Facebook has failed to stop the spread of disinformation about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Jacob Blake months after they were killed or seriously injured by police officers, and the lies being spread have been debunked by Facebook’s own fact-checking partners.
And new research shows that at least several of the same accounts spreading the disinformation have in recent weeks urged their followers to attend the pro-Trump rally in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6 that descended into violence and the storming of the Capitol.
The research, from digital rights nonprofit Avaaz and published on Tuesday morning, shows that false and misleading narratives about Floyd, Taylor, and Blake racked up nearly 1 million interactions — and 19 million estimated views — on Facebook over a 12-month period, based on a small sample of 137 posts.
“The overall numbers are potentially much higher,” Avaaz said in its report.
The lies that continue to spread on the platform include unfounded claims that Floyd was a crisis actor, that Blake raped a 14-year-old, and that Taylor was shot while asleep in her bed — all of which have been debunked already.
While Facebook has labeled just over half of the misleading posts flagged by Avaaz, it failed to detect and label copycat content that contained almost identical or slightly altered variations of the false claims.
Avaaz found that this unlabelled content had over twice as many interactions as the labeled posts.
“It is outrageous that there are lies still spreading on Facebook about Jacob Blake, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd — by some of the same people who helped organize the attack on our Capitol,” Fadi Quran, Avaaz campaign director said in an emailed statement.
“Unless Facebook acts, the pages and groups that mobilized violence against minorities and our democracy will continue to do so.”
The Avaaz report offers a snapshot of the challenges facing communities of color in the U.S., who are disproportionately targeted by hate speech and disinformation on social media — often in a coordinated manner.
Facebook told VICE News that it “routinely removes and labels content that goes against our policies and we did so for the content, pages and groups identified in the Avaaz report.”
But, not only do the families of these victims have to deal with reliving their trauma repeatedly by seeing this disinformation continue to spread online, but family members are also being actively harassed with abuse and violent threats under their own public posts on Facebook.
For example, on Blake’s father’s Facebook profile one commenter said: “The whole pedos [sic] family is listed. It’s gonna be a long night for me,” alongside screenshots of family members’ names listed on Facebook.
Another commenter said: “They need to castrate him while they are at it and convict him of the rape he has done don’t feel sorry for him.”
Disinformation about Breonna Taylor tracked by Avaaz garnered by far the most interactions (660,000). The disinformation included claims that Taylor was asleep in her bed when she was shot, a claim that has been debunked. One of the most popular posts spreading this false narrative came from the Kremlin-backed Redfish media — an entity that Facebook has flagged as a Russian state-backed media organization.
Because Facebook allowed this narrative to remain on the platform, it was shared by high-profile accounts like actress Halle Berry and singer Mariah Carey, who have a combined following of 26 million.
Avaaz also found evidence of coordinated campaigns to spread disinformation about the victims.
A group of 15 pages controlled by The Daily Wire, the right-wing news outlet run by Ben Shapiro, posted a misleading article alleging, “Medical Examiner Concluded George Floyd Likely Died Of Fentanyl Overdose, Court Docs Reveal.”
A Politifact fact-check released on Sept. 25 2020 confirms that while George Floyd did have the substance Fentanyl in his bloodstream at the time of his death, there was no question that the cause of death was police brutality.
This was not the first time the Daily Wire has been accused of coordinated spreading of disinformation. In July, Facebook demoted some of the Daily Wire pages for undisclosed coordinated behavior, said the outlet ran “pages [that] violate our policies against undisclosed paid relationships between publishers.”
Facebook has repeatedly promised to do more to combat disinformation on its site, but just last week it was shown that Facebook failed to spot 90 groups spreading election fraud disinformation and fomenting anger ahead of the Jan. 6 attack on Capitol Hill.
Specifically addressing the issue of protecting minorities, Facebook said last June, after protests against the murder of Floyd swept the country, that it stood “against racism and in support of the Black community and all those fighting for equality and justice every single day.”
But the evidence presented by Avaaz on Tuesday suggests it is not fulfilling that promise.
“Ultimately our findings cast serious doubt on whether Facebook’s policies and actions reflect its claims,” Avaaz’s report said. “Facebook ignored expert advice and did not act as effectively as it could have against misinformation and hateful content targeting the most vulnerable in our society. It belatedly adopted better policies near and right after the election, only to roll them back again weeks before the insurrection occurred.”