Latest disinformation campaign targets cops

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If you read mainstream media or listen to tech experts, at some point you will hear the danger of misinformation. It’s all around us, they tell us regularly, and it hampers the ability of the fragile masses to tell fact from fiction. The fact is, they’re right: the misinformation is real. And it came for the police.

From the Twitter mobs that brought you the ‘hands up, don’t shoot’ lie and ‘Jacob Blake was unarmed’ come the latest stories of police work packaged as clickbait and fed to the raging masses, who are quick to share it without any attempt to verify. If they did the most superficial fact-checking, they would soon learn just how much of their latest favorite viral outrage is the very misinformation they constantly talk about.

Consider the case of the unarmed black woman named Leonna Hale who was shot five times in the back by Missouri police this summer. Video of the incident was captured by a passerby and has been seized by accounts like AJ+, Occupy Democrats, gun control activistsand simply old Iinfluencers spreading the story to their millions of followers, perhaps tellingly without video. Each added their own flavor to the story, claiming the woman was pregnant, pleading for her life and handcuffed after being shot.

“Kansas City cops shot Leonna Hale, a 26-year-old pregnant black woman, 5 times with her hands up, then handcuffed her while she bled,” read a tweet with more than 60,000 likes.

The only problem is that it wasn’t true. It didn’t take long for the Jackson County prosecutor to issue a statement refuting the allegations, along with a clear-as-day body camera image of the woman pointing her (illegal) gun at the officers.

She wasn’t pregnant either. But by then, the damage of an unverified rumor about murderous police had been done, serving to fuel more anger and undermine public trust.

But Leonna Hale’s case is just the latest in a trend of misinformation surrounding police activity. And sometimes even clear evidence is not enough to suppress the crowd.

Earlier this month, a public defender tweeted in confidence this body camera footage released by the NYPD shows they recently killed a man who never shot them as they claimed, and who was in fact shot in the back as he fled. 16,000 people shared the tweet.

It took a journalist, Kmele Fosterand a criminologist, Pierre Moscos, to correct the record by “doing the job” of slowing down the footage to show that Rameek Smith’s gun was clearly visible when fired; the law enforcement officials who analyzed the footage were right and the social media warriors were wrong.

But their corrections to the record have a fraction of the online engagement.

More recently, last week, a brand new anonymous account tweeted a series of photos of a man being forcibly detained by officers in Bellevue, Washington.

The Twitter user claimed to have seen the police “harassing a black family” who were “cooperating politely”, but “the officers escalated the situation by getting closer to the children”.

Twitter’s blue ticks quickly rallied to spread tweets widely from an account with 60 followers, and the thread was liked by around 22,000 people and shared by another 7,000. Alexander Vindman, who served as Director of European Affairs for the US National Security Council, shared it with his 850,000 followers with the caption: “Is this true? I don’t know if there is anything that is what justifies the way this man was treated.” in front of his family. Those officers better have a damn good explanation!”

It turned out, however, that they did have a good explanation. In a statement released by police (at 30 shares) they explained the man was wanted for assault and burglary, which is up 68% in Bellevue this year. The suspect clearly fit the description, as few people were walking around with their children in strollers and punching FedEx drivers in the face that day. As for the use of force, the man physically pushed one of the officers, at which point he was forcibly detained, unharmed, cops said.

Some people would rather take the word of an anonymous Twitter account than the word of a police department, and while I think both should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism, the truth is that we don’t live in a dystopian novel. Government agencies exercise oversight and are always held to higher standards in the way they disseminate information and conduct their business. True, sometimes officials lie or do not provide information, in which case they should be called. The problem is that even when there is video evidence proving the cop story, the urge to ignore it seems to be overwhelming for many people on the internet, if the truth doesn’t match their prior assumptions.

MONROE, NEW YORK – OCTOBER 04: NYPD Officer Arvid Flores and his children join hundreds of police and others gather for the funeral of NYPD Officer Brian Mulkeen who was killed early Saturday morning in the Bronx.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

What is there to do? We should all approach online news with humility and skepticism—above all if it confirms our previous beliefs. We should use every message that outrages us as a starting point, not a destination. Trust but verify, or verify but trust; anyway, think about it before you crash on the keyboard.

Confidently critiquing tactics and filling in information gaps with uneducated guesswork in CAPS is the epitome of arrogance and ignorance. This is true not just for the police, but for anyone with a job we don’t know, from the barista making our drinks to the conductor guiding our trains. Consider for a moment that they might not all be idiots who had “a job”, but maybe they know something that you don’t.

Yael Bartur is a social media consultant specializing in crisis communications and law enforcement, and was previously director of social media for the NYPD. You can find her on Twitter @yaelbt or on her “Ask A Jew” podcast.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.



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