The Technology 202: The Gettysburg gathering highlights the offline dangers of social media hoaxes

The Technology 202: The Gettysburg gathering highlights the offline dangers of social media hoaxes

The arrival of hundreds of self-described patriots, many carrying assault rifles, at the Gettysburg National Cemetery on July Fourth is a stark reminder that online hoaxes can spark dangerous and volatile behavior offline.

Militias, bikers and others flocked to the Civil War memorial in response to an apparent hoax that circulated on Facebook and Twitter, my colleagues Shawn Boburg and Dalton Bennett wrote. A shadowy Facebook page said antifa protesters were descending on the historical grounds to burn American flags and don antifa face paint. 

“Let’s get together and burn flags in protest of thugs and animals in blue,” a Facebook page called Left Behind USA proclaimed in mid-June. The person wrote the organizers would “be giving away free small flags to children to safely throw into the fire.” 

But there was no sign Saturday in Gettysburg of the busloads of antifa members promised by the social media posts. Facebook and Twitter ultimately shut down the Left Behind USA pages for manipulating their services to amplify the group’s message after my colleagues inquired about them last week

But news of the supposed event and fears about it continued to circulate in conservative circles. 

Antifa, a loose collection of activists who oppose fascism and have sometimes embraced property damage and violent protest in recent years, has been a contentious topic in social media in recent weeks as President Trump and his allies blame the group without evidence for violence during the protests against racism in the wake of George Floyd’s death. 

Ultimately, the social media posts led to an unpredictable situation at risk of devolving. At one point, federal law enforcement said they made the decision to remove a man from the scene wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt “for his own safety,” said Jason Martz, acting public affairs officer for Gettysburg National Military Park. Before they did so, about 50 people surrounded the man and “aggressively questioned” him about his shirt, Shawn and Dalton wrote. The man, Trent Somes, later said he was visiting an ancestor’s grave, not protesting. 

These are the stakes as social media companies waffle over how to moderate content on their services. 

What happens on social media often doesn’t stay on social media. For better or worse, it acts as an agitator for much of what’s happening in our offline lives.  

The deleterious effects of that spillover are becoming more apparent in 2020.  The pandemic ushered in an “infodemic” of online falsehoods about the novel coronavirus. Social networks are bracing for another round of foreign interference ahead of the U.S. elections this year. And shadowy figures on social networks have provoked fears about the protests against racial injustice in the wake of Floyd’s death in police custody.

These events are putting greater pressure on social networks to overhaul their policies and procedures for dealing with disinformation, hate speech and other incendiary content. Recent actions against Trump’s social media accounts – ranging from Twitter’s decision to begin labeling some of the president’s posts to Amazon-owned Twitch’s decision to temporarily suspend Trump’s account – underscore how some platforms are evolving their approach under the scrutiny. However, Facebook is still confronting criticism for not doing enough, even as it has changed course in recent weeks and said it would label posts from politicians in some instances. 

Technology experts say the design by social media platforms is to blame for amplifying the apparent Gettysburg hoax. From Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center:

The Gettysburg assembly wasn’t an isolated event. 

Armed vigilantes flocked to small Idaho towns in June after hoaxes circulated online about antifa. Towns in New Jersey, South Dakota and Michigan recently experienced similar hoaxes.

“Simply put, when disinformation mobilizes, it endangers the public,” Donovan wrote in a recent op-ed about the disinformation related to the protests. 

NBC’s Sahil Kapur had a powerful roundup of other similar headlines:

As my colleagues point out, it’s unclear exactly who is behind the false claims and why they’re advancing them. Perpetrators could be trying to advance a political agenda, antagonizing those with whom they disagree or even pursuing another goal. Social media companies have recently taken down a handful of accounts created by white supremacist groups posing as antifa operatives trying to undermine nonviolent protests.

The person managing the Left Behind USA Facebook account told The Post he was 39-year-old Alan Jeffs, a lifelong Democrat-turned-anarchist from Pittsburgh who now lives in Des Moines. 

But my colleagues could not find any such person in real estate, court and voter records, as well as other public documents. After Twitter and Facebook shut down the accounts, my colleagues lost contact with the person. Facebook told them the person appeared to be operating the accounts from inside the United States.

These events undermine the arguments that Facebook has been making that it doesn’t play an active role in disseminating disinformation. 

Facebook’s Nick Clegg wrote in an op-ed last week that social networks “hold up a mirror to society … everything that is good, bad and ugly in our societies will find expression on our platform,” he wrote. The article was intended to defend Facebook from mounting criticism the company profits from hate, as hundreds of companies pull advertisements from the social network to protest its stance.

But the events over the weekend demonstrate why Clegg’s argument is flawed and how Facebook is more than a mirror.

