After Tuesday’s chaotic presidential debate, in which President Trump repeatedly ignored the ground rules, his supporters turned their anger on Chris Wallace, the Fox News anchor who served as the debate’s moderator, accusing him of being biased against the president.
Posts attacking Mr. Wallace dominated conservative social media on Wednesday and Thursday. One meme, which got more than a million interactions on Facebook after the president shared it, depicted Mr. Trump taking on both Mr. Wallace and Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, in a Street Fighter-style two-on-one brawl.
Another meme, shared by the conservative influencers the Hodgetwins, depicted Mr. Wallace as Mr. Biden’s knight in shining armor.
Other conservatives tried to paint Mr. Wallace as a Trump hater in disguise, pointing out that he is a registered Democrat. This is true. Mr. Wallace has described himself as “independent,” and has said he registered as a Democrat because “where I live, in Washington, D.C., the only elections that count are the Democratic primaries.”
But other claims about Mr. Wallace were not true, such as a rumor that circulated on WeChat, the Chinese messaging app, that claimed he was “fired” from moderating any future debates. Some users also shared an image that was falsely labeled as showing Mr. Wallace with Jeffrey Epstein, the financier and accused sex trafficker. (The photo actually showed Mr. Wallace with the actor George Clooney, a vocal liberal with whom he is friendly.)
The right-wing attacks have not stopped at Mr. Wallace. Conservatives have also begun casting doubts about the fairness of the second presidential debate, which is scheduled for Oct. 15 and is slated to be moderated by Steve Scully, a longtime C-SPAN political editor and host.
One right-wing meme accused Mr. Scully of being connected to the “deep state.” Other conservatives referred to him as a former Biden intern, or said he and Mr. Biden had gone to college together. (They did not go to college together, although Mr. Scully did intern with Mr. Biden’s Senate office while an undergraduate at American University. He also was an intern for Senator Edward M. Kennedy.)
Senator Ted Cruz, Republican of Texas, called the choice of moderator “NUTS,” and proposed having future debates moderated by teams of one Republican and one Democrat.
1/x Everyone agrees Tuesday’s debate was a train wreck. A major contributing fact was the moderator Chris Wallace, a registered Democrat, repeatedly interrupting to try to help Joe Biden. The next debate is set to be moderated by a former intern to…Joe Biden. (And Ted Kennedy.)
— Ted Cruz (@tedcruz) October 1, 2020
Pro-Trump partisans also began digging for evidence that the Commission on Presidential Debates, the bipartisan organization that sponsors the debates, was biased against Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump has complained about the commission in the past, calling it “very biased” and saying it is “stacked with Trump Haters & Never Trumpers.” (The group’s leadership consists of both Democrats and Republicans.)
Those claims have been renewed after Tuesday’s debate. On Thursday, supporters of QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory, began posting unfounded rumors about members of the debate commission, and pointing out that President Barack Obama is an honorary co-chair. (He is, as are former presidents from both parties, including George W. Bush.) Q, the pseudonymous message board poster whose posts fuel the theory, also weighed in, calling the commission’s choice of Mr. Scully as a debate moderator evidence of a “rigged system.”
It’s no surprise that people pushing anti-mask arguments popped up online around the time the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States in March and April.
But here is what might surprise you: The audience for misleading anti-mask posts on Facebook has grown sharply in the last eight weeks, despite the growing evidence that masks can help prevent the spread of the virus.
The number of people who have joined anti-mask Facebook groups has grown 1,800 percent, to more than 43,000 users, since the beginning of August, according to an analysis of data provided by Crowdtangle, a media tool that Facebook owns. Almost half of the 29 antimask groups discovered by The New York Times were created in the last three months, with names like “Mask off Michigan” and “Mask Free America Coalition.”
The biggest driver of coronavirus misinformation online was President Trump, according to researchers at Cornell University who analyzed 38 million articles about the pandemic in English-language media around the world. In total, Mr. Trump made up nearly 38 percent of the overall “misinformation conversation,” such as so-called miracle cures for the coronavirus, the researchers found.
Representative Tom Malinowski, Democrat of New Jersey, is facing down death threats from QAnon supporters after the House Republicans’ campaign arm falsely accused him of lobbying to protect sexual predators.
QAnon supporters began targeting Mr. Malinowski, a first-term congressman, on Tuesday, after he led a bipartisan resolution condemning the movement, which spreads a baseless conspiracy theory that President Trump is battling a cabal of Democratic pedophiles.
QAnon believers seized on an advertisement released last month by the campaign arm, the National Republican Congressional Committee, that falsely claimed that Mr. Malinowski, then a lobbyist for Human Rights Watch, worked to block a provision in a 2006 crime bill that would have expanded registration requirements for sex offenders.
