US protests: Separating fact from fiction online

US protests: Separating fact from fiction online
Image copyright Getty Images Protests sparked by the death in police custody of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis have spread across the US and to other countries. They've been documented in videos, images and posts on social media.But some of these aren't what they claim to be. The BBC's anti-disinformation team has been tracking misleading…

Man uses his phone to record events ahead of him. Burning cars in the background.Image copyright
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Protests sparked by the death in police custody of African-American George Floyd in Minneapolis have spread across the US and to other countries. They’ve been documented in videos, images and posts on social media.

But some of these aren’t what they claim to be. The BBC’s anti-disinformation team has been tracking misleading videos and conspiracy theories about the protests, which have been circulating online.

So, here’s what to look out for – and avoid – on your social media feeds.

Old Videos

We’ve seen lots of examples of old video surfacing in recent days, adding to the confusion online.

A video of a teenager being violently arrested by a US police officer has generated almost 10 million views in the last few days.

But the incident happened back in April – in Rancho Cordova, a city in Northern California. This wasn’t made clear in the latest post that has been retweeted more than 100,000 times. It also wrongly identifies the teenager as female.

The clip attracted widespread criticism at the time and prompted an investigation into the police officer’s conduct.

Meanwhile, there is genuine footage from the current protests which has led to allegations of police brutality.

Video from the US shows police using batons and tear gas on protesters and journalists seemingly unprovoked.

2016 Baton Rouge protest

A video of a young African-American woman speaking out against police brutality has been circulating online.

However, the video is from a protest in 2016 against the shooting of Alton Sterling. Again, people are attributing it to the latest protests in the US, or not making it clear the footage is from 2016.

Image caption

In 2016, large crowds gathered to protest against the death of Alton Sterling chanting “No justice, no peace”

On May 28th a ‘Crime News and Media’ site posted the video, and titled it “No Justice No Peace” — “Black Girl Says She’s Tired Of Being Peaceful Amid Protests In Minneapolis”. This had more than 14,000 views and hundreds of comments.

Wrong year, wrong country

This video claims to show a US police building on fire and was posted on 28 May.

It’s not only old – it’s from 2015 – it was filmed in another country. It shows an explosion in the Chinese city of Tianjin.

Similar clips of the same incident have also appeared in recent months in connection with the coronavirus.

So, why are people sharing old videos?

“The videos may be compounding the anger they are feeling and could be driven by attempts to sow division or get clicks,” says Marianna Spring, BBC Specialist Disinformation and Social Media reporter.

Conspiracy theories

Speculation about who’s behind the protests have been circulating online.

Some claims are unsubstantiated, others totally false – and they’re often being shared by those looking to point the finger of blame elsewhere.

First up, posts that have gone viral about George Soros.

Some influential right-wing figures have made unfounded claims that the Hungarian-American billionaire is “funding” the demonstrations.

According to these claims, Mr Soros’ motive for “paying up” protesters is to instigate a “race war” and bring President Trump’s government down.

Supporters of QAnon – a conspiracy theory about a “deep state” secret coup against Donald Trump – have shared similar claims.

Since then, more than a million posts and memes on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have repeated allegations about Mr Soros paying agitators to cause trouble.

Mr Soros, whose Open Society Foundations provide financial support to a number of civil society groups and progressive projects around the world, has been a bogeyman of some on the right for a long time.

His organisation has responded to the latest posts, tweeting that “Mr. Soros and the Open Society Foundations oppose all violence and do not pay people to protest”.

Rumours about foreign countries

Claims have circulated online about Russia’s involvement in the protests.

Viral tweets with thousands of shares suggest that Russia was involved in George Floyd’s death – as part of a military operation or an elaborate plot. There is no evidence to support these claims.

This isn’t to rule out the idea that Russia or other countries – either through state media outlets or networks of fake accounts – could be involved in stoking tensions online.

Investigations into Russian interference during the 2016 US Presidential election revealed that Russia was involved in a misinformation campaign, infiltrating groups and pages run by US activists – and that included Black Lives Matter groups.

There have also been unsubstantiated claims that pro-independence protesters from Hong Kong are somehow involved.

The editor-in-chief of China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper Hu Xijin tweeted accusations that protesters from Hong Kong might have been linked to the violence in the US: “Vicious HK rioters obviously are masterminds of violent protests across the US”.

But China’s foreign ministry has warned against comparing the two sets of protests.

Reporting by Flora Carmichael, Alistair Coleman, Joice Etutu, Jack Goodman, Shayan Sardarizadeh, Marianna Spring and Olga Robinson.

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