CNN’s Oliver Darcy recently pushed back on that characterization: 

Suggesting so wrongly absolves the platform of the role it has played in deepening societal divisions and amplifying hate, misinfo/disinfo, and conspiracy theories,” he writes. “The analogy of a ‘magnifying glass’ is more apt.” 

Or as one person told him on Twitter, perhaps “a carnival mirror that distorts the reflection by exaggerating some parts and minimizing others.” 

Our top tabs

WhatsApp won’t process Hong Kong requests for user data, citing human-rights concerns. 

The move could inflame tensions between WhatsApp’s parent company Facebook and Beijing, writes the Wall Street Journal’s Newley Purnell. China recently passed legislation mandating that local Hong Kong authorities take measures to regulate the city’s previously open Internet.

WhatsApp is “pausing” such reviews “pending further assessment of the impact of the National Security Law, including formal human rights due diligence and consultations with human rights experts,” a WhatsApp spokeswoman told the Journal.

People in mainland China have been barred from using American social media services such as Facebook, Twitter and more because of the so-called “Great Firewall” restricting Internet use. But  Hong Kong residents have enjoyed greater freedoms and long used these services to express political opinions. However, the Journal reports more people are now erasing their accounts for fear of breaking the new law. 

Dubai-based Telegram Group Inc. said in a statement to the Journal it doesn’t intend to process “any data requests related to its Hong Kong users until an international consensus is reached in relation to the ongoing political changes in the city.” The company said it “has never shared any data with the Hong Kong authorities in the past.” 

Advertisers aren’t impressed by Facebook’s attempts to persuade them to abandon their boycott. 

The social network has spent days trying to persuade advertisers to return with the promise of modest changes to address concerns that the social network profits from hate and outrage, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Taylor Telford write. But advertisers and the agencies they work with say they are still negotiating. 

They want more than Facebook’s pledge to label some politicians’ posts when they break the company’s policies. Civil rights leaders who organized the boycott are expected to meet with top Facebook executives, including chief executive Mark Zuckerberg, this week.

More than 750 companies including Coca-Cola, Hershey and Unilever have temporarily paused their advertising on Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram. 

Kerri Pollard, senior vice president of the membership platform Patreon — which is pulling all of its ads from Facebook and Instagram — said the recent string of concessions doesn’t address the company’s concerns about how Zuckerberg characterizes free speech. The Facebook CEO has said he believes that social platforms should not fact-check politicians.

“Until he softens that, which would affect that entire business internally and externally, we’re not going to feel comfortable returning to the platform,” Pollard said. 

Black women say Pinterest fostered discrimination, despite the company’s reputation as a gentler social network. 

Five other former employees were inspired to speak out about their experiences at the company after Ifeoma Ozoma and Aerica Shimizu Banks quit the company in May and went public with their complaints, my colleague Nitasha Tiku writes.

The other women spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation from Pinterest and further harm to their careers.

The women’s stories share common threads with complaints across Silicon Valley, as companies are pressured to address systemic racism. Black employees are breaking norms by speaking out against employers and investors who did not take seriously their stories of toxic bias. Employees from Facebook, LinkedIn and other tech companies also have spoken out.

“On the one hand, Pinterest was fine with me being the person interviewed on ‘All Things Considered,’ the person who’s doing press all around the world on behalf of the company for an initiative I’m leading,” Ozoma said. “And on the other hand, they just completely did not believe that I had enough sense and enough ability, both financially and otherwise,” to keep pursuing her bias claims, which she felt Pinterest had shrugged off.

Pinterest declined to comment on specific allegations. The company pointed to a note Pinterest CEO Ben Silbermann sent employees last week, which was included in a statement announcing Pinterest’s board of directors hired the law firm WilmerHale to conduct an independent review of the culture.

“This is important work that will help us make Pinterest better,” Silbermann wrote, urging his staff to prioritize following up if they were contacted by the firm.

Rant and rave

Kanye West has at least one prominent tech industry supporter as he runs for president:

Inside the industry

Uber agreed to acquire food delivery rival Postmates for $2.65 billion in an all-stock takeover. 

The deal is expected to be announced as early as today, report Bloomberg’s Eric Newcomer, Liana Baker and Katie Roof. The deal could help Uber better compete with market leader DoorDash as the pandemic is severely restricting Uber’s ride-hailing business. 

Uber Eats head Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty is expected to run Uber’s combined delivery business. Postmates CEO Bastian Lehmann and his team will stay on to manage Postmates as a separate service, under the terms of the deal. 

Uber recently failed to acquire publicly traded GrubHub, which was acquired by Europe’s Just Eat NV for $7.3 billion. Reports of the possible deal sparked antitrust scrutiny from Democrats in Congress.  


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