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When you are the Fake News

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

A few days ago, a friend sent me a message with a link to an alarming tweet from the Chicago Police Department, suggesting gently that perhaps they could use my consulting services. But something about the tweet seemed off to me. I've read hundreds and thousands of police tweets, and I can't imagine any agency, let alone a professional communications shop like Chicago PD, would fire off this one:

A quick check revealed that it was indeed a fake screenshot, originating from a user called Papi Ace, and shared over 50,000 times by various users across the platform.

When I first started working at NYPD, I came across a viral youtube video of an officer appearing to harass a Muslim man and mocking him for his traditional clothing. I innocently asked one of my new coworkers, a seasoned cop, if he thought this video might be fake. He looked at me like I was crazy.

"Of course it's fake!" He said in disgust. "Cops don't behave like that!"

But I wouldn't know, since my knowledge of policing and police officers was still limited, and shaped to an extent by whatever I saw on TV or heard on the news.

It turns out that he was right - the video was the (very professional) work of a YouTube con artist.

I learned that day that when you are embedded within an organization or culture, over time you develop an eye for what behavior is acceptable or normative, and what is so egregious that there's a very low likelihood it's true.

All this to say, I don't know of any police officer, let alone an entire police department, that would ever identify with Derek Chauvin. And yes, I know some crappy ones too.
But I don't expect the general public to have that disbelief, especially when they are fed a steady diet of anti-police rhetoric and cherry-picked data designed to inflate racial tensions for the sake of a few more clicks.

It's no wonder this fake tweet went viral, and was seen by hundreds and thousands of people who have no reason to believe it is BS. To make matters worse, Twitter claimed that it doesn't violate their terms of service, and refused to remove it. According to Twitter, the disputes by others users were enough to provide "context" that the screenshot was fake, as if any user decide to investigate by reading the thread of tweets (if they can get past the original poster's links to his online clothing store.)

Twitter even claimed proudly that this was flagged by "Birdwatch," their new crowd-sourced community moderation tool. No action was taken, but perhaps we'd be relieved to know that other people thought it was BS as well.

No one needs another blog post about the power of social media to incite violence, influence behavior, and cause just the right amount of rage to tip someone over the edge. Since online incitement is being discussed at the highest levels of tech companies and CEOs are being dragged in front of the Senate for multiple hearings, it's surprising and disappointing to learn that this lie didn't raise sufficient alarm bells. At a time when police-community tensions are reaching yet another boiling point, it also seems downright irresponsible.

What should you do if you are the target of a fake post?

  • Always Monitor - these posts tend to spread fast, so if you only check your account once a day or don't have notifications on, you may only notice it when it's too late. Make sure to check in regularly so you can catch something like this as early as possible.

  • Take a screen shot - you want to hold on to that if the user or platform decides to remove it.

  • Report it to the platform - one thing that's clear about social media companies user guidelines is that they are not clear. Sometimes they'll remove something, sometimes they won't. But reporting the post is a necessary step.

  • Address it, but only If the post is spreading - don't want to waste your energy and voice refuting every rumor, instead focus on ones that you feel are gaining some traction (there's no magic number here, but you'll know when you see it.)

  • Don't be too vague or say something like "we are aware of a fake tweet circulating" because not everyone may know, and you may elicit more curiosity. Instead address it head on, in an original post using a screen shot of the tweet with a "fake" label that you can slap on it using any smart phone. You can also respond to the original poster as a reply to the fake tweet. Don't be shy! If you respond to the OP, your tweet will likely rise to the top of the thread if you are verified.

  • If you're feeling especially spicy, you can "quote tweet" the original tweet and call it out. This means the user will get notified, and there will be a "paper trail" from your post to the fictitious one. You may be concerned that you are giving him or her more attention, but you are also ensuring that most of the attention will be negative, and that the OP will feel the uncomfortable wrath of the ratio - the unofficial red flag that is raised when the number of comments on a tweet exceeds the number of retweets or likes.

Chicago PD did the right thing by addressing this, and even called out the bizarre decision in a separate tweet. In a time when the actions of one officer represent an entire profession, t's the responsibility of every police department to be aware of it's social media presence, and act swiftly to combat the fuel being thrown to the fire.

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