Online misinformation over George Floyd protests in Minneapolis stoke racial tensions

Police take control of the area near the Super Target against protesters Thursday, May 28, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn.
The Canadian Press

The false social media posts started just hours after protesters first began chanting and carrying banners around the Minneapolis neighbourhood where George Floyd, an African American man, died handcuffed in police custody.

“The cop who killed George Floyd,” Facebook and Twitter users claimed, wrongly identifying a man pictured laughing alongside President Donald Trump at a rally as former Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin.

More fake videos and photos followed as the demonstrations turned violent the next day. Some speculated, without evidence, that Floyd’s death was staged or that protesters had been paid to stir up trouble, in tweets collectively shared thousands of times. Others said a video showed a protester driving a car through a shopping complex in Minneapolis, when in fact the footage was taken during an incident at an Illinois mall last year.

Since a video of an officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck first surfaced, internet troublemakers and even celebrities have posted misleading or unsubstantiated claims around his death and the ensuing protests. The social media inaccuracies have created confusion around the unfolding news, tearing at the already loosely woven seams of America’s racial tapestry.

“A good deal of this, if not all of this, is intentionally trying to stoke the racial flame that has been ablaze in the United States almost since slavery started 400-plus years ago,” said Lanier Holt, a communications professor at Ohio State University who studied in Minneapolis.

While the falsehoods may have been unwittingly amplified by some, they have likely been planted by those preying on existing racial tensions, Holt said.

“They put out that false information to get that narrative in the minds of people who already have these … pre-existing biases,” he said.

The online misinformation so far appears to have fallen along those racial divides.

The day after Floyd died, Twitter and Facebook users shared a photo of a man wearing a “Make America White Again” red cap, claiming it was Chauvin, who was charged Friday with third-degree murder and manslaughter in Floyd’s death.

A version of the image was actually first posted online by a pro-Trump internet trickster who has previously duped media outlets into writing fictitious stories. Jonathan Riches confirmed to The Associated Press through messages that he was the man in the photo.

Twitter later labelled rapper and actor Ice Cube’s tweet with the photo as “manipulated media.”

After protests on Thursday night, the St. Paul Police Department denied rumours trending online that one of its police officers was responsible for breaking windows of an AutoZone store in neighbouring Minneapolis.

“We know with precision where that officer has been and who that officer has been with,” St. Paul Police spokesman Steve Linders said. “He was at work, and not at the location.”

Meanwhile, others have posted old or out-of-context photos online and falsely suggested it showed the damage caused by Minnesota protesters.

Hundreds of thousands viewed a short video clip circulating online that purported to show a car driving through the Mall of America, the massive shopping complex that sits in a Minneapolis suburb.

“RIP to Mall of America,” one Twitter user wrote.

Fact checkers debunked the video, but as of Friday afternoon, people on Facebook and Twitter continued to say that the mall had been looted by protesters.

Facebook declined to comment Friday on misinformation on their platform around Floyd’s death or the protests.

Divisive misinformation around Floyd’s death and the resulting protests thrives online because social media users choose who they do – or don’t – follow and are less likely to be exposed to differing viewpoints outside of their circle of pages, family and friends.

“We thought social media was going to be this great equalizer,” Holt said. “People find networks of people who are just like them. If they don’t actually have literal black friends, this reinforces all the stereotypes that were fed to them.”