Death threats and other harassing messages have since poured into Mr. Malinowski’s office in Washington. In an interview on Wednesday, he called the threats “a direct result” of the advertisement, noting that the calls his office had received cited its central accusation.
“We’ve been warning the Republicans running this play for at least the last two or three weeks that they were playing with fire,” he said. “Now the match has been lit.”
The threats against Mr. Malinowski were earlier reported by BuzzFeed News.
QAnon, the New York Times columnist Kevin Roose has explained, is the umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories that claim, falsely, that the world is run by a group of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who are plotting against Mr. Trump while operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. The F.B.I. has warned that QAnon poses a potential domestic terrorism threat.
The attack ad against Mr. Malinowski played directly to the group’s chief charge.
“In every city, in every neighborhood, around every corner, sex offenders are living among us,” the narrator of the ad intoned.
“Tom Malinowski chose sex offenders over your family,” the ad said.
A separate document circulated by Republican officials repeated the claim, specifically stating that Mr. Malinowski “worked to ensure sex offenders who violated children” would not have to join the registry.
Mr. Malinowski, a former State Department official in the Obama administration, has said he did not work on that bill — a statement corroborated by Human Rights Watch — and that his portfolio at the organization was focused on foreign policy matters.
But the campaign arm doubled down on its claim on Wednesday in response to the BuzzFeed News report.
“The only person who bears responsibility here is Tom Malinowski for his decision to lobby against the creation of a national sex offender registry,” Chris Pack, the communications director for the committee, said in a statement, calling the congressman’s actions “disgusting.” “Congressman Malinowski must live with the consequences of his actions.”
Mr. Malinowski said he had confronted Representative Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the National Republican Congressional Committee’s chairman, on Tuesday evening on the House floor about the QAnon death threats inspired by his committee’s ads. Mr. Emmer, he said, denied knowing what QAnon was and said that he was not responsible for what others did with the committee’s campaign material.
Of all the election misinformation this year, false and misleading information about voting by mail has been the most rampant, according to Zignal Labs, a media insights company.
Just how much bigger has it been? Of the 13.4 million mentions of voting by mail on social media; news on television, print and online; blogs and online forums between January and September, nearly a fourth — or 3.1 million mentions — have most likely been misinformation, Zignal Labs said.
That was 160 percent more than the 1.2 million mentions of misinformation on Bill and Hillary Clinton and their Clinton Foundation, the next biggest category, Zignal said. Other misinformation categories included George Soros, the billionaire investor and Democratic donor (915,300 mentions); misinformation about vaccines (628,700 mentions); and Kamala Harris “birtherism” claims (69,200 mentions).
The misleading information about voting by mail was not uniform. It broke down into six main categories, according to the analysis. In the month of September, they included:
mentions of absentee voting or ballots, such as the false idea that it will be an unreliable way to vote: 410,918 mentions
mentions of voter fraud, such as mentions of misleading stories about criminal conduct involving mail-in ballots: 345,040 mentions
mentions of voter IDs, such as the baseless idea that in states with strict voter ID laws, mail-in ballots have been dumped out: 31,021 mentions
mentions of foreign interference, such as inaccurately asserting that “foreign powers” are counterfeiting millions of votes: 11,857 mentions
mentions of ballot “harvesting,” a loaded political term used by President Trump for ballot collection, a process that is legal in 26 states where someone other than a family member can drop off your absentee ballot for you: 10,562 mentions
mentions of a “rigged election”: 10,140 mentions
Facebook, YouTube and Twitter have made combating false information about voting a priority, including highlighting accurate information on how to vote and how to register to vote. But the platforms have struggled to apply their election misinformation policies evenly, and many of the false posts are not removed unless the messages are explicit about causing imminent harm in the voting process.
A deceptive video released on Sunday by the conservative activist James O’Keefe, which claimed through unidentified sources and with no verifiable evidence that Representative Ilhan Omar’s campaign had collected ballots illegally, was probably part of a coordinated disinformation effort, according to researchers at Stanford University and the University of Washington.
What are the top Facebook pages engaging users on Tuesday’s presidential debate and their share of the conversation on the social network ahead of the event? It might not be what you expect.
The three public pages on Facebook that are seeing the largest share of the debate conversation on the site all leaned conservative. At the top was Fox News (with a 25 percent share of the conversation), followed by Breitbart (15 percent of the conversation) and then the conservative commentator Ben Shapiro (12 percent share).
The rankings were generated by CrowdTangle, the Facebook-owned tool that analyzes interactions on the social network. CrowdTangle measured the share of the debate conversation by using keywords like “2020 debate” and “presidential debate.”
The Facebook pages of the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr., the news site The Hill and MSNBC got the No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 slots, with a total share of 17 percent of the debate conversation on the social network.
Just outside the top 10 was CNN, at No. 12 with 1 percent of the conversation. The New York Times had the No. 33 slot, according to CrowdTangle.
