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Coronavirus, BLM protest conspiracy theories collide on Facebook and Twitter



Coronavirus, BLM protest conspiracy theories collide on Facebook and Twitter

Protests against police brutality and racial injustice have occurred in major cities during the pandemic.

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For the most up-to-date news and information about the coronavirus pandemic, visit the WHO website.

As protests about racial injustice erupted amid the coronavirus pandemic, conspiracy theorists quickly took to Facebook and Twitter to link the two events.

On Facebook, social media users spread a conspiracy theory that the protests over the police killing of George Floyd were meant to “start a race war to impose further lockdown restrictions” because people were starting to see through the coronavirus “hoax.” Others said the “elite” created both the pandemic and protests to control citizens.

Some Twitter users also turned to conspiracy theories. They pointed to images of protesters packed tightly together as proof the pandemic was a government hoax because there wasn’t an immediate spike in cases. Others pushed misinformation that Black people were immune to the virus or tweeted that social distancing had ended.

A pandemic, societal protests and a contentious election have created an especially challenging environment for Facebook, Twitter and other social networks. Content moderators and fact-checkers are struggling to prevent the spread of obvious misinformation while giving users space to voice their opinions.

The problem has gotten knottier for the online platforms as false claims about both the health crisis and Floyd’s killing collide, making content moderation decisions — taxing in the best of situations — even tougher. The social networks have said they’ll remove coronavirus misinformation that could prompt harmful behavior such asdrinking bleachto cure the disease or using unproven remedies.

“It really is like a perfect storm of events that have brought us here,” said Eugene Kiely, director of the fact-checking website, which partners with Facebook. “I can’t remember a time where we had so many things going on at the same time that invited these conspiratorial patterns.”

From May 28 to June 26, there have been 116,101 mentions that refer to both the coronavirus and the protests as a hoax, according to media intelligence company Zignal Labs, which analyzes data from social media and news outlets. Most of these mentions came from Twitter, but the conspiracy theories also popped up on Reddit. CNET also found dozens of posts on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that include false claims about both the coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests.

A Facebook spokeswoman said the social network’s efforts to fight such misinformation include automated detection systems, fact-checking and reducing content distribution. She also said Facebook is removing content that violates its rules. The company said it pulled down hundreds of thousands of posts that contain harmful coronavirus misinformation, but that data doesn’t include posts about the Floyd protests.

Twitter adds a label to tweets containing coronavirus misinformation, including a viral conspiracy theory that 5G causes the coronavirus. Clicking on the label directs users to authoritative sources. (The company relies heavily on automated technology, which has mistakenly applied the label to factually accurate content.) “Our team is currently reviewing other types of content and will label additional tweets soon,” a Twitter spokeswoman said.

On April 1, Twitter said it had removed more than 1,100 misleading and potentially harmful tweets since the company rolled out new guidance on March 18 that barred content that could increase the spread of the coronavirus. Twitter hasn’t released any new numbers since the protests began.

What’s amplifying conspiracy theories

Confusing — and sometimes contradictory — statements by authorities have fueled online chatter about conspiracies. Some health experts and politicians have encouraged citizens to protest racial injustice, saying bigotry also constitutes a health threat. At the same time, they’ve asked protesters to wear masks and practice social distancing. Conservatives who faced criticism for objecting to lockdown measures because the economic toll could weigh on mental health have called this a double standard.

Similarly, mixed messages about the effectiveness of masks for preventing the spread of the coronavirus have helped spur rumors. Early in the health crisis, as frontline health workers faced a shortage of protective gear, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization said people didn’t need to wear masks unless they were sick or caring for someone ill. Now both organizations encourage the general public to wear face coverings when going out.

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The word “hoax” has also been amplified by President Donald Trump, though there’s been confusion about whether he’s called the coronavirus itself a hoax. Fact-checking site Snopes said Trump used the term to refer to the Democrats’ criticism about his administration’s response to the coronavirus.

Online coronavirus conspiracy theories have the potential to affect health in the real world. A University of Oxford study found that people in England who believe coronavirus conspiracy theories are less likely to follow government guidance such as staying at home, wearing a mask or keeping six feet apart.

Joseph Uscinski, an associate political science professor at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories, said some people have a worldview in which events and circumstances are the product of conspiracies. It’s hard to get those people to change their minds.

“In my experience, it seems to be the case that if something’s coming from their worldview and it’s close to their heart, they’re not going to give up easily,” Uscinski said.

