CHICAGO – A loose network of Facebook groups that took root across the country in April to organize protests over orders to stay home from the coronavirus has become a center of misinformation and conspiracy theories that have become a variety of new goals. His latest: Black Lives Matter and the national protests of racial injustice.
These groups, which now have a collective audience of more than 1 million members, continue to thrive after most states began to lift virus restrictions.
And many have broadened their focus.
One group transformed from “Reopen California” to “California Patriots Pro Law & Order” last month, with recent posts mocking Black Lives Matter or changing the slogan to “White Lives Matter.” Members have used profane insults to refer to blacks and protesters, calling them “animals,” “racists” and “thugs,” a direct violation of Facebook’s hate speech standards.
Others have become gathering places to promote conspiracy theories about the protests, suggesting that protesters were paid to go to the protests and that the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in the custody of even was arranged. the Minneapolis police.
An Associated Press review of the most recent posts in 40 of these Facebook groups, most of which were launched by conservative groups or pro-arms activists, found that the talks largely moved last month to attack the protests. nationals for the murder of black men and women. after Floyd’s death.
Facebook users in some of these groups post hundreds of times a day in threads often viewed only by members and protected from public view.
“Unless Facebook is actively seeking disinformation in those spaces, they will go unnoticed for a long time and grow,” said Joan Donovan, director of research at the Shorenstein Center for Media, Policy and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Harvard Kennedy. “Over time, people will drag other people towards them and they will continue to organize.”
Facebook said it is aware of the reopening group collection, and is using technology and trusting users to identify problematic posts. The company has promised in the past to search for material that violates its rules in private groups as well as in public places on its site. But the platform has not always been able to deliver on that promise.
Shortly after the groups were formed, they were plagued with misinformation about coronaviruses and conspiracy theories, including claims that the masks are “useless,” the US government intends to forcibly vaccinate people. and that COVID-19 is a hoax intended to harm President Donald Trump’s reinstatement this fall.
Posts in these private groups are less likely to be scrutinized by Facebook or its independent fact checkers, Donovan said. Facebook recruits media outlets around the world, including The Associated Press, to verify claims on its site. Members of these private groups have created an echo chamber and tend to agree with the posts, making them less likely to bookmark them for Facebook or fact-checkers to review, Donovan added.
At least one Facebook group, ReOpen PA, asked its 105,000 members to keep the conversation focused on reopening businesses and schools in Pennsylvania, and implemented rules to ban posts about racial justice protests, as well as conspiracy theories about the effectiveness of the masks.
But most of the others have not moderated their pages that closely.
For example, some groups in New Jersey, Texas, and Ohio have called systemic racism a hoax. A member of the California Facebook group posted a widely discredited flyer that says “White men, women and children, you are the enemy,” which was falsely attributed to Black Lives Matter. Another falsely claimed that a black man was brandishing a gun outside the St. Louis mansion, where a white couple confronted protesters with firearms, dozens of users in several of the groups have pushed an unsubstantiated theory that the Liberal billionaire George Soros is paying crowds to attend racial justice protests.
Facebook members in two groups, Wisconsinites Against Excessive Quarantine and Ohioans Against Excessive Quarantine, also regularly refer to protesters as “animals,” “bullies,” or “paid” looters.
In the Ohio group, a user wrote on May 31: “The focus shifts from the voice of free people who rise up against tyranny … to the lawless thugs of a well-known racist group that causes violence and agitation of lives. ”
Those two pages are part of a network of groups in Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New York, and Pennsylvania created by conservative activist Ben Dorr, who for years has raised money to lobby on burning conservative issues like abortion or gun rights. Their latest cause, pushing for governors to reopen their states, has attracted hundreds of thousands of followers to the private Facebook groups they launched.
Private groups soaring to that size, with little supervision, are like “creepy basements” where extremist ideas and misinformation may be lurking, said disinformation researcher Nina Jankowicz, a member of the nonpartisan study center Wilson Center. , in Washington, DC.
“It’s kind of a way that platforms are allowing some of the worst actors to stay on it,” said Jankowicz. “Instead of being overridden, they can organize.”
Associated Press technology writer Barbara Ortutay in Oakland, California contributed.