The false claim that Joseph R. Biden Jr. received questions to Tuesday night’s presidential debate in advance has been circulating on right-wing media sites.
A post on Twitter by the radio personality Todd Starnes was shared over 18,000 times and was used as the basis for stories on a number of right-wing sites, including Infowars and Gateway Pundit.
The debate, moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News, will be the first time that President Trump and Mr. Biden, the Democratic nominee, face off.
A spokesperson from Fox News said the claim was “entirely false, and any assertion otherwise is patently absurd.”
Asked whether it had access to the questions before the debate, a spokesman for the Biden campaign, Andrew Bates, said, “No.”
Ahead of Tuesday’s presidential debate, rumors began spreading among right-wing influencers and Trump campaign surrogates that Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, was being outfitted with a hidden earpiece in order to receive surreptitious help during the debate, and that Mr. Biden’s campaign had refused a request from the Trump campaign to allow a third party to inspect both candidates’ ears for hidden earpiece receivers before the debate.
“If Joe Biden isn’t hiding anything,” wrote the conservative activist Charlie Kirk on Twitter, “why won’t he consent to a third party checking for an earpiece before tonight’s debate?”
The debate, of course, has not yet begun, and there is no evidence that Mr. Biden will be assisted by an earpiece once it does. (A member of Mr. Biden’s campaign staff called the rumor “completely absurd” during a call with reporters on Tuesday.) But the theory is being speculated about in right-wing media, including on Fox News, and it has been shared thousands of times on Facebook. It was also advanced by “Q,” the pseudonymous poster behind the QAnon conspiracy theory.
The Biden earpiece conspiracy theory (which originated in a tweet from a single anonymous source to a NYPost reporter, and was instantly denied by the campaign) is everywhere on Facebook. Absolutely everywhere. pic.twitter.com/AIdXoy4ZIi
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) September 29, 2020
“Secret earpiece” rumors are nothing new. In fact, they’ve become something of a fixture during presidential debate cycles, and part of a baseless conspiracy theory that tends to rear its head every four years.
The first real earpiece conspiracy theory dates to 2000, when Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio host, accused then-candidate Al Gore of getting answers fed to him through an earpiece during a “Meet the Press” appearance. (A representative from the show confirmed to Slate that all guests wear earpieces in order to hear the audio tracks of news clips played during the show, but there is no evidence Mr. Gore was fed any answers.)
Four years later, during the 2004 presidential debates, rumors circulated among left-wing bloggers that George W. Bush was getting help from a surreptitiously placed earpiece.
“This theory goes a long ways toward explaining the president’s consistently odd speech patterns,” wrote the liberal blogger Joseph Cannon.
Commentators on the left speculated about a “bulge” in Mr. Bush’s jacket (above), which they imagined concealed a hidden receiver into which Karl Rove, the former president’s political adviser, was speaking. The Bush campaign tried to bat down the rumors, but they persisted, even though no solid evidence ever surfaced. A NASA scientist even got involved in analyzing images of Mr. Bush’s jacket during the debate, looking for clues about the mysterious bulge.
In 2008, rumors again circulated online that a candidate was being fed answers during a debate. Ann Althouse, a law professor and conservative blogger, wrote that close-up TV stills showed that Barack Obama “was wearing an earpiece” during a debate with John McCain. (Ms. Althouse later recanted her theory, saying it was probably just light reflecting off Mr. Obama’s ear.)
In 2016, the rumor appeared again, this time attached to Hillary Clinton, who was accused by right-wing websites of wearing a secret earpiece. (One such story, which appeared on the conspiracy theory website Infowars, was shared by Donald Trump Jr. and other pro-Trump influencers.)
The secret earpiece rumor is not exclusively an American phenomenon. Foreign politicians, including Emmanuel Macron of France, have also been baselessly accused of wearing earpieces during debates.
Accusing the opposing party’s candidate of wearing a secret earpiece is not a particularly sophisticated disinformation tactic, nor would it probably provide much help to a candidate even if it were true. (In fact, as anyone who has ever watched a live TV anchor fumble with a producer’s instructions could tell you, listening to directions in an earpiece while staying attentive to a moderator’s onstage questions requires a fairly impressive act of multitasking.)
But the idea of a hidden helper giving one side an unfair debate advantage has proved seductive to campaign operatives trying to explain away a lopsided debate, or sow doubts about cheating on the other side. As a 2016 Salon piece about the earpiece conspiracy theory said, these rumors mainly seem to appeal to hyperpartisans whose views on the candidates are already made up.
“When someone presents you with grainy screen captures of George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton and claims that they show telecommunications equipment hidden on their bodies,” the piece said, “your partisanship enables you to bridge the sizable gap between the poor evidence and the firm conclusion that someone offstage was whispering into the candidate’s ear.”
