrest.”.
The two pages are part of a network of groups in Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania created by conservative activist Ben Dorr, who has raised money for years for lobbying on acute conservative issues, including abortion and gun rights. Their recent calls for governors to open their states have attracted hundreds of thousands of supporters in closed Facebook groups they have organized..
Closed groups, which grow to enormous size without much control, are like “eerie basements” where extremist views and disinformation can lurk, said disinformation researcher Nina Jankovic, a research fellow at the nonpartisan Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington..
“In a way, this is the way the platforms keep some of the worst actors,” she said. “Instead of removing them from the platform, they are given the opportunity to organize.”.