Protest misinformation is riding on the success of pandemic hoaxes

Parallel stories: After months spent battling covid-19, the US is now gripped by a different fever: some of the biggest protests in decades over racial injustice. Meanwhile, on the digital streets, a battle is playing out in separate worlds, where truth and disinformation run parallel. In one version, anti-fascist protesters are traveling by bus and plane to remote cities and towns to wreak havoc. This false notion is inspiring roving gangs of mostly white vigilantes to take up arms.

Looks familiar: Those who accept protest misinformation also rose up to challenge stay-at-home orders through “reopen” rallies. It’s no coincidence: these audiences have been primed by years of political misinformation and then driven to a frenzy by months of pandemic conspiracy theories.

What next? As researchers of disinformation, we have seen this type of attack play out before. It’s called “source hacking”: a set of tactics where media manipulators mimic the patterns of their opponents, try to obfuscate the sources of their information, and then slowly become more and more dangerous in their rhetoric. If people want to build a long-term movement, they must learn to counter misinformation on the issues they care about.

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