Last year, QAnon was on the ropes.
The pro-Trump conspiracy theory had been left homeless by the disappearance of 8chan, the message board where “Q,” its pseudonymous central figure, posted cryptic clues about a cabal of child-eating Satanic pedophiles. The message board had been cut off by its security provider after the El Paso mass shooting, and while 8chan’s owner, Jim Watkins, was struggling to bring a replacement site online, some QAnon believers appeared to be losing interest.
Then, the pandemic hit — and with it, a new wave of misinformation that QAnon could incorporate into its overarching narrative, from false claims about mask-wearing to conspiracy theories about Bill Gates and a Covid-19 vaccine. The Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after the killing of George Floyd in May also provided new fodder for QAnon’s “bakers” — the amateur sleuths who gather in private Facebook groups and chat rooms to decode Q’s latest posts and discuss their theories about the global cabal.
But new research suggests that the biggest jolt to QAnon came from the so-called “Save the Children” movement. It started out as a fund-raising campaign for a legitimate anti-trafficking charity, but was then hijacked by QAnon believers, who used the movement to spread false and exaggerated claims about a global child-trafficking conspiracy led by top Democrats and Hollywood elites. This hijacking began in July, around the same time that Twitter and Facebook began cracking down on QAnon accounts.
Marc-André Argentino, a doctoral student at Concordia University who studies QAnon, has been tracking the growth of “Save the Children” Facebook groups, many of which operate as soft fronts for the movement.
Mr. Argentino identified 114 groups that bill themselves as anti-trafficking concerns, but are actually dominated by QAnon content. Since July, he found, these groups have increased their membership by more than 3,000 percent — yes, 3,000 percent — with a corresponding surge in activity within these groups.
“Save the Children really revitalized the community after Twitter and Facebook took action against QAnon,” Mr. Argentino said. “It’s introduced an entire new population to QAnon.”
3/ Since the start of the year there have been 140k posts in these communities, though most of these have taken place since July 2020 with 116k (8643 posts/week) pic.twitter.com/C5eKzw8iCV
— Marc-André Argentino (@_MAArgentino) September 23, 2020
Mr. Argentino also found that traffic to several pieces of core QAnon content — such as “Fall of Cabal,” a YouTube video that many QAnon believers have credited with spurring their interest in the group — has surged in recent weeks, after months of decline.
Facebook, Twitter and other social networks have tried to limit the spread of QAnon, shutting down some accounts and pages associated with the movement. But “Save the Children” is a fuzzier area for platform enforcers, because it can be difficult to tell who is genuinely concerned about child exploitation and who is taking advantage of those concerns to sow misinformation. That vagueness has helped QAnon believers avoid a total crackdown, and has given them venues to discuss their theories that aren’t as vulnerable to being taken away.
Adopting “Save the Children” as a mantra helped save QAnon in several other ways. It created a kind of “QAnon Lite” on-ramp — an issue QAnon believers could talk about openly without scaring off potential recruits with bizarre claims about Hillary Clinton eating babies, and one that could pass nearly unnoticed in groups devoted to parenting, natural health and other nonpolitical topics.
Typical of the new, understated QAnon style are Facebook videos in which parents sound the alarm about pedophiles brainwashing and preying on children. These videos, wrote Annie Kelly, a researcher who wrote a Times op-ed about QAnon’s appeal to women this month, make for “compelling and dramatic content” that is “easily shared in other parenting groups with little indication of their far-right origins.”
Since stopping child exploitation is an issue that has broad and bipartisan sympathy, QAnon’s anti-trafficking rebranding has also allowed politicians to appeal to QAnon supporters without explicitly mentioning the theory. And seeding misinformation about child sex trafficking on platforms like Instagram and TikTok has allowed QAnon to tap into a younger and less explicitly pro-Trump demographic.
“It’s bringing down the average age of a QAnon follower,” Mr. Argentino said. “In 2019, this was mainly a boomer movement. Now we’re seeing millennials and Gen Z getting on board.”
Mr. Argentino’s research shows just how effective QAnon’s “Save the Children” pivot has been. In addition to spurring in-person rallies all over the world, the movement has become one of the most potent forces on Facebook. Stories about child exploitation and human trafficking routinely end up being among the most-shared news articles on the site, and some QAnon-adjacent scandals — such as the uproar over Netflix’s “Cuties” film, which was discussed for weeks inside QAnon Facebook groups before it was condemned by Republican lawmakers as promoting child sexualization — have crossed over into mainstream political discourse.
There is nothing wrong with expressing concerns about child exploitation, which is real and harmful. But QAnon’s embrace of the “Save the Children” movement has created its own harms. Legitimate anti-trafficking groups have reported being flooded with calls from QAnon believers passing on false and debunked tips, forcing the groups to divert resources away from their actual work. QAnon believers have organized virulent harassment campaigns against people they accuse of being pedophiles, including celebrities like Chrissy Teigen and Ellen DeGeneres.