The overlap of social unrest and a global health crisis has created fertile grounds for conspiracy theories. Social media posts linking the two events warn of a dark plot to control society, a common trope in conspiracy theories. In late May, thousands of Facebook users shared a 1,000-word post that claimed Floyd’s killing was “staged” to incite “racial tensions.” The post asked if it was “mere coincidence” that the killing happened during the outbreak. Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis, told that nothing was staged.

Fact-checkers have also debunked false claims that Floyd’s death was recorded before the pandemic. Another false Facebook post claimed that former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanderstweeted there was a conspiratorial “pattern” in the pandemic and protests, as well as other events. The tweet came from a fake Sanders account on Twitter.

Facebook’s approach contrasts with Twitter’s

Facebook and Twitter have rules against posting coronavirus content that could cause harm, such as encouraging people to ignore social distancing. Both companies are generally reluctant to remove posts that contain misinformation, but the merging of conspiracy theories about the coronavirus and the protests gives them more leeway to take down problematic content because of the potential for harm.

Facebook appears to be taking a tougher stance than Twitter when it comes to coronavirus conspiracy theories. CEO Mark Zuckerberg has said decisions about coronavirus misinformation are closer to “black and white” than they are for political misinformation.

To get an idea of where Facebook draws the line, CNET showed the social network several posts that called both the coronavirus pandemic and the protests a hoax. The posts appeared on Facebook and on the Facebook-ownedInstagram photo-sharing service. On Instagram, one user posted a photo of a protester wearing a mask and holding up a sign that says “I can’t breathe.” Below that image was a picture of Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard doing a facepalm, above the caption “Take off the mask.” The post included the hashtag #coronavirushoax, which was enough to get it yanked.

Facebook also removed two other posts that claimed the coronavirus and Floyd’s death were hoaxes. The social network said it took the posts down because they could lead to imminent physical harm by discouraging people from getting treatment or from taking precautions against the virus.

On Twitter, simply tweeting that the coronavirus virus is a hoax isn’t enough for the company to pull down the content. Twitter said it considers the content “strong commentary and conspiratorial content” that doesn’t meet its bar for removal. Twitter’s guidance states that to be removed, claims such as “coronavirus is a fraud” must include a “call to action,” such as encouraging people to stop washing their hands.

Twitter has left up tweets that say the coronavirus is a government hoax or that question whether the coronavirus impacts Black people. CNET showed Twitter a tweet posted in early June that said Floyd’s death exposed the “bullshit & hoax of the coronavirus” because there wasn’t an immediate spike in COVID-19 infections. Twitter left up the post.

The company, though, removed a tweet about the protests that included the false claim that Black people are immune to the virus. It also pulled down a tweet that encouraged people to take off their masks because protests have shown that “social distancing is over.”

Why people create conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories that are spread online can have consequences in the real world. In 2016, a North Carolina man fired a rifle in a Washington, DC, pizzeria called Comet Ping Pong while investigating a debunked conspiracy theory known as Pizzagate. Conspiracy theorists speculated that Hillary Clinton, who was a presidential candidate that year, was linked to a child-sex-trafficking ring run from the restaurant.

The QAnon conspiracy theory, which involves an alleged “deep state” plot against Trump, has bled into the real world. QAnon proponents have shown up at the president’s rallies and an armed man staged a blockade at the Hoover Dam in an effort to get documents QAnon followers believe will expose the deep state. Trump has also retweeted a QAnon hashtag to his 82.4 million followers.

Kathryn Olmsted, a history professor at the University of California, Davis, who teaches classes on conspiracy theories, said humans often look for patterns and want to see connections. Amid a pandemic and protests for racial justice, people might find it easier to make up conspiracy theories than to face reality.

“One way that social psychologists say that people look for connections is through conspiracy theories and that it can be more comforting to find a pattern then to confirm the world as it is today,” Olmsted said.


Colorado Court Elaborates the “Reasonable Exercise” Test Under the Colorado Constitution’s Right to Keep and Bear Arms



Article II, section 13 of the Colorado Constitution reads:

The right of no person to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person and property, or in aid of the civil power when thereto legally summoned, shall be called in question; but nothing herein contained shall be construed to justify the practice of carrying concealed weapons.

Monday’s decision in Rocky Mountain Gun Owners v. Polis clarified and summarized the “reasonable exercise” test, which the court had announced in the 1994 Robertson case; recall that state supreme courts are free to interpret their state constitutions as more protective than the federal Constitution, as protective, or less protective (though they must also enforce the federal Constitution, when litigants ask them to do so):

[T]he reasonable exercise test [set forth in the 1994 Robertson precedent] demands that government enactments implicating the article II, section 13 right [to keep and bear arms] have a legitimate government end within the police power, such as promoting the public health, safety, or welfare. And as its name suggests, it requires a “reasonable” fit between purpose and means. But in the article II, section 13 context, the ultimate function of the reasonable exercise test is to effectuate the substantive constraints imposed by article II, section 13 on otherwise rational government regulation.

