Law. False narratives about caravan, pipe bombs have spread on social media

By Drew Harwell, Tony Romm and Craig Timberg, Washington Post. Text Level 12.

False narratives about caravan, pipe bombs have spread on social media.

The migrant caravan in Mexico and the attempted mail bombings of major political figures this week have unleashed torrents of false and misleading reports on social media, testing the limits of costly efforts by Silicon Valley to combat disinformation ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

Despite hiring thousands of employees and investing in teams dedicated to quelling phony information two years after the problem emerged during the 2016 presidential election, the country's most influential tech companies have struggled to respond.

Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have resisted demands to remove some of the viral conspiracy theories and extremist content - a reflection both of the gravity of the task and of their belief that they should not serve as arbiters of truth.

The attempted pipe-bomb attacks, which targeted former president Barack Obama and others who have been critical of President Donald Trump, were almost immediately characterized in widely shared Facebook and Twitter posts as a conspiracy engineered by Democrats to undermine the conservative cause. Michael Flynn Jr., the son of the president's former national security adviser, said in tweets to his roughly 98,000 followers that the bombs amounted to a "political stunt."

Claims that the bombs were a hoax and slurs against one of the bombs' targets, liberal philanthropist George Soros, also proliferated widely on the Facebook-owned photo-sharing giant Instagram. Social media researcher Jonathan Albright said the Instagram posts amplified conspiracy theories and "some of the worst hate speech, Hillary Clinton memes and violently anti-Semitic messages I've seen to date."

The caravan, a potent symbol of the brewing migrant crisis at the U.S. border, was portrayed by some prominent conservative figures as a violent horde mobilized for invasion, including through the sharing of falsely labeled images showing a bloodied Mexican policeman that was in fact taken elsewhere in the country in 2012.

That image, first posted less than two weeks ago, spread virally on Facebook and Twitter, including through a post by Ginni Thomas, a conservative activist who is the wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.