The anatomy of misinformation from a police (LA Sheriff’s Department) Twitter example

Ok, this post risks focusing on small things when there is, in fact, a terrible thing in play: two LASD deputies were ambushed in their car by a gunman who hospitalized them both. It looks like both deputies are hanging in there, and that is great. I wish them whole and well, soon, and the very best care possible so they can be with their loved ones for a long time.

But also, LASD officers killed two men in South LA recently, one in a firefight in Compton and another Dijon Kizzee, in south LA, who was riding his bicycle and was shot over 20 times. Their lives mattered, and the explainations from the LASD, in Mr. Kizzee’s case in particular, are not convincing.

These are the important issues, but I am not particularly qualified to speak to them. Instead, I want to present a little draft case study on misinformation and how it works using social media.

There are news stories circulating—not very many, but enough—that “protesters yelled that they want the deputies to die.” And that is a problem because it is a dangerous, de-humanizing idea, and I want to spend some time with it because it illustrates just how social media can generate misinformation, or last dodgy information, even without Russian trolls to help it along. TMZ’s headline:

Not even trying to be responsible. TMZ, you suck, you have always sucked.

The “protesters want the police to die” story is covered in the news stories, here: story

NBC story


When I critically examine the evidence presented in the stories, I see the following things:

1) there are no photos of a huge crowd in any photo. All the shots are close-ups of individuals (stories where people actually turn out for a protest usually do not have to scramble for images; these are all lousy, even the LA Times which has excellent photogs);

2) once the click-baiting “protesters yell terrible things” is covered (quickly), the stories focus on content: the deputies or the arrest of a KPCC journalist, Josie Huang (which means, click-bait title notwithstanding, the events didn’t merit putting in tons of reporter time, unlike the latter two stories);

3) a report from one eyewitness who credibly relates what he saw, which I think basically describes the actions documented in

4) a cellphone video held by the “protesters” themselves (which I will get to in a second)

5) a tweet from the Sheriff’s office account, which I also need to discuss;

6) a Tweet from a KPCC reporter who was one of two people arrested at the scene because she supposedly failed to follow instructions, etc etc etc who refers to “a handful of protesters” and

7) our mayor condemning the sentiment expressed.

In terms of overlap, it seems pretty clear from reviewing all these bits that 3 through 6 seem to be relating, from different viewpoints, the activities shown in the video (#4). The last is our Mayor taking the easily picked fruit opportunity to reassure the police that he thinks saying they should die is bad. Not the wrong sentiment, for sure, and all part of political leadership, undoubtedly, but it’s along the lines of kissing babies.

The question becomes: when is a protest a protest, and when it is a man with a YouTube channel trying to increase social media hits? Because I see the latter, not the former, in just about all of this.

The video comes from a channel that has 419 subscribers (which is chicken feed in YouTube terms). It is a shaky, 40-minute long video from the “protesters” themselves where nothing much happens. We spend a lot of time watching them watching cars go by, which is itself an indictment of pedestrian amenities in LA more than anything else. There aren’t really any other people around them, so calling this a “protest” is bestowing dignity and intentionality that doesn’t seem merited based on what we got here.(1) The police they engage with handle themselves professionally as far as I can see. And then we get to hear the “protesters” saying various shitty things and insisting they want to enter the hospital. The things yelled are spelled out in this Fox News story:

“That’s why you’re dying one by one, you stupid f—s,” a man can be heard saying. “Y’all gonna die one by one. This ain’t gonna stop.”

“You’re next with the f—— hot pocket,” a man shouted.

“I want to deliver a message to the family of the [inaudible]: I hope they f—— die,” a man yelled.

“You’re next with the f—— hot pocket,” a man shouted.

“I want to deliver a message to the family of the [inaudible]: I hope they f—— die,” a man yelled.

Ok if these are protest chants, they are the worst ones I have ever heard. “A man said”….yes, but in at least two of these it sound like the same man. My hearing isn’t all that great, though, and I obviously wasn’t there, so let’s forget that and go big here. Yeah. Even if you treat these all as different people saying these things….there are maaaaaybe five people. Five.

Thanks to a FoxNews affiliate featuring the video, it has at the time of this writing over 160K views. Now, for a 419 subscriber YouTuber, that can be a big-ish deal. So far, i haven’t seen advertising, but this numbers are were companies begin to pay attention. For videos that do attract advertising, 100K and above can be decent-ish paydays, ranging towards $1500 depending on the advertisers. That isn’t bad granted that this is not polished content. YouTube videos like this are speculative: you won’t hit the 1 million views unless you are very very lucky and you likely won’t be very very lucky unless you make your own luck.