And some QAnon followers have pursued acts of vigilante justice against the imagined “cabal” they believe is running an underground child sex-trafficking ring. Last year, a Colorado woman was arrested on suspicion of plotting with other QAnon supporters to have her son kidnapped from foster care. (The woman, Cynthia Abcug, has pleaded not guilty.)
As Mr. Argentino points out in a recent Twitter thread about his findings, there is some evidence that the growth of “Save the Children” may be slowing down. Sharing of posts inside the 114 groups he tracked has declined in recent weeks, even as membership in the groups has continued to rise. Facebook’s recent crackdowns may explain part of the falloff in sharing. But it could be evidence that QAnon — which needs a constant supply of fresh misinformation and new narratives to keep its community hooked — is preparing to move on.
“People are getting bored,” Mr. Argentino said. “There’s only so much content about child sex trafficking that you can share.”
Election officials in Sonoma County, Calif., asked the broader social media community on Friday to help them rebut a false report about mail-in ballots in the county.
After receiving phone calls from constituents claiming they saw online pictures of mail-in ballots in a landfill, the county posted a message on its main Twitter account alerting residents and other Twitter users that a false report was circulating. The picture showed 2018 election materials that had been sent out for recycling, as state law permits, the county said.
Help us stop a false report
Someone posted pictures on the web showing empty Vote-by-Mail envelopes from Sonoma County in recycling bins. The pictures are of old empty envelopes from the November 2018 election that were disposed of as allowed by law. pic.twitter.com/0FrhnD3jHg
— County of Sonoma (@CountyofSonoma) September 25, 2020
County officials said they were not sure of the origin of the false report, but by Friday it had been picked up by some conservative media outlets on Twitter. Conservatives and President Trump have recently seized on news reports of issues with mail-in ballots, such as nine that were found to have been discarded in a northeastern Pennsylvania county.
Sonoma County’s post underscored the difficulties that local election officials face in combating misinformation in the final six weeks before the Nov. 3 election. With the local news media in crisis across the nation, fighting misinformation largely falls on area officials, who are already stretched thin to meet the demands of the most complex election in decades.
For officials on the front lines in Sonoma, correcting the record as quickly as possible was paramount.
“I think we wanted to be proactive and make sure that people got the information from us, because we did hear from some concerned citizens,” said Deva Marie Proto, the county registrar of voters in Sonoma County.
Here at Daily Distortions, we try to debunk false and misleading information that has gone viral. We also want to give you a sense of how popular that misinformation is, in the overall context of what is being discussed on social media. Each Friday, we will feature a list of the 10 most-engaged stories of the week.
In the last week, news of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, and the political fallout from the opening of her Supreme Court seat, dominated the mainstream news. But on social media, plenty of other stories went viral, including some false and misleading stories.
Here is an annotated list of the 10 most-engaged news stories of the past seven days, according to NewsWhip, a firm that compiles social media performance data. (NewsWhip tracks the number of reactions, shares and comments each story receives on Facebook, along with shares on Pinterest and by a group of influential users on Twitter.)
1. NPR: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Champion Of Gender Equality, Dies At 87 (10,689,157 interactions)
NPR’s obituary for Justice Ginsburg, “the demure firebrand who in her 80s became a legal, cultural and feminist icon,” led the week’s viral stories.
2. CNN: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg dead at 87 (3,665,720 interactions)
3. The Babylon Bee: NBA Players Wear Special Lace Collars To Honor Ruth Bader Ginsburg (1,910,507 interactions)
This story from a right-wing satire site, complete with a photoshopped picture of LeBron James wearing a lace doily around his neck, was not true, but some who shared it seemed to miss the joke. (“This is so touching,” one Twitter user commented.)
4. MoveOn.org: Do not fill Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Supreme Court seat until after the 2021 inauguration (1,508,381 interactions)
A petition on the liberal site MoveOn.org urged senators not to fill Justice Ginsburg’s seat until January.
5. Legal Insurrection: Woman Driver Crashes Car While Flipping the Bird at Trump Supporters (1,326,475 interactions)
A right-wing site’s post about a video that it claimed showed a woman losing control of her car while making an obscene gesture to Trump supporters was shared gleefully by many conservatives.
6. The Babylon Bee: Fisher-Price Releases ‘My First Peaceful Protest’ Playset With House You Can Actually Burn Down (1,231,167 interactions)
Another post from the right-wing satire site, taking a jab at left-wing protesters.
7. Forbes: Trump Threatens To Issue Executive Order Preventing Biden From Being Elected President (1,217,425 interactions)
This story, from Forbes, took seriously President Trump’s comment about stopping Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s election via an executive order. (Whether or not Mr. Trump was joking is up for interpretation.)
