Updated Tuesday at 7 a.m. ET
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 TV 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 and that showed how the intense polarization of the moment is fertile ground for online disinformation campaigns.
Some protesters accused a CNN reporter of being a Washington, D.C., police officer in disguise, forcing the network to clarify he was one of its journalists on the ground.
And there were claims spread under the #dcblackout hashtag that cellphones and other communication devices were blocked as part of a 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," Yahoo! reporter Hunter Walker tweeted Monday morning.
"Stop retweeting #dcblackout," CBS reporter Christina Ruffini added. "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."
Experts said the #dcblackout hashtag seemed to be the work of a well-funded and organized Internet campaign, and a successful one at that.
Many of the accounts promoting the #dcblackout claims had few followers, indicating they could have been created for the purpose of spreading disinformation, said Alex Engler, a scholar at the Brookings Institution who has followed the use of social media and technology to spread propaganda.
"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," Engler said.
The #dcblackout hashtag was approaching 1 million mentions by Monday afternoon, according to Clemson University communication professor Darren Linvill.
"Even if a huge percentage of those real people are using that hashtag to say, 'Hey, this isn't real' — it doesn't matter," Linvill said. Even if only 20% of people posting about it believe it, "20% of a million is still 200,000 people."
In an email to NPR, a Twitter spokesperson said it is "investigating the hashtag #dcblackout" and that it has suspended hundreds of "spammy" accounts that tweeted it out.
A shifting strategy
The #dcblackout campaign also showed a level of digital sophistication that didn't become clear until 12 hours after the original lie began spreading.
While reputable sources had debunked the claims by Monday morning, the online manipulation wasn't finished. A coordinated network of hacked accounts then began tweeting about how the hashtag was faked and that people don't need to panic.
"As someone seeing #dcblackout trending, who lives and works in the DC metro area, and who has friends telecommuting into DC rn..... this hashtag looks like misinformation," began hundreds of tweets posted by different accounts.
By having so-called bot accounts push back against the original storyline, Linvill said some users may have ended up more likely to believe it because it could seem like a staged debunking.
"They're creating this double negative," he said. "And causing everyone to question their own reality."
He hesitated to attribute the campaign to a specific actor but called the strategy of pushing multiple competing narratives "a classic Russian move."
#DCBlackOut is among the more interesting disinfo campaigns I've examined. Hacked accounts tweeting that fake accounts are lying are being used by other fake accounts as proof that the first set of fake accounts were real all along! THERE IS NO TRUTH! https://t.co/DhHvLNfVeb— Darren Linvill (@DarrenLinvill) June 1, 2020
Both Linvill and Engler said they expect to see more operations similar to this one as the protests continue, the presidential election draws nearer, and people use social media more than ever before as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
"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," Engler said.
"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."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A powerful image of the protests here in Washington circulated on social media Sunday night - a completely fake image, completely made up - an image showing a fire going halfway up the Washington Monument - not reality, just a screen grab from a TV show. It was part of a sophisticated disinformation campaign that was launched as the United States is in the midst of a public health and economic and political crisis. NPR's Miles Parks covers election security and disinformation. Miles, good morning.
MILES PARKS, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Why would somebody spread that particular image?
PARKS: So the main storyline, it all kind of goes into this kind of conspiracy theory that somebody - we're not sure who - was trying to spread. And the story basically goes like this. They were trying to push this narrative that at some point Sunday evening, the government managed to shut down all communication and Internet services in Washington, D.C., so that way, protesters wouldn't be able to post things on social media and police would be able to use more force.
Now, we know this is not true. And come Monday morning, a bunch of reporters wake up to tens of thousands of tweets about this specific storyline, and they start posting, you know, things that say, no, this didn't happen. I was there. I was able to tweet and email without any issue. But the #dcblackout hashtag that went along with this had already taken off, and it's been mentioned more than a million times on Twitter already.
INSKEEP: OK, so lots of people get that message. It's not clear that everybody gets the debunking of it. Was that the end of the disinformation campaign?
PARKS: It wasn't. And that's where this campaign gets really sophisticated. Once it starts being debunked by all these reporters, a network of hacked accounts and other bots, other automated accounts jump in to say - basically give a PSA that says, oh, that's fake. That's misinformation. Don't listen to it - which then prompts this third round of sort of reverse psychology effect on some people, feeling like, oh, if the bots are saying it's fake, then they want me to believe that, and maybe this is actually real. So then you get, you know, another flood of posting about the fact that there's automated accounts debunking it, if that makes sense.
INSKEEP: Any idea who orchestrated all of this?
PARKS: It's not exactly clear at this point. It was definitely a well-funded and well-organized effort is what experts told me. It's not just somebody sitting in their basement on a whim deciding to do something like this. I talked to Darren Linvill, who's a professor at Clemson who studies disinformation campaigns on social media. He didn't want to assign blame, but he was willing to at least say it fits the Russian game plan of throwing out multiple, conflicting narratives.
DARREN LINVILL: That is a classic Russian move. I mean, that sort of creating a double negative to make one question everything one believes - there is no truth - is what they do best.
PARKS: Now, he was really clear that this does not mean it definitely is the Russians, but just that their playbook is out there for anyone who has enough resources and wants to sow this sort of chaos on social media.
INSKEEP: Is there something about the chaos on the streets or the protests on the streets that make people particularly vulnerable to this kind of disinformation?
PARKS: Yeah, there is. That's what Linvill said. I asked him the exact same question. Here's what he told me.
LINVILL: There has been a spike in social media use in general, and you combine that with something that is so emotional that people are going to have visceral reactions to, and they're going to be more primed to believe whatever it is you're going to plant in their mind.
PARKS: And then you add in the fact that this protest movement is sort of based on the very idea that many official sources of information are not necessarily to be trusted, and it all kind of feeds into this environment that bad actors can take advantage of online.
INSKEEP: Miles, thanks.
PARKS: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.