CHICAGO – A loose network of Facebook groups that took root across the country in April to organize protests over coronavirus stay-at-home orders has become a hub of misinformation and conspiracy theories that have pivoted to a variety of new targets. Their latest: Black Lives Matter and the nationwide protests of racial injustice.
These groups, which now boast a collective audience of more than 1 million members, are still thriving after most states started lifting virus restrictions.
And many have expanded their focus.
One group transformed itself last month from “Reopen California” to “California Patriots Pro Law & Order,” with recent posts mocking Black Lives Matter or changing the slogan to “White Lives Matter." Members have used profane slurs to refer to Black people and protesters, calling them “animals,” “racist” and “thugs”— a direct violation of Facebook’s hate speech standards.
Others have become gathering grounds for promoting conspiracy theories about the protests, suggesting protesters were paid to go to demonstrations and that even the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who died in the custody of Minneapolis police, was staged.
An Associated Press review of the most recent posts in 40 of these Facebook groups — most of which were launched by conservative groups or pro-gun activists — found the conversations largely shifted last month to attacking the nationwide protests over the killing of Black men and women after Floyd’s death.
Facebook users in some of these groups post hundreds of times a day in threads often seen by members only and shielded from public view.
“Unless Facebook is actively looking for disinformation in those spaces, they will go unnoticed for a long time and they will grow,” said Joan Donovan, the research director at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. “Over time, people will drag other people into them and they will continue to organize.”