8. NBC News: More than 200 retired generals, admirals endorse Biden (1,182,029 interactions)
9. NTD: 262 Arrested, 5 Missing Children Found in Gang Sweep in Oklahoma City (1,179,470 interactions)
This story posted by the NTD television network, which is affiliated with the Falun Gong spiritual group, was shared by many supporters of QAnon, the pro-Trump conspiracy theory movement. Stories about child trafficking often go viral in QAnon groups, which use them as evidence for their false belief that Mr. Trump is breaking up a global cabal of Satanist pedophiles.
10. The New York Times: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Supreme Court’s Feminist Icon, Is Dead at 87 (1,135,419 interactions)
On Wednesday night, as protests formed over a grand jury’s decision not to charge police officers for the killing of Breonna Taylor, footage began circulating on social media of a U-Haul truck being used to distribute signs, shields and other materials to protesters in Louisville, Ky.
Almost immediately, right-wing commentators began casting doubts on the idea that the protest was spontaneous, and asking questions about who was really behind it. The Police Tribune, a right-wing site that is supportive of law enforcement, claimed that the images of the U-Haul “indicate riots were preplanned.” Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity and other prominent conservatives also posted about the U-Haul, claiming that it suggested an organized, premeditated effort.
The online right is absolutely obsessed with a video of a U-Haul in Louisville, convinced George Soros emptied out his pocketbook for this dastardly $30 rental van.
Absurd engagement numbers on Facebook today. pic.twitter.com/q3XS795gnf
— Ben Collins (@oneunderscore__) September 24, 2020
And as speculation about the U-Haul’s origins mounted, some seized on the baseless claim that George Soros, the left-wing financier, was involved in funding it.
“While there has yet to be a direct confirmation that Soros is funding the group, it is all too coincidental,” read a post on Mr. Hannity’s website.
Some of the alleged ties to Mr. Soros stem from claims that a woman identified by right-wing activists as the U-Haul’s renter works for a bail organization in Kentucky, which also employs someone who previously worked as a Soros Justice Fellow, a legal grant given out by Mr. Soros’s philanthropic organization, Open Society Foundations.
But there is no indication of Mr. Soros’s involvement in the Louisville protests, and the claim is implausible even on its face. (Observers quickly noted that a local U-Haul rental costs less than $100 a day — hardly the kind of expense requiring a billionaire’s bankroll.)
False conspiracy theories about Mr. Soros acting as a “hidden hand” behind left-wing protest movements are not new. But this baseless rumor has gotten more traction than most.
Laura Silber, the chief communications officer for Open Society Foundations, said Mr. Soros had “absolutely not” paid for a U-Haul rental in Louisville, or funded antifa in any way.
“Unfortunately, right-wing trolls continue to spew a lot of false and malicious claims,” Ms. Silber added. “The Open Society Foundations supports the First Amendment right of every American to petition their government for redress of grievances through peaceful protest.”
This week, protests erupted around the nation after a Louisville grand jury did not charge any police officers in the killing of Breonna Taylor. And on social media, false and exaggerated claims about Ms. Taylor began recirculating, using a years-old format that was popularized years ago by far-right YouTube personalities.
Charlie Kirk, the right-wing founder of Turning Point USA, posted a video titled “The Truth About Breonna Taylor,” which was among the most shared Facebook posts about Ms. Taylor on Wednesday, according to data from CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned data platform.
Graham Allen, Candace Owens and Brandon Tatum, three other right-wing commentators, also had popular posts calling attention to “the truth about” Ms. Taylor’s killing.
This playbook is not new. Years ago, Stefan Molyneux, a right-wing podcaster and YouTube personality, got millions of views with a series of videos claiming to tell “the truth about” various prominent news stories, including the killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed Black man whose killing by police in Ferguson, Mo., set off the original Black Lives Matter protests.
The “Truth About” format, which promised a kind of secret knowledge to viewers, was appealing to those who distrusted the mainstream media and wanted to hear an alternative explanation for police violence. And it was ultimately mimicked by other right-wing influencers, including the far-right conspiracy theorist Paul Joseph Watson, whose videos include “The Truth About Black Lives Matter,” “The Truth About Oprah” and “The Truth About Modern Art.”
Most “Truth About” treatments of police killings follow a standard format. In each case, an influencer calls into question the mainstream media’s framing of the episode, and barrages the audience with details about the victims’ pasts and the circumstances of their deaths in an attempt to prove that, while they may not have deserved to die, they were far from innocent. (Mr. Molyneux, who eventually became a full-fledged white nationalist, has since been banned from YouTube for promoting hate speech, and the videos on his channel have been deleted.)
Like Mr. Molyneux’s videos half a decade ago, the “Truth About Breonna Taylor” content going viral on social media this week contains a mixture of truths, half-truths, exaggerations, red herrings and outright falsehoods.
