False Rumors And Doctored Images Went Viral During The D.C. Protests Some of the rumors claimed that authorities shut down cell phone signals in order to cover up violent police reprisals, but reporters on the scene say that is not true.
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NPR logo False Rumors And Doctored Images Went Viral During The D.C. Protests

False Rumors And Doctored Images Went Viral During The D.C. Protests

A number of rumors about the protests in D.C. circulated on social media late Sunday and early Monday, including one alleging that cell phones were being blocked so police could cover up violent reprisals against protesters. Kaitlyn Baker/Unsplash hide caption

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Kaitlyn Baker/Unsplash

The image would shock just about anyone: a fire so large that it seems to stretch halfway up the 550-foot-tall Washington Monument, and burning so bright that it dramatically illuminated the landmark.

Shocking, but fake.

The image was a screenshot from the fictional ABC show "Designated Survivor." But coming on the third day of raucous protests around the White House against police violence — which did include some fires that were intentionally set — it could have seemed like it was real.

The image quickly went viral on Twitter, not unlike a number of other rumors that spread during moments of uncertainty and chaos over the weekend.

There was a CNN reporter who some protesters accused of being a D.C. police officer in disguise, forcing CNN to clarify that he was in fact one of their journalists on the ground.

And there were claims spread under the #dcblackout hashtag that early on Monday morning cell phones and other communication devices were blocked as some sort of strategy to allow violent police reprisals to go unreported. That, too, was not true.

"Some of my videos and pics being posted by accounts saying they were last before a "#dcblackout" where streams and cells shut down. I didn't experience anything like that and — though I didn't try streaming — had no issue with phone as I tweeted and worked until 2:30 am at least," tweeted Yahoo! reporter Hunter Walker on Monday morning.

No, this fire was not real. Screenshot/Twitter/@wfchornets10 hide caption

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Screenshot/Twitter/@wfchornets10

"Stop retweeting #dcblackout," added CBS reporter Christina Ruffini. "None of this is true. Eventually, even TV crews need to sleep, but ours and many others were out late into the night. Their phones worked. Live signal was strong. Many of these tweets are the same wording. Don't fall for whatever is happening here."

Alex Engler, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has followed the use of social media and technology to spread propaganda, says he started noticing that many of the accounts promoting the #dcblackout claims had few followers themselves, indicating that they could have been created specifically for the purposes of spread disinformation.

"A lot of these accounts are pretty suspicious, especially the ones disseminating them at night. But there are very real people now promoting this. By 9 a.m. the fact that the origin of the story seems to be manufactured would already be obscured to you," he says. "I've never watched one of these in real time. It's incredible how quickly this happening."

On Monday morning, Anonymous, the collective of hackers, tweeted that it believes the viral claims to be fake.

"We suspect it is misinformation spread by a botnet... in order to incite panic and confusion," the group wrote. "The overall goal of the campaign appears to be to instill panic & fear to deter future protests. No evidence that protestors have been killed. No evidence of a sustained internet cut off. DC people report things are normal."

Engler says he wouldn't be surprised if this was an organized campaign of disinformation, much like those that were detected in the lead-up to the 2016 election, and which some intelligence experts warn could also come into play this year.

"We shouldn't be surprised. This is an enormous moment in American politics. It has the entire country's attention. When there have been moments like this, especially when fraught with divisions, we've routinely seen foreign parties exacerbate those differences of opinions and drive distrust and chaos," he says.

"If what this does is drive distrust... then that's a victory. If it makes it harder to tell what's true and what isn't... then that's working," he adds. "It took me a few minutes to figure out, but we shouldn't be surprised. It should have been clear midday yesterday this would have happened."

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