The White House spread an unproven conspiracy theory on social media blaming far-left groups and “antifa” for placing pallets of bricks at protests following the death of George Floyd to incite anti-police violence.
On Facebook and Twitter on Wednesday, the official White House accounts wrote, “antifa and professional anarchists are invading our communities, staging bricks and weapons to instigate violence,” alongside a video of piles of bricks found in various US cities. “These are acts of domestic terror.”
Similar claims have circulated widely online in recent days, fueled by photos and videos of piles of bricks found across the US. But there is currently no actual evidence proving that any of the bricks were placed deliberately in an attempt to stoke violence — whether by protesters or anyone else.
The White House’s assertions also have potential to further inflame tensions at the protests engulfing the US, and present a fresh dilemma for Facebook and Twitter on how to handle Trump’s controversial and unproven posts online.
A few hours after the posts went out on Facebook and Twitter, they were seemingly deleted. It’s not clear if the social networks took action against them, or if the White House voluntarily deleted the posts. Facebook and Twitter did not respond to Business Insider’s requests for comment.
There are various brick-related conspiracy theories — but no proof
Demonstrations have erupted in more than 300 US cities in the last week to protest police brutality and racism, after the death of George Floyd — a 46-year-old black man who died on May 25 after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly 9 minutes.
Trump and other right-wing figures have accused antifa of fomenting the protests, which have seen scenes of violence, extreme police aggression, and robberies. But antifa is not a single, unified organisation like some describe it, but is rather a catch-all term for a range of protesters and others committed to anti-fascist activism, with a range of motivations and methods of protest.
There are also multiple versions of conspiracy theories related to the bricks going around. In the one the White House shared, the bricks are being placed by left-wing agitators for protesters to use against the authorities. Other protesters have claimed they are being left by police, for undercover officers to utilize and thereby discredit the protests. And a third claims that they are the work of white-supremacists attempting to infiltrate the unrest.
In many cases, the “suspicious” bricks seem to be linked to legitimate construction work. One video of police moving bricks that circulated online was actually officers moving bricks that came from a damaged sidewalk, they said. Another video that purported to show deliberately placed bricks in New York was shot in a neighbourhood where Rolling Stone reported that “no major protests have actually taken place.”
The FBI is warning of ‘far-right provocateurs’
On Tuesday, The Nation reported that the FBI’s Washington, DC, field office “has no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence” in violence connected to protests that took place over the weekend.
The FBI report listed a series of violent acts including instances of bricks being thrown at police officers and a backpack that contained explosives. But based on “CHS [Confidential Human Source] canvassing, open source/social media partner engagement, and liaison,” the bureau had no evidence that those acts were directly linked to antifa, The Nation said.
However, the FBI’s report did warn that people associated with a far-right social-media group had “called for far-right provocateurs to attack federal agents” and “use automatic weapons against protesters.”
Politico also reported on Monday that a Department of Homeland Security intelligence note warned law enforcement officials that a white supremacist channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram encouraged its followers to incite violence to start a race war during the protests.
Citing the FBI, it said that two days after Floyd’s death, the channel “incited followers to engage in violence and start the ‘boogaloo’ — a term used by some violent extremists to refer to the start of a second Civil War — by shooting in a crowd.” One of the messages in the channel called for potential shooters to “frame the crowd around you” for the violence, the note said, according to Politico.
NBC News also reported on Monday that Twitter had identified a group posing as an antifa organization calling for violence in the protests as actually being linked to the white supremacist group Identity Evropa.
Twitter suspended the account, @ANTIFA_US, after it posted a tweet that incited violence. A company spokesperson also told NBC News that the account violated Twitter’s rules against platform manipulation and spam.
Antifa and professional anarchists are invading our communities, staging bricks and weapons to instigate violence.These are acts of domestic terror.The victims are the peaceful protesters, the residents of these communities, and the brave law enforcement standing watch. pic.twitter.com/SL3oZCvSBO
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) June 3, 2020
Social media companies are struggling with how to respond to Trump’s posts
Over the past week, as protests against police violence have following Floyd’s death have cropped up across the country, social media companies have grappled with how to handle the President’s inflammatory posts.
When Trump posted “when the shooting starts, the looting starts” — a phrase linked to a Southern police chief during civil rights unrest in the 1960s — Twitter determined that he was “glorifying violence” and affixed a warning to his tweet. But Facebook said the post didn’t violate its rules, prompting the biggest employee revolt in the company’s history.
Prior to their disappearance the White House’s post presented a new challenge for Facebook and Twitter.
The claims are not supported by evidence, and are the kind of highly charged claim that might normally be fact-checked by one of Facebook’s third-party fact-checking partners and labelled appropriately. Facebook, however, has previously said that it won’t fact-check politicians — but it’s not clear whether the White House account is considered “political speech” or not. In theory, the White House accounts are supposed to be official government accounts, rather than political or campaigning tools; the Trump White House arguably disregards this, and it’s not clear how that fact will factor into the matter.
Meanwhile, Twitter has set a precedent recently by fact-checking some of Trump’s inaccurate tweets about mail-in ballots (provoking right-wing fury).