Mr. Tatum’s Instagram post, for example, claims that Ms. Taylor was “terminated” as an E.M.T. in 2017. This is false. In reality, she quit that job, frustrated by the long hours and low pay.
Mr. Tatum also claims that Ms. Taylor was “knee deep in criminal/drug dealing activities” with her ex-boyfriend. This claim is exaggerated at best. Ms. Taylor’s ex-boyfriend, Jamarcus Glover, was a convicted drug dealer and had been in and out of jail during the four years that they dated, but it’s unclear if Ms. Taylor was involved in his criminal activity. In 2016, she was interrogated alongside him by police officers after she rented a car, lent it to Mr. Glover and he in turn handed the keys to another suspected drug dealer, who was found dead in the car hours later. But police then concluded that Ms. Taylor had no foreknowledge of how the rental car would be used, and she had no criminal convictions of her own.
In his “The Truth About Breonna Taylor” video, Mr. Kirk claims that Louisville police had a “no-knock warrant to go arrest Breonna Taylor.” This is false. Police had a search warrant for her apartment, not an arrest warrant.
Left-wing sources have also spread false information about Ms. Taylor’s death, such as the claim that she was “asleep in bed” at the time of her death. (She was in the hallway with Mr. Walker walking toward the front door, according to his account to investigators, having been woken up by the loud knocks on her door.)
But the right-wing misinformation is more ambitious, in that it seeks to reframe the Black Lives Matter movement entirely, drawing attention away from police officers’ actions and onto the personal lives of Ms. Taylor and other victims of police shootings. In this, it is similar to Mr. Molyneux’s videos, which sought to justify the killings of unarmed Black men by painting them as criminals whose actions played a role in their own deaths.
“This is a case that comes down to personal responsibility,” Ms. Owens said of Ms. Taylor’s killing, in a video posted Wednesday that got more than a million views on Facebook.
Rukmini Callimachi contributed reporting.
When the coronavirus death toll in the United States passed 200,000 on Tuesday, matching projections made by White House experts this spring, many of the right-wing media personalities who had mocked the estimates as overblown were quiet.
The death toll, tracked by Johns Hopkins University and a New York Times database, is most likely an undercount, many public health experts believe. At least 266,000 more people have died in the United States during the pandemic than would have been the case during a typical year.
Mark Levin, the host of a syndicated radio show and a Fox News program, declared on Twitter on Wednesday that “THE U.S. DID NOT SURPASS 200,000 COVID-19 DEATHS.” As evidence, he cited data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that 94 percent of the reported deaths involved underlying health problems and that 6 percent of the people who died had no illness or medical condition other than Covid-19.
Mr. Levin was one of several popular radio hosts who have used the C.D.C. statistic to make a case that the pandemic death toll was inflated, a false claim that was also promoted by a supporter of the QAnon conspiracy theory and amplified by President Trump in a post that Twitter removed last month.
Health experts have repeatedly debunked that interpretation of the data. Earlier this month, Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s leading infectious disease expert, tried to clear up any misconceptions during an appearance on “Good Morning America.”
“The point that the C.D.C. was trying to make was that a certain percentage of them had nothing else, but just Covid,” Dr. Fauci said. “That does not mean that someone who has hypertension or diabetes who dies of Covid didn’t die of Covid-19 — they did.”
The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control released an explanation Sept. 3 noting that the cause of death as listed on a death certificate includes an immediate cause, intermediate causes, underlying causes and contributing conditions. The department used an example to demonstrate how a person would be excluded from the C.D.C.’s 6 percent figure: if an immediate cause of death was acute respiratory distress syndrome, with pneumonia as the intermediate cause, Covid-19 as the underlying cause and asthma and diabetes as contributing causes.
“While certain people such as older adults are more likely to have more contributing factors, if the person doesn’t contract Covid-19, then those factors don’t start the cascade of events that lead to death,” the department said in a statement.
The U.S. leads all other countries in Covid-19 deaths. The grim statistics are in line with a projection made in March by Dr. Fauci and Dr. Deborah L. Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, who estimated that the virus could kill 100,000 to 240,000 Americans.
In April, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and several other conservative media figures latched onto an estimate made by Dr. Fauci that month, when he said that, because of social distancing efforts and lockdown restrictions, the ultimate number of deaths could be “more like 60,000.”
The conservative author Candace Owens, who has 2.6 million Twitter followers, said the 60,000 figure was proof that “the media was always lying, and the virus was never as fatal as the experts that are chronically wrong about everything, prophesied,” as CNN noted in an article on commentators who used the revised estimate to cast doubt on science-based projections.
President Trump has frequently discussed the virus in dismissive terms. At a rally this week, he repeated the misleading claim that young people faced very little risk, although thousands of people under 65 and many others who previously seemed in good health have fallen sick.
