As misinformation swelled in the Twittersphere during nighttime rioting in Washington, D.C., the social media giant said it was also investigating the #DCblackout hashtag, after thousands of tweets on the thread suggested the U.S. government was blocking cell service for those demanding justice for George Floyd, preventing them from making calls or posting online.
Those claims have been debunked by Twitter, cell phone carriers Verizon and AT&T, officials and even Black Lives Matter DC. A representative for Twitter said Monday that the platform has suspended an account called "ANTIFA_US" after finding it actually has ties to the white nationalist group Identity Evropa.
"This account violated our platform manipulation and spam policy, specifically the creation of fake accounts," the spokesperson told Axios. "We took action after the account sent a Tweet inciting violence and broke the Twitter Rules."
Antifa, the far-left militant network of groups that call themselves "antifascist," has been accused of coming from out of town into major U.S. cities to incite violence following the death of George Floyd. President Trump has said Antifa will be designated as a terrorist organization, yet there is no such official federal designation for domestic terrorism groups.
Twitter said the account "ANTIFA_US" encouraged people to begin moving into residential areas and white neighborhoods.
One of the since-deleted tweets read: “Tonight’s the night, Comrades. Tonight we say 'F--- The City' and we move into the residential areas... the white hoods.... and we take what's ours …”
Meanwhile, the hashtag #DCblackout, which was started by an account with just three followers, quickly blew up on Twitter. It generated about half a million replies on the thread within the first nine hours and became a trending topic nationwide on the platform by Monday morning, according to the Washington Post.
The messages first spread by bots, before then being shared by real people and falsely claimed the government or police had “jammed” cell phones, preventing people in the streets past the D.C. curfew from making calls or posting online. Some tweets included photos of a major fire by the Washington Monument, an image later found to be from the TV show "Designated Survivor. "
“We’re taking action proactively on any coordinated attempts to disrupt the public conversation around this issue,” Twitter spokesman Brandon Borrman told news outlets. “We are actively investigating the hashtag #DCblackout and during that process have already suspended hundreds of spammy accounts that tweeted using the hashtag.”
As documented during the coronavirus pandemic, domestic and foreign actors alike have used social media to play on the emotions of the American people during times of crisis, promoting civil unrest and further sowing fear and distrust with democratic institutions and civil government.
Following the death of George Floyd, who died after a Minneapolis officer jammed his knee into his neck in the shocking incident caught on video, peaceful protests demanding an end to police brutality and systemic racism have devolved into chaos after nightfall in major metropolitan cities across the country for nearly a week straight. Members of law enforcement have clashed with rioters, many of whom remain in the streets after curfew looting stores, setting fire to business, and damaging other property.
Black Lives Matter DC said on its official Twitter page that “#dcblackout IS FAKE”
Speaking at a press conference Monday, D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Peter Newsham and Chris Rodriguez, the director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, both denied officials had blocked cell service despite the rumors on social media.
"There was no communications loss that I saw, in any way shape or form,” Newsham said, according to WUSA. “I don't know where that came from, and that's why I rarely take a lot of the information that I get from social media on its face."
Rodriguez added that his office monitors social media for disinformation and passes intelligence to federal and local law enforcement.
NetBlocks, a non-profit organization tracking internet disruptions and shutdowns, said, “Real-time network data from Washington, DC show no indication of a mass-scale internet disruption overnight or through the last 48 hours. Observable fixed-line and cellular connectivity remain stable at the present time. We continue monitoring #DCBlackout”
Several local news reporters from different outlets on the streets of DC Sunday night into Monday morning continued to post videos and messages from the scene without disruption.
“A lot of people are asking me about a possible #dcblackout. I’ve been out near the White House since 4 am and haven’t experienced any outage,” WJLA reporter Victoria Sanchez said. “My friend and colleague @ABC7HeatherGraf was covering the DC protests last night and was posting multiple updates.”
As some initial tweets were taken down or disabled, screenshots of doctored tweets began to pop up on the thread, a tactic called "hidden viral" text messages, which prevents social media platforms like Twitter from detecting misinformation sooner, allowing false claims to first spread like wildfire and reach thousands of people's eyes before being removed, NBC News reported.
“The controversy about #DCblackout is indicative of serious problems with the design of Twitter’s trends,” Joan Donovan, director of the Technology and Social Change Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, told the Post. “Activists are trying to get the word out that the police attacks against them were dangerous, but the focus is on if there was or was not a blackout. We must pay attention to the voices of those on the ground last night.”