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Amid flood of misinformation surrounding George Floyd's death and days of unrest, local leaders share false info

Eric Rasmussen
Updated: June 06, 2020 12:17 AM
Created: June 05, 2020 05:58 PM

A new wave of false information and conspiracy theories – what one expert described as an "avalanche of misinformation" – is now circulating on social media about George Floyd and all of the events that followed his death in police custody.

Newly released data from media intelligence company Zignal Labs shows online mentions that included misinformation have been shared around the world and 5 INVESTIGATES found some of that false information has been repeated by local leaders in Minnesota.

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Before a tanker truck barreled toward a crowd of people on Interstate 35W on Sunday, Minnesota House Majority Leader Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, said he had just broken off from the group of protestors that were demanding justice for George Floyd.

"I did not join them on the bridge or on the interstate, but I was in the vicinity," Winkler said.

Moments later, Winkler tweeted: "Protestors I know are saying truck driver drove into a crowd and intentionally ran into them. Confederate flags and white supremacist insignia."

It turned out that was not true.

Winkler later deleted the tweet, but not before it had already been retweeted, or shared more than 500 times. During an interview with 5 INVESTIGATES several days later, he stopped short of an apology.

"I think I behaved reasonably under the circumstances. I was clear that this was not something that I saw. This was something that people were saying," Winkler said.

But social media experts, including Claire Wardle, say even unintentionally false information can be a problem.

"Right now, when emotions are so high on both sides, everybody is more susceptible than ever, but we're weaponizing information. These tweets are not harmless," said Wardle who is the co-founder of First Draft, a nonprofit dedicated to helping people navigate misinformation around the world.

"Anybody can post anything on social media. They might have a blue tick next to their name, they might be in a position of leadership," Wardle said. "We have always looked to gatekeepers for the truth and so, when you see information from those people, we are hard-wired to believe that, so that does make it more dangerous."

Unverified Information

5 INVESTIGATES found Winkler is not the only local leader who recently shared false or unverified information.

At the height of rioting on the night May 29th, Minneapolis Council Member Alondra Cano tweeted: "Governor pulled out the national guard he had promised, we are doing our best to have MPD fill in their absence."

Video recorded that night by 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS clearly showed that statement was false and Minnesota National Guard members were still in place.

The next night, fellow Council Member Phillipe Cunningham posted to Facebook: "I have direct reports of KKK members in robes sighted in Ward 4."

5 INVESTIGATES has asked Cunningham where that information came from, but so far, the council member has declined repeated requests for comment.

Minneapolis Police told 5 INVESTIGATES it never received such a report from Ward 4.

Misinformation Themes

The nationwide data gathered by Zignal Labs shows misinformation surrounding George Floyd and the unrest that followed has come from both ends of the political spectrum.

Zignal identified more than 1.7 million "misinformation mentions" from May 25th to June 4th.

Some of the leading themes include conspiracy theories that billionaire George Soros funded protests and others that offered unsubstantiated claims about who was behind the violence.

Sunday on Twitter, President Donald Trump blamed "Antifa-led anarchists" in Minneapolis. That tweet was among more than 700,000 references to the predominantly left-wing group, according to Zignal.

"Whether it's deliberate and therefore 'disinformation' or whether it's mistaken and it's 'misinformation,' this is hugely damaging," Wardle said.

Closer to home, misinformation was not just online.

In news conferences last weekend, the mayors of both St. Paul and Minneapolis, as well as Governor Tim Walz, made statements that all or most of the people arrested were from "out of state" or "outside of the region" before later correcting those assertions when jail records showed they were incorrect.

When asked about Winkler's tweet connecting the truck driver to white supremacist symbols, the governor offered simple advice.

"I don't think we should do civic leadership via Twitter," Walz said. "It's not helpful."

While Winkler declined to say he would handle the situation differently in the future, he acknowledged one takeaway.

"Eyewitness testimony in the heat of the moment is not reliable. And you know, probably getting into too many of the specifics is something to be avoided."


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