“It affects elderly people, elderly people with heart problems,” Mr. Trump said. “If they have other problems, that’s what it really affects. In some states thousands of people — nobody young, below the age of 18. Like, nobody. They have a strong immune system. Who knows?”
He added, “It’s an amazing thing. By the way, open your schools!”
No issue this election season is generating more misinformation online than voting by mail, even though some of the major tech platforms have made combating false information about voting a top priority.
On Thursday, YouTube is taking another crack at it. The site will add text under videos about mail-in voting that directs viewers to authoritative information from the Bipartisan Policy Center. The company has a similar feature on other topics that attract a lot of posts and videos containing false or misleading information, like the coronavirus.
“We’re continuing to raise up authoritative voices and reduce harmful misinformation,” Leslie Miller, YouTube’s vice president of government affairs and public policy, said in a company blog post.
Facebook and Twitter introduced voting information hubs this year and have been flagging — and at times removing — misleading posts about the election. While YouTube does not have a dedicated election hub, it has added panels on candidates when a user searches for them on the site, and it highlights information for how to vote and register on related search results.
But the social media companies have struggled in general to apply their misinformation policies evenly across their platforms, and election misinformation has continued to slip through, including the baseless narrative that voting by mail is likely to be unreliable.
President Trump’s trumpeting of inaccurate information about voting by mail has magnified the issue on social media. Voting by mail is the No. 1 topic of election misinformation this year, according to data from media insights company Zignal Labs; the analysis showed 3.1 million mentions across social media and TV broadcasts since January.
Social media companies have long demurred from policing politicians’ speech on their sites because they considered the posts by world leaders “newsworthy.” That started to change for Mr. Trump in May when Twitter set a precedent by labeling two of his tweets, in which he had posted about mail-in ballots and falsely claimed that they would cause the presidential election to be “rigged.”
In September, Facebook followed suit by introducing a sweeping set of changes to try to limit voter misinformation. Hours after rolling them out, the company applied its new rules to one of Mr. Trump’s posts on his Facebook page, in which he cast doubt on the vote-by-mail process.
A video of Joseph R. Biden Jr. answering live questions during a television interview is being edited to claim, incorrectly, that the Democratic presidential nominee was using a teleprompter.
In the full interview with Telemundo, conducted on Sept. 15, Mr. Biden can clearly be seen looking to his left, where the television studio set up a screen with live incoming questions from voters. An edited version of the video shows just one moment where Mr. Biden was unable to view a question and says, “I lost that line.”
The 26-second clip from the video has been shared by people close to President Trump, including his son Eric Trump, who tweeted on Wednesday that Mr. Biden had been “caught red-handed using a teleprompter.” Mr. Trump’s campaign also ran an ad amplifying the false claim against Mr. Biden.
A Telemundo spokesperson said Wednesday that recent social media posts claiming that Mr. Biden used a teleprompter during an interview with Noticias Telemundo and the anchor Jose Diaz-Balart were false.
Facebook said on Tuesday that it had discovered and removed an influence operation from China, the first public disclosure of Chinese efforts to interfere in November’s presidential election. While much of the Chinese activity was focused on pushing information about geopolitics in the South China Sea, Facebook fan pages were also launched for President Trump and Joseph R. Biden Jr. in the last six months.
The Chinese activity, while modest and not directly attributed to the government in Beijing, could undercut Mr. Trump’s repeated contention that China was intervening in the election to support Mr. Biden.
When Russians used Facebook and other social media platforms to sway American voters in 2016 with divisive messaging and disinformation, they had to plumb their own imaginations to produce the posts and ads. With another election looming, their job is now much easier: The Russians are simply amplifying misleading statements from President Trump, said officials and private analysts.
As public health officials raise alarms about surging coronavirus cases among young people, new research suggests that Americans under 25 are most likely to believe virus-related misinformation about the severity of the disease and how it originated.
In a survey of 21,196 people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia, researchers identified a clear generational divide. Respondents 18 to 24 had an 18 percent probability of believing a false claim, compared with 9 percent for those over 65, according to the study, conducted by researchers from Harvard University, Rutgers University, Northeastern University and Northwestern University.
The results diverge from past research that said older people were more likely to share false news articles on social media. Last year, a paper published in Science found that people over the age of 65 were seven times as likely as those ages 30 to 44, the youngest group included in that survey, to share articles from websites that spread false information during the 2016 presidential campaign.
In the virus study, people were questioned to gauge their acceptance of 11 false claims. Those included false claims that the virus originated in people who ate bats, that taking antibiotics protects against the disease and that only people 60 or older are at risk of being infected.
“Across the 11 false claims,” the report said, “we find a clear pattern: The older the age group, the lower the average level of belief in false claims.”
An earlier version of this post misstated the age range for the youngest group in the study. It is 18-24, not 18-25.