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How Disinformation Targeted Governments Amid National Protests

A recent torrent of disinformation seems to have inflamed much of the civil unrest inspired by the police killing of George Floyd. Much of the disinformation was "anti-government" in nature, a new report suggests.

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Online disinformation has made what was already a hard year that much harder for state and local governments, frequently interfering with effective communication and compliance efforts amidst the ongoing public health crisis of COVID-19. 

Then, when civil unrest over the police killings of unarmed Black people began across the country, disinformation became an even more dangerous problem. 

George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police spurred protests nationwide, with thousands of people flooding the streets to demand change. Concerns quickly emerged, however, about the ways in which otherwise peaceful demonstrations seemed to be hijacked and, in some cases, pushed towards destructive ends.

New research seems to suggest that disinformation campaigns helped to spawn some of this chaos, inflaming anti-government sentiment in many communities, sometimes to the point of inspiring violent criminal behavior.

During this time, a torrent of memes and hashtags pushed various wild, divisive, and plainly inaccurate pieces of information into online ecosystems. For example, an organized disinformation campaign encouraged thousands to believe that there had been a blackout in Washington, D.C., perhaps encouraging more criminal activity and looting; local Facebook groups throughout the country saw unsubstantiated rumors that Antifa activists were being bussed into their communities, inspiring fear; networks of right-wing groups were found to be operating left-wing accounts in an apparent bid to encourage violence and mayhem.

Researchers have linked some of this activity to right-wing extremist groups, who may have seen the protests as an opportunity to push their own anti-government agendas. 

In June, members of a shadowy network calling themselves the "Boogaloo Bois" began showing up at protests across the country. A bizarre militia-like gang whose adherents are known for sporting "Aloha" shirts and spouting rhetoric about an imminent civil war, the "Boogaloos" may sound like something contrived from a bad Stephen King novel but alleged members have recently been tied to real crimes all across the country. 

"Their whole thing was, 'How do we revolt against authority?' Because they're about civil war and [messaging that says] 'Take our country back,'" said Wasim Khaled, CEO of Blackbird AI, whose company aggregates and analyzes bulk social media data to understand online trends and conversations.

Groups like "Boogaloo" seem to be birthed in online chat rooms, with sites like 4Chan acting as breeding grounds for political radicalization. From there, adherents go out onto more mainstream platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, where they can spread their ideas and build wider communities and influence. 

Indeed, attempts to recruit people to this movement using social media channels were rampant in the weeks prior to the protests. Large-scale "inauthentic" online activity took place during this period, much of which was aimed at promoting "Boogaloo"-type behavior and beliefs, the report reads. 

Khaled explained that countless bot networks and automated accounts helped to spread these messages and narratives. A recent report from Blackbird.AI, which analyzed more than 11 million social media posts between May 2-20, showed that nearly half of the 2 million tweets analyzed in the report came back as manipulated.  

These campaigns are basically designed to have a lemming effect on Web communities: frequently, the artificially amplified conversation will catch on with real people, who perpetuate the conversation by themselves. This makes sustained manipulation unnecessary.

Boogaloo elements were also deeply involved with the Reopen movement, which was also pushed to prominence by a swell of disinformation and astroturfing. Boogaloos mingled online with libertarian and militia types who advocated for openly defying government orders surrounding COVID-19 and government orders, more generally.

"The Boogaloo movement in particular speaks regularly of violence to law enforcement and government authority," the Blackbird report states. In some cases, this messaging appears to have compelled real people toward violence: several men allegedly tied to the movement were arrested in Nevada after they planned to firebomb a park ranger station. In another case, a California man who allegedly expressed Boogaloo ideology shot and killed multiple law enforcement officials over the course of several days. 

Radical right-wing groups have not had a monopoly on disinformation, however. If anything, the broad diversity of online activity over the last several weeks shows that disinformation is anyone's game, said Sean McNee, director of research with DomainTools, a vendor that aggregates data about online activity and website registration.   

"You've got people doing it for fun, or they're doing it for profit. They're doing it because they have some strong belief. Then you have nation-state actors who are doing it because that's what they do," he said. 

Even organized crime syndicates appear to have found a certain incentive for this kind of social engagement, according to some accounts. Some believe criminals may have tried to inflame the protests in an effort to hide their illicit activities, and recent law enforcement leaks showed biker gangs apparently disguised themselves as Antifa activists, using the protests as a cover to "move large amounts of heroin into the Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, area." 

Rumors also circulated that cartel elements had infiltrated the protest movements for their own nefarious purposes, though government officials have been mum on just what those criminal groups were doing. The hypothetical ways that criminal gangs could get involved are diverse if not confirmed, said McNee.

Above all, disinformation is about manipulation of individuals, groups and politics, and when executed correctly it can quickly have people behaving in absurd, incoherent or even dangerous ways, said Khaled. 

"It's brainwashing, just like a cult would do," he said. "You take them little by little down a certain path and soon you have them doing ridiculous things."

Lucas Ropek is a former staff writer for Government Technology.