CHICAGO (AP) – In the days since President Donald Trump blamed antifa activists for an outbreak of violence in protests over police killings of black people, social media has scammed with false rumors that the far-left group is transporting people to avenge the destruction of small towns across America.
Speculation was fueled by conservative newscasts and pro-Trump social media accounts, as well as deceptive Facebook and Twitter accounts.
Twitter and Facebook have caught some of the instigators of the baseless banter on social media. Twitter on Monday determined that a tweet that promising antifa would “move to residential areas” and “white” neighborhoods was sent by white supremacy group Identity Evropa. The tweet was shared and quoted hundreds of times in online news articles before Twitter removed it on Monday, a company spokesperson said.
Still, the tweet continued to circulate on Facebook and Instagram on Tuesday.
Facebook, which took advantage of information shared by Twitter, announced on Tuesday evening that it also removed a handful of accounts on its platform created by white supremacy groups such as Identity Evropa and American Guard, some of which arose as part of the antifa movement.
Some social media users have spent years trying to delegitimize controversial or political protests with groundless theories that they were organized by wealthy financiers or extremist organizations. Over the weekend, Trump called antifa responsible for the violent protests that resulted from the murder of George Floyd and said in a tweet, “It’s ANTIFA and the radical left.”
“You usually see this when there is an interest in diverting conversations from protests to simply accusing the protests of being violent, organized, or having bad carriers,” said Filippo Menczer, a professor of computer science and computer science at Indiana University . “The president who mentioned it, of course, generated a huge spike.”
Theories about antifa – short for ‘anti-fascists’ and an umbrella term for left-wing militant groups confronting or resisting neo-Nazis and white supremacists in demonstrations – have been spreading across cities across the country in recent days.
Police officers say people call “tips” they see on social media and claim that antifa sends buses or even planes full of antifa activists to their area.
In Payette County, Idaho – a rural county with a population of 24,000 – calls began early Monday morning after a Facebook user said the sheriff had seen antifa rioters in the area. The phone calls did not end until the sheriff’s office debunked the rumor on Facebook.
“It’s really a small community, where our citizens know us pretty well,” said Payette County Lieutenant Andy Creech. “When the mail got there, we started to receive direct calls.”
Meanwhile, Facebook users also warned their friends to stay away from a shopping center in a New Jersey suburb, saying it would be the center of Antifa’s destruction on Tuesday.
But police had “no credible information” that antifa would be present in the area, media specialist Jillian Messina of the Toms River Police Department said in an email. The police are not at all aware of anyone showing up, she added.
Identical Facebook and Twitter posts about bus loads of antifa protesters also bothered Sioux Falls police, where officers in the city of South Dakota said they saw no unusual bus activity in the city. But the claims spread days before a planned protest this Saturday, said Sam Clemens, a department spokesman.
“Everyone had heard that there would be buses of people,” said Clemens. “It was very specific: there were three busloads.”
Even the owner of a limousine company in Michigan was forced to refute rumors online when two of his buses became the center of a conspiracy theory that liberal financier George Soros sent protesters to Milan, Michigan. Social media users widely shared an manipulated photo of his white buses, edited with the words ‘Soros Riot Dance Squad’ on the sides.
The buses are owned by Sean Duval, owner of the local transportation company Golden Limousine International, and no words are printed on them.
Duval said, “It is frustrating when people from outside start to try to become American against American.”
Associated Press writers Barbara Ortutay in Oakland, California, Beatrice Dupuy in New York and Ali Swenson in Seattle contributed to this report.
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