Misinformation Super-Spreaders

By Brandon Pettit

2020 has been quite the tumultuous year for the United States. From the Covid-19 pandemic, to the Black Lives Matter movement, to the highly divisive presidential election, America has been experiencing an onslaught of headlines this year. With the continuous stream of current events comes the spread of information, with a majority of information funneling to the public through mainstream media, social media, or a combination of the two. An issue appears, however, when the information being spread is misinformation or disinformation. In these instances, groups of people can become wrongfully riled up and convene for a counter protest only to find out the original protest never existed. Local economies can temporarily shut down as a precaution for upcoming unrest, meanwhile the supposed “unrest” was completely fabricated. Even government policy can be steered and shifted from entirely false information. We, at dKomplex Inc., are not only looking to identify what constitutes disinformation and misinformation, but also who or what is spreading misinformation and disinformation.

For example, this past summer there have been numerous false reports of Antifa personnel traveling from larger cities to suburban towns and rural areas[1][2][3], widespread misinformation about Covid-19[4], discredited claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 US Presidential election[5], and many others. At dKomplex Inc., we focus on tracking the spread of false information over social media. We then analyze how misinformation or disinformation events influence communities, such as in local elections, municipal government policies, and regional economies. Recently, we have conducted a series of webinars, Dis/Misinformation’s Impact on Local Elections, where we discussed a falsified protest flyer – which was a call to action for racial justice after the death of George Floyd – that was specifically aimed at targeting the town of Watsonville, CA. From our research and analysis, we have found that the Watsonville disinformation campaign was reminiscent of other disinformation events perpetrated by foreign actors elsewhere in the United States and abroad. City officials in Watsonville and the FBI are currently investigating this event and no individual(s) have been officially charged or accused yet.

Other disinformation research has looked at domestic perpetrators of disinformation. The Media Manipulation Casebook, “… a research platform that advances knowledge of misinformation and disinformation and their threats”[6], recently published Erin Gallagher’s case study, Butterfly Attack: The Origins of Fake Antifa Social Media Accounts. In this case study, Gallagher, who is a self-defined social media researcher on Twitter [7] has looked at different misinformation events that took place from 2017 and found, in many instances, that falsified far-left Antifa social media posts were published by far-right internet trolls[8]. The term Butterfly Attack, coined by Patrick Ryan in, The Butterfly War, reflects this action. According to the Media Manipulation Casebook’s Code Book, a butterfly attack is when, “imposters pretend to be part of the group in order to insert divisive rhetoric and disinformation into popular online conversation or within the information networks used by [9] . Gallagher gives the example of claims Antifa members were heading to the Gettysburg National Battlefield, “… to burn confederate flags, desecrate graves, and bring guns” and several hundred individuals arrived at Gettysburg for a counter protest (Butterfly Attack: The Origins of Fake Antifa Social Media Accounts, 2020). In reality, the original protest was set up by a false Antifa Facebook pagedKomplex Inc. is looking into all potential perpetrators - including foreign actors - one main cause of misinformation and disinformation events just might be from a local level.

What does this all mean for those affected by disinformation? To start, while there have been many successful instances at separating fact from misleading content, identifying who is responsible for misinformation and disinformation can be difficult and very time consuming. In addition, those most affected by disinformation events typically reach out directly to officials in their local communities who may not have the correct resources or training to combat such events. Therefore, if we want to work on effectively reducing the spread of disinformation, we need to allocate the right funding, resources, and training to local municipalities; there is a clear policy gap in combating disinformation and misinformation between the federal government and regional governments. Furthermore, additional analysis needs to be conducted in identifying patterns of misinformation. At dKomplex Inc., we aim to not only guide policy solutions, but also create largescale disinformation databases to identify and respond to widespread misinformation campaigns.

[1]Alba, Davey, and Ben Decker. 2020. “How False Antifa Protest Rumors Spread - The New York Times.” The New York Times - Breaking News, US News, World News and Videos. June 22, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/22/technology/antifa-local-disinformation.html.

[2] MacFarquhar, Neil, Alan Feuer, and Adam Goldman. 2020. “Federal Arrests Show No Sign That Antifa Plotted Protests - The New York Times.” The New York Times - Breaking News, US News, World News and Videos. June 11, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/11/us/antifa-protests-george-floyd.html.

[3] Zadrozny, Brandy, and Ben Collins. 2020. “Antifa Rumors Spread on Local Social Media with No Evidence.” NBC News. June 2, 2020. https://www.nbcnews.com/tech/tech-news/antifa-rumors-spread-local-social-media-no-evidence-n1222486.

[4] Nilsen, Jennifer. 2020. “Distributed Amplification: The Plandemic Documentary | Media Manipulation Casebook.” Media Manipulation Casebook. 2020. https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/distributed-amplification-plandemic-documentary.

[5] Yurieff, Kaya. 2020. “5 Misinformation Debunks from Election Week.” CNN. CNN. November 9, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/2020/11/09/tech/voter-fraud-misinformation-social-media/index.html.

[6] “About Us | Media Manipulation Casebook.” n.d. Media Manipulation Casebook. Accessed December 11, 2020. https://mediamanipulation.org/about-us.

[7] Gallagher, Erin. n.d. “Erin Gallagher (@3r1nG).” Twitter. Accessed December 11, 2020. https://twitter.com/3r1nG?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor.

[8] Erin Gallagher, "Butterfly Attack: The Origins of Fake Antifa Social Media Accounts," The Media Manipulation Case Book, October 22, 2020, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/butterfly-attack-origins-fake-antifa-social-media-accounts.

[9] “The Media Manipulation Casebook | Code Book.” 2020. The Media Manipulation Casebook, no. 1.0 (October): 12. https://mediamanipulation.org/code-book.\

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