Reflecting that function, the article II, section 13 reasonable exercise testunlike ordinary rational basis reviewdemands not just a conceivable legitimate purpose but an actual one. And, importantly, it does not tolerate government enactments that have either a purpose or effect of rendering the right to bear arms in self-defense a nullity. In short, the reasonable exercise test permits restrictions that may burden the right to bear arms but that still leave open ample means to exercise the core of that right; on the other hand, the test forbids restrictions that are so arbitrary or onerous as to amount to a denial of the right.

These features of the reasonable exercise test are apparent from our earliest application of article II, section 13. In Nakamura, the challenged legislation prohibited unnaturalized foreign-born residents from hunting any wild bird or animal except “in defense of persons or property” and, “to that end,” made it “unlawful for any unnaturalized foreign-born resident … to either own or be possessed of a shotgun or rifle of any make, or a pistol or firearm of any kind.” We acknowledged that the state’s identified interests were permissible ones: “[t]he state may preserve its wild game for its citizens” and “prevent the hunting and killing of same by aliens.” But we struck down the law nonetheless, reasoning that it was apparent that it was actually “designed to prevent possession of firearms by aliens, as much, if not more, than the protection of wild game within the state.”

Importantly, we found it “equally clear” that the act had the effect of “wholly disarm[ing] aliens for all purposes.” We held that the state “cannot disarm any class of persons or deprive them of the right guaranteed under section 13, article 2 of the Constitution, to bear arms in defense of home, person, and property.” In other words, “[t]he police power of a state … cannot be exercised in such manner as to work a practical abrogation of its provisions.”

Our later cases just as clearly demonstrate the independent bite of the reasonable exercise test. In Blue, we held that a statute prohibiting individuals with prior felony convictions from possessing weapons was a constitutional exercise of the police power under article II, section 13. “To be sure,” we explained, “the state legislature cannot, in the name of the police power, enact laws which render nugatory our Bill of Rights and other constitutional protections.” But we did not read the felon-in-possession statute “as an attempt to subvert the intent of [article II, section 13].”. And in Ford, an as-applied challenge to the same statute, we expressly stated that “the specific limitations of [article II, section 13] must be superimposed on the statute’s otherwise valid language,” and that a state may “validly restrict or regulate the right to possess arms where the purpose of such possession is not a constitutionally protected one” such as defense of home, person, or property. see also City of Lakewood v. Pillow (Colo. 1972) (striking down ordinance that made it unlawful for a person to possess a firearm in a vehicle or in a place of business for purpose of self-defense).

[I]n Robertson, we again explicitly noted that the right to bear arms in self-defense under article II, section 13 could be regulated but not prohibited. In upholding the Denver ordinance [that banned so-called “assault weapons” -EV], we looked to evidence confirming the city council’s expressed intent to “promote the health, safety, and security of the citizens of Denver” by “curbing crimeparticularly homicides.” We further relied on evidence that although the city sought to prohibit the possession and use of approximately 40 firearms, closer to 2,000 remained available for purchase and use in the United States. Given this evidence of the “narrow class of weapons regulated by the ordinance,” we had no trouble concluding that it did not “impose such an onerous restriction on the right to bear arms as to constitute an … illegitimate exercise of the state’s police power.”

In sum, under article II, section 13 of the Colorado Constitution, the government may regulate firearms so long as the enactment is (1) a reasonable exercise of the police power (2) that does not work a nullity of the right to bear arms in defense of home, person, or property. This test differs from rational basis review in that it requires an actual, not just conceivable, legitimate purpose related to health, safety, and welfare, and it establishes that nullifying the right to bear arms in self-defense is neither a legitimate purpose nor tolerable result. In these ways, it ensures that the specifically enumerated “right to bear arms in defense of home, person and property” in article II, section 13 stands as an independent, substantive limitation on otherwise rational government action.

The court went on to apply this to uphold a Colorado statute limiting “large-capacity magazines,” defined as magazines “capable of accepting, or … designed to be readily converted to accept, more than fifteen rounds.” (The court made clear that the magazines had to be designed to be readily converted to do that, and not just capable of being readily converted.) The court didn’t discuss how the statute would be analyzed under the Second Amendment, because plaintiffs had raised only a state constitutional challenge.

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