“What we see is that in many groups there’s been increasing discussion of conspiracies,” said Karen Kornbluh, who leads the Digital Innovation and Democracy Initiative at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a policy think-tank. Kornbluh’s team has been tracking more than 35 public and private Facebook groups originally dedicated to the reopening.
“There’s been a lot of Antifa terrorist rumor mongering,” said Alyssa Kann, a research assistant at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which studies misinformation. Kann estimates there are hundreds of groups on Facebook dedicated to reopening or opposing Covid-19 lockdowns, and says many of them traffic in the same conspiratorial content.
Some of the groups’ rapid shift from a stated focus on fighting lockdowns to a haven for a wide range of misinformation highlights the broader problem confronting Facebook as it struggles to moderate its platform.
The spread of misinformation within these groups also illustrates the way conspiracy theorists exploit Facebook to lure new audiences to their ideas. By offering claims that validate users’ other ideological leanings about the pandemic, the groups may have served as a gateway to ever more fringe views.
“It’s more of a conduit,” said Elise Thomas, a researcher with the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, “down the path of radicalization to more and more extreme groups and theories.”
Facebook groups aren’t the only place where misinformation flourishes; other social media platforms have grappled with it in their own ways. But it’s the presence of communal watering holes on Facebook that attract like-minded individuals who can cluster and discover other, similar groups of people, researchers say.
“It’s hard to have an organized group or movement on Twitter,” said Thomas. “In terms of social media activity, it really is focused on Facebook. Most of the people are on Facebook already. Anytime you can reduce friction to get people to join a digital online group, that’s the way it’s going to go.”
Many of the “reopen” groups on Facebook host entire ecosystems of unfounded claims, ranging from allegations about 5G technology to vaccines and contact tracing. And many posts refer visitors to external websites that offer still more conspiratorial content, leading the uninitiated down a rabbit hole of misinformation, according to both the research groups as well as content reviewed by CNN Business.
“‘CONTACT TRACING’ just a fancy word for ‘SPYING,'” a person wrote in the group Reopen California last month, according to screenshots compiled by researchers. As of last week, the post had generated more than 100 comments and received nearly 400 reactions. The group has nearly 172,000 members, according to Kornbluh.
While foreign influencers like Russia were found to have engaged in misinformation-peddling to sow discord ahead of the 2016 election, this latest batch of misinformation seems to be homegrown, according to the researchers. So far, Thomas and Kann said they’ve seen no evidence that foreign actors are impersonating people in the reopen groups or seeking to influence the conversation there.
At least two social media companies concur. In a House Intelligence Committee hearing Thursday, representatives of Facebook and Twitter said neither company has detected foreign elements surreptitiously trying to get involved in the public debate over the protests.
What is unusual, some researchers say, is just how many strains of misinformation are being consolidated in these groups as conspiracy theorists seek out new audiences.
“There’s been a convergence across the conspiracy-minded communities that don’t typically talk to each other,” said Graham Brookie, director of the Digital Forensic Research Lab, “and we haven’t seen that in any other sustained breaking news event in the way we’ve seen it on coronavirus.”
All this activity appears to have helped groups that might otherwise have had a short shelf life during the pandemic to find a new kind of staging power.