Within hours of the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg being made public, disinformation and extremist content exploiting her legacy was being “widely circulated” on Facebook.
That is according to a preliminary investigation by researchers at Avaaz, a U.S.-based nonprofit rights group. The group’s initial scan of Facebook posts about Ginsburg found that accounts and pages are exploiting her death to forward conspiracy theories and amplify calls to civil war.
The report, which has not been made public but was shared with VICE News, reveals that one of the main focuses of the disinformation being shared on Facebook and Instagram in the days following Ginsburg’s death was that she believed in lowering the age of consent to 12 for “sexual acts.”
The claim, which has been widely debunked, originates from a comment made by Susan Hirschmann, executive director of the conservative think tank the Eagle Forum during Ginsburg’s 1993 confirmation hearing.
Hirschmann relied on a 1977 report prepared by Ginsburg where she outlined language used in a proposed 1973 bill as an example of a gender-neutral definition of rape. The 1973 bill, which never became law and Ginsburg never advocated for, said rape could be definied as an offense when “the other person is, in fact, less than 12 years old.”
But on Facebook, numerous accounts reposted the conspiracy theory in the wake of her death.
Facebook has placed some of the content behind warning signs, but many more have been left untouched, including this post by an account linked to the QAnon conspiracy theory — something Facebook has also promised to remove from its platform.
One Instagram post sharing the misinformation was viewed more than 54,000 times and received more than 4,000 likes, AP reported. Avaaz said that it tallied over 4,000 interactions on Facebook with posts boosting this conspiracy theory.
“Justice Ginsburg's legacy of defending equality and integrity, a legacy that should be bringing Americans together in these difficult times, is being tarnished by misinformation on Facebook,” Fadi Quran, Avaaz’s campaign director told VICE News.
“From QAnon conspiracists to unidentified accounts, malicious posts defaming the late justice and instigating violence against her supporters are given free reign by the platform's algorithm and [Mark] Zuckerberg's unwillingness to implement decisive and transparent solutions. This content was not hard to find, and has been seen by unknown numbers of Facebook users."
Another theory being widely shared is the thoroughly debunked claim that Justice Ginsburg’s death was fabricated, and that she in fact died some time ago. Posts, memes and videos citing this claim remain on Facebook, often without a fact-checking label, Avaaz found.
But possibly the most disturbing content being shared on Facebook in the wake of Ginsburg’s death relates to a possible “civil war” breaking out over her replacement.
Many Facebook posts are responding to a Twitter user who claimed that there will be “civil war” if President Donald Trump attempts to appoint a Supreme Court nominee to replace Ginsburg before the election.
Pro-Trump Facebook users have cited this tweet to endorse retaliatory violence, with at least one user attaching an image of Kenosha shooting suspect Kyle Rittenhouse to their post.
That post, which Facebook removed only after VICE News contacted the company about the issue, was posted to the public group ‘Tactical Shithead - Carry Nation’ which has over 12,000 members.
Avaaz’s researchers tallied over 73,000 interactions with content related to the “civil war” narrative since Ginsburg’s passing, based on data from Facebook’s own CrowdTangle analytics tool.
Facebook’s policies say that it “removes content that glorifies violence or celebrates the suffering or humiliation of others.” However these posts and many others remain on the platform untouched.
Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the disinformation being circulated on its platform, but Avaaz said Thursday that Facebook has now demoted or removed a lot of the content it flagged in its report.
Facebook and other social media platforms are on high alert in the lead up to the 2020 election, concerned that disinformation will influence the outcome of November’s vote.
But disinformation about Ginsburg is not just coming from random Facebook and Instagram accounts, it has also come directly from the president.
On Monday, Trump sought to kickstart another conspiracy theory around the Supreme Court justice’s death, but suggesting that her dying wish not to be replaced until after the election was something made up by the leading Democrats like Rep. Adam Schiff, Sen. Chuck Schumer or Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi.
“I don’t know that she said that, or if that was written out by Adam Schiff, and Schumer and Pelosi,” Trump said during an interview on Fox & Friends. “That came out of the wind. It sounds so beautiful, but that sounds like a Schumer deal, or maybe Pelosi or Shifty Schiff.”
But Clara Spera, Ginsburg’s granddaughter cleared up any suggestion her dying wish was a Democrat plot in an interview with the BBC.
”In the final days of her life, I asked my grandmother if there was anything she wanted to say to the public, to anyone, that wasn't already out there,' Spera said. “I pulled out my computer and she dictated the following sentence to me. She said: ‘My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed’.”
Cover: A memorial to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg includes a photograph of the late Justice, Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2020, outside the Harvard Law School library at Langdell Hall, on the campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)