In recent weeks, as demonstrations against racism spread across the country, residents in at least 41 U.S. cities and towns became alarmed by rumors that the loose collective of anti-fascist activists known as antifa was headed to their area, according to an analysis by The New York Times. In many cases, they contacted their local law enforcement for help.
In each case, it was for a threat that never appeared.
President Trump has spread some unfounded rumors about antifa to a national audience — including his accusation, without evidence, that a 75-year-old Buffalo protester who was hospitalized after being knocked down by a police officer could be “an antifa provocateur.”
But on the local level, the source of the false information has usually been more subtle, and shows the complexity of stunting misinformation online. The bad information often first appears in a Twitter or Facebook post, or a YouTube video there. It is then shared on online spaces like local Facebook groups, the neighborhood social networking app Nextdoor and community texting networks. These posts can fall under the radar of the tech companies and online fact checkers.
“The dynamic is tricky because many times these local groups don’t have much prior awareness of the body of conspiratorial content surrounding some of these topics,” said Renée DiResta, a disinformation researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “The first thing they see is a trusted fellow community member giving them a warning.”
Here are four ways that antifa falsehoods spread in local communities.
After One Tweet, Dozens of Calls to the Police
On the last weekend in May, the police in Sioux Falls, S.D., decided to investigate whether busloads of antifa protesters were headed to town. It shows what can happen from a single tweet.
They were responding to a rumor spreading quickly among residents online, and first posted to Twitter by the local Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re being told that buses are en route from Fargo for today’s march downtown…,” the group posted on Twitter. “Please bring in any furniture, signs, etc. that could be possibly thrown through windows.”
The tweet was later deleted, but not before the rumor spread verbatim on Facebook, where it was even translated into Spanish. On Facebook, screenshots of the tweet and other posts about the group’s message collected more than 4,600 likes and shares according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool that analyzes interactions across social media.
These included shares by the Facebook pages of three local news outlets with a combined reach of 36,238 followers, and two posts in Spanish-speaking local Facebook groups, which reached 2,611 followers.
Twitter said it had taken down “hundreds of groups” under its violent extremist group policy and “continues to enforce our policies against hateful conduct every day across the world.” Facebook said its fact-checking partners rate many false claims about the protests, including about antifa.
The rumor led dozens of people to reach out to the local police that Sunday, according to Sam Clemens, the public information officer at the Sioux Falls Police Department.
“But on the day of the protests, we didn’t have any evidence of any buses coming from out of town carrying people,” Mr. Clemens said. The vast majority of protesters were local residents, he said.
The Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce said it had gotten the information from sources it knew and believed to be credible.
“We received information that led us to believe there was a cause for concern. As such, we wanted to encourage local business owners to take responsible, precautionary steps for their businesses,” said Jeff Griffin, the group’s president. “We removed the post when we realized it was contributing to a different message that we did not intend.”
From YouTube to Infowars
A false rumor about antifa protesters in Yucaipa, Calif., a city about 70 miles from Los Angeles, started with one viral YouTube video about the city. Before long, it had even reached a national audience.
A YouTube video posted on June 2, featuring scenes of men in masks and holding guns, purportedly residents of the city preparing for “potential antifa looting ahead of a planned BLM protest,” has collected 17,200 views in the days since. Facebook posts of photos claiming to show the Yucaipa residents defending their town were posted at least 587 times in Facebook groups, and amassed over 24,000 likes and shares, according to the Times analysis. They were shared in pro-Trump and far-right Facebook groups, as well as other local community groups.
Farshad Shadloo, a YouTube spokesman, said that, like Facebook, the video service uses fact-checking panels to flag false information, and that the company aims to promote videos from authoritative sources about the protests.
On the same day, the conservative commentator and former Fox News host Todd Starnes published a blog post titled, “TOWN FIGHTS antifa: ‘They Just Beat the Ever-Loving Snot Out of Them.’” It collected over 48,000 likes and shares, and reached three million followers on Facebook.
