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Those Rumors Of Looting On Social Media - A Conversation With An Expert

Poynter Institute

In the midst of protests this week, there were plenty of messages sent along on social media about looting.  In some areas, those messages were just outright wrong. 

There were many incidents of vandalism and looting across Illinois. There were also false reports.  In some towns, the violence was non-existent. Some posted and passed along rumors of busloads of people coming to towns to loot. They were not.  

We spoke with Al Tompkins, senior faculty at the Poynter Institute,a journalism education group.

The photos of Adolf Hitler holding the Bible were false. It was just a digital insert of the Bible into a hand that made it look like President Trump was emulating Adolf Hitler.

What led to these?

Maybe a combination of things. In some cases, police departments, for example, in Clearwater, Florida, have validated that they've also heard similar information. But largely, these are in fact rumors. Some of them have been tied to a couple of white supremacy groups… writing these kinds of missives that get a lot of people stirred up and worried. This is not unheard of.

We actually saw this during the 2016 campaign, when we heard stories about protesters on the way to attend Trump rallies, when in fact, what we ended up finding out much later, is that some of those were internet rumors that showed up on Facebook and actually, in some cases got reported by normally responsible outlets. So you just have to keep asking yourself, you know, does this make sense? Where does this come from? What do we know about the source? And,  just be aware that there are many, many different people looking to try to influence your thinking right now. There is a big play for the hearts and minds of the public that go way beyond what's happening in the streets of America.

How is this different from the pre-social media rumor mill?

Well, there are lots of motivations for misinformation and disinformation. And by the way, that misinformation may just be I just got it wrong, or I heard something, but I didn't get it right.  

Disinformation and that's largely what this is, is meant to mislead you. There's an intent, there's a profit that comes from it. And the profit can be many things. It could be in some cases, misinformation and disinformation is motivated by money. In some places, it's motivated by politics.

But sometimes it's just motivated to try to cause confusion and to try to get your eyes off of something else so that you'll pay attention to this to stir up fear. And, there are lots of different motives for so many of these things.

There's a there's another way of thinking about these kinds of posts, and that's what I call propaganda. Propaganda isn't always false. It's usually just one sided. So propaganda usually just tells you one piece of the story without putting it into context. And that one piece favors one point of view one side one way of thinking… So there's a difference between misinformation disinformation and propaganda. And all of them have to do with motive. Ask yourself who could be behind this information and how might this information benefit them?

You monitor the media across the country. How are news groups handling this?

Mostly what I'm seeing is pretty responsible reporting, because we're a lot more savvy now than we were in the 2016 election about interference and disinformation and misinformation. So just as consumers have gotten more savvy, I hope and I think that journalists have as well, to be able to say, wait a minute that doesn't sound right. There were photos earlier this week of President Trump holding the Bible looking just like Adolf Hitler holding the Bible. And it turns out that of course, the photos of Adolf Hitler holding the Bible were false. It was just a digital insert of the Bible into a hand that made it look like President Trump was emulating Adolf Hitler.

So those are the kinds of things that people just don't fall for much anymore. I mean, we've been as as as users of social media, we've all been burned so many times that we're just skeptical of everything. But one of the things I would say is don't get cynical be skeptical, but not cynical. skeptical means Look, I'm open to truth. I'm open to finding facts. I'm open to a different point of view. But I need proof. And if you supply me with proof, I can adjust my thinking, being cynical means I don't believe anything. And that doesn't help anybody. We have to be open to truth when it presents itself.

He also has advice for ordinary social media users

Well, one thing I would say is before you pass anything on to somebody else, remember, you're responsible for what comes out of your fingers. So just like you're responsible for whatever you tell somebody else, you're responsible for what you pass along on social media or email as well. And whether you understand it or not, you are an influencer. All of us are all of us have some influence over somebody. Somebody is looking to us to be a source of information, whether it's are kids or family or friends or church members, whatever it is. So be responsible for what you say and understand that what you say, can work for good, but it also can cause great harm in that it can it can be the sort of information that others cite as their principal source of information. Just be responsible if you don't know where it came from. If you haven't done even the least amount of research, don't pass it on.

Some questions and answers were edited for clarity.

Bill is a former general manager, economy reporter, Harvest correspondent and Statehouse Bureau Chief for NPR Illinois. He has won several awards including the Associated Press Best Investigative Reporter.