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Floyd's Death Leads To Disinformation About Black Lives Matter Movement

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One year ago today, George Floyd died under the knee of a police officer and protests erupted worldwide.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) George Floyd. George Floyd.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Black lives...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Black lives...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Matter.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Chanting) Black lives...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Matter.

MARTIN: Support surged for Black Lives Matter, a movement that began with an online hashtag, and today, there's still lots of support for the movement online. Posts on social media continue to call for racial justice and an end to police brutality. But there are also posts that are riddled with disinformation. Activists charge that's part of an overall effort to undermine Black Lives Matter and its message. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Log on to a social media account, and there's a myriad of posts about Black Lives Matter, including plenty of disparaging ones, like this one that falsely claims the government has identified it as a terrorist group. Another that circulated widely claimed that BLM activists had badly beaten a group of elderly white people. That post has been debunked by fact-checkers, who found the photos were taken in South Africa years ago, and it has been taken down. However, Jordan Giger, an organizer with Black Lives Matter in Indiana, says there's still plenty of disinformation online designed to cause confusion and distrust.

JORDAN GIGER: Like reports circulating that BLM is going to vandalize businesses in downtown areas, that we are targeting specific white communities, those kinds of things. It makes our supporters say, OK, I don't want to get involved in that, right? And so when disinformation just goes unchecked, folks will believe it if you don't get ahead of it or respond to it appropriately.

CORLEY: Giger says that's why BLM launched an effort to stop disinformation and urges people to send in details about suspicious posts or stories to the Black Lives Matter website. Win Black/Pa’lante, a nonpartisan group created after the 2016 presidential election, also monitors disinformation aimed at people of color. Hundreds of organizers across the country formed a digital war room during last year's election. They tracked bots that automatically send out scripted disinformation, often from Russia or other foreign governments trying to sow discord in the U.S. And they tracked what are known as digital blackface accounts that steal images to masquerade as Black people and spread disinformation. Ashley Bryant, one of the co-leaders of Win Black/Pa'lante, says they also found conspiracy theories about Black Lives Matter.

ASHLEY BRYANT: That went everything from George Floyd not being dead to, you know, George Soros funding protests and then the full out attacks on Black Lives Matter, where there's foreign actors, there's fake accounts pretending to be antifa, all to actually just build this violent narrative around Black Lives Matter.

CORLEY: University of North Carolina professor Deen Freelon studies digital politics. He points to specific instances of disinformation about Black Lives Matter protesters engaging in violence.

DEEN FREELON: There was a false story about a Black Lives Matter allied protesters setting fires in Oregon, so connecting to the wildfires there; the claim that Black Lives Matter is white led. There has been some Spanish-language disinformation.

CORLEY: Freelon says Twitter has been vigilant about rooting out state-sponsored disinformation from foreign actors. Facebook says it's taken several steps, too, including working with non-partisan and independent fact-checkers to root out the spread of fake stories. Information proven to be false can be removed for violating social media standards. That's not the case when it comes to posts online that are technically considered an opinion. Freelon says, that's harder to combat.

FREELON: Examples there include things like the notion that BLM is antiwhite, which of course is an opinion, that it is a hate group, that it's somehow anti-family, that it is morally equivalent to far-right groups. And then there are some things that kind of blur the line between fact and opinion.

CORLEY: Critics of Black Lives Matter say it's the movement's supporters that are getting duped.

MIKE GONZALEZ: I feel that Black Lives Matter is one of the greatest sources of disinformation.

CORLEY: Mike Gonzalez is a senior fellow with The Heritage Foundation. He's the author of an upcoming book about Black Lives Matter and Marxism.

GONZALEZ: They have good Americans, good Americans, well-intentioned Americans who do not want to see racial injustice, and rightly so, putting up signs on their lawn about Black Lives Matter. They have manipulated the good nature of many people who think what they're doing, in my view, is trying to promote a philosophy that is not going to be good for this country, will destroy this country and will destroy our way of life.

CORLEY: And then right-wing pundits like Rudy Giuliani, Candace Owens and Carol Swain amplify often baseless anti-BLM messages to wider audiences.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

RUDY GIULIANI: Black Lives Matter wants to come and take your house away from you. They want to take your property away from you.

CANDACE OWENS: Far-left crazy antifa thugs who know exactly what they're doing.

CAROL SWAIN: Using Black people to advance a Marxist agenda.

CORLEY: On her YouTube channel, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, one of the three co-founders of Black Lives Matter, responds.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "AM I A MARXIST?")

PATRISSE KHAN-CULLORS: I need to set the record straight. Am I a Marxist?

CORLEY: Khan-Cullors says she does believe in Marxism but laughs at the online comments that say she's pushing a communist agenda.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOUTUBE VIDEO, "AM I A MARXIST?")

KHAN-CULLORS: I'm working on making sure that people don't suffer. I'm working to make sure people don't go hungry. And these comments that I've received have been incredibly hurtful. It means that so many people aren't really taking our work very seriously.

CORLEY: The dean of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, Tomiko Brown-Nagin, says some of the disinformation surrounding Black Lives Matter could be from the old style anti-civil rights playbook of the 1960s. Brown-Nagin says the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover and segregationists repeatedly used disinformation in an attempt to besmirch that movement.

TOMIKO BROWN-NAGIN: So opponents characterize activists as lawbreakers or as violent, when overwhelmingly they were nonviolent. And Martin Luther King Jr. and members of his inner circle were said to be communists or communist sympathizers.

CORLEY: And like the civil rights movement back then, Black Lives Matter has seen its support both rise and decline after months of protest and the conviction of former police officer Derek Chauvin. While polls show a large majority of African Americans continue to back the movement, overall support has dropped from record levels seen after George Floyd's death. How much of that loss is due to disinformation is difficult to measure. But what's certain is the battle over controlling what people believe about Black Lives Matter and its influence is ongoing. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF KEV BROWN'S "THREAT (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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