A day later, the conspiracy website Infowars posted an article about the false narrative, which spread it further among followers of conspiracy groups and several Facebook groups dedicated to praising Mr. Trump.
A representative for Mr. Starnes said he was unavailable to respond.
The Yucaipa Police Department confirmed on Twitter that it had responded to reports of fights in public on June 1, but did not mention the involvement of antifa. A public information officer for the department pointed to a YouTube video posted last week, in which a Yucaipa police lieutenant, Julie Brumm-Landen, said the city had not experienced looting or destruction from protests of racism.
“The information about antifa or planned criminal activity in Yucaipa is nothing more than internet speculation and false rumors,” Lt. Brumm-Landen added. “Any peaceful protests that takes place will have the full support and protection of the Yucaipa Police Department.” That video was viewed just 100 times.
Warnings From a Congressional Candidate
A congressional candidate over 2,000 miles away from Yucaipa started to spread a similar message. The episode highlights how even when a tech company removes bad local information, it can happen too late.
Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Republican in northwest Georgia and a professed member of the fringe conspiracy theory group QAnon, tweeted an ad for her House campaign showing her holding an AR-15-style rifle and threatening antifa activists. “You won’t burn our churches, loot our businesses or destroy our homes,” she said in the ad. It was retweeted 20,000 times.
That same campaign ad was removed from Facebook two days later — but not before it racked up over 1.2 million views. According to the social network, the video violated the company’s policies against promoting the use of firearms.
“We removed it because it advocates the use of deadly weapons against a clearly defined group of people, which violates our policies against inciting violence,” said Andrea Vallone, a Facebook spokeswoman.
No group of antifa activists arrived in Georgia. But that didn’t seem to hurt Ms. Greene’s political campaign. One week after her ad posted, she finished first in her primary, winning 41 percent of the vote in the strongly Republican 14th Congressional District, and has a strong chance of winning a runoff vote in August.
Ms. Greene, who has a history of making offensive remarks about blacks, Jews and Muslims, appears to have no remorse about spreading unfounded rumors of antifa coming to town.
“I’m sick and tired of watching establishment Republicans play defense while the Fake News Media cheers on antifa terrorists, B.L.M. rioters and the woke cancel culture as they burn our cities, loot our businesses, vandalize our memorials and divide our nation,” Ms. Greene said in an emailed statement.
Facebook Group Posts, Then Text Messages
In late May to early June, there was a rumor that “two bus loads of antifa” were heading to Locust, N.C., about 25 miles east of Charlotte. The rumor was shared in text messages among people in the area — far out of sight of any fact-checking organization.
On June 1, the rumor surfaced in Facebook groups with names like DeplorablePride.org and Albemarle News and Weather.
That same evening, the police in Locust posted a screenshot of a text that had been circulating in the community over the weekend. The text falsely claimed that police officers had been knocking on doors to warn that “a black organization is bringing 2 bus loads of people to walmart in locust with intentions on looting and burning down the suburbs.” The post, on Facebook, assured residents that the Police Department had not been spreading the rumor.
Jeffrey Shew, the assistant chief of police, said all the residents who reached out to the department to report the buses “had no direct knowledge” of violent protesters coming to town. He said they were only sharing what they had seen on social media. By midnight on June 1, Mr. Shew said, it was clear that the rumors were untrue.
“No protests, groups looking to protest or groups looking to riot occurred,” he said.
On June 2, the police posted another message on Facebook emphasizing that the rumors had no substance. It exemplified that often, community members themselves are the ones on the front lines of debunking false rumors.
“We had absolutely zero confirmed credible information related to these activities however out of an abundance of caution we did arrange or stage extra resources and officers in Locust in the event there was any legitimacy to the posts,” the post by the Locust Police Department read. “Now in the morning after, we can 100% confirm there was zero truth to any of the posts that we observed.”
Posts containing the original rumor reached 27,855 followers on Facebook, according to the Times analysis. The police’s posts reached 2,966 followers on Facebook.