You might also get lucky and have your long, meandering video edited down to a much smaller, more menacing-sounding clip by a YouTube channel owned by the Chinese government. Gosh, that’s sure swell of them. I am sure whoever edited this bit for us was just being helpful and there was no other reason or anything. Cough.

It’s entirely possible that this YouTuber is sincere in their protest, as are his handful of peers. Trying to manipulate social media can be a political tactic instead of a profit strategy. That still doesn’t mean the action or the video is analogous to BLM protests, and it does not mean that BLM protesters share this guy’s feelings or support what he says.

So let’s get to how this likely got picked up by Fox in the first place. The Sheriff’s office tweeted this:

  1. Journalists and editors: Tweets are NOT evidence of anything other than what people say on Twitter; and
  2. I’m going to just say it: it’s a weird tweet. The LASD official feed seems almost never to divulge specifics about active law enforcement actions until they are resolved, and not even then. Their feed is usually very staid, PR, public information stuff: missing people, the Sheriff doing the kissing babies routine (giving out backpacks, wearing a mask, etc), general announcement “law enforcement at Melrose & 3rd, stay out of the area” etc. Useful, and, I’d argue, responsible communication for the most part. But this Tweet is a bad idea.

In all my perusing the feed, the department really doesn’t says things like “Hey dirtbags at Melrose and 3rd, PUT DOWN YOUR WEAPONS.” Because that would be weird. Just like this “hey protesters yelling ‘we hope they die’ ” tweet is weird.

As a result of its specificity, I think this tweet, just like the eyewitness and the KPCC journalist, refers to activities of the small group in the video. Now, technically, they DO call themselves protesters. Should the LASD and subsequent media accounts take them at their word go forward with that language. After all, who can claim to represent “protest”? And yet….this is irresponsible social media and media.

If I called myself the Queen of England and walked naked down Crenshaw, the reports would be “woman calling herself the Queen of England walked naked down Crenshaw.” They wouldn’t say “The Queen of England walked down Crenshaw.” Even if I tweeted it.

It’s a bad idea–and bumping up against unethical–for the LASD to post off-the-cuff like this about active events: specifics are easy to get wrong in the moment. And once that happens, the information environment is corrupted.

Really read that tweet. What does it mean? To whom is it really addressed? Do they just want the people who are yelling “we hope they die” to move out of the way, or should all the people move out of the way? Do the people standing in front of the exits and entrances but saying nothing get to stay, then? Does the qualifier include all the protesters there because all the protesters are yelling that one thing? Or do the protesters yelling other, less rotten things get to block the ambulances?

Really, what is the “who are yelling ‘we hope they die’doing in that Tweet? (None of the video evidence we have so far shows anybody saying “we hope they die.” There’s no “we” in any of the statements I could find documented.)

Now, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but still. Who is tweeting this information? An officer at the scene? Somebody who heard this was happening from dispatch or command? Somebody who saw video that hasn’t as yet been released to the rest of us?

By referring to the people as “protesters” (a stretch by the available evidence) and including this little descriptor, this is a special kind of Tweet—a priming Tweet. With priming, the tweet is addressed to an audience, and not protesters. What the LASD tweeter wanted was to get it out there that some mean things were getting said—that information was for the rest of us, which is why the ‘who are yelling’ phrase plunked in there is so useless and confusing when it’s read as a real instruction to people actually there. It’s not. It’s theater.

I mean, if an officer tweets “hey stop or I”ll shoot” and blasts that into the world does that count as a caution so he doesn’t actually have to say it to the suspect? OF COURSE NOT.

Priming is a communication strategy that sets people up to think in a specific way about information: Look at the bad protestors saying the bad things about us and endangering human life by getting in the way of the ambulance.

Do I think this was some grand, sinister plot from the LASD? That’s actually the worse part of this– No, I don’t. Social media doesn’t need intent to work misinformation magic, even though there’s lot of manipulation going on here. (The Chinese government channel type knows exactly what they are doing and why.)

Instead, I think police officers and staffers are human beings, and when terrible things happen, human beings have emotions and social media trades on emotions—the more big-hearted you are, the better. The person running the account, feeling the things it’s natural to feel when colleagues and peers are gunned down, hears something that adds fuels to their emotions–there are people saying terrible things–and emotion fuels the tweet.

It’s also why this story got lodged so hard in the minds of the Facebook conservatives who brought it to my attention in their contempt for protesters. After all, what decent person actively hopes another one dies, especially not two young people with children like these two deputies? It’s a hateful thing, and hateful things stir up deep emotions, and when humans have deep emotions….they turn to their social support networks to…share. That is what I think happened here.

The misinformation is then out and circulating, replicating outrage.

Now, just because it’s not sinister or intentional doesn’t mean it should happen. This is the official account, and as much sympathy as I have for how much pain everybody at the SD’s office must have been in that night, this one is likely over the line in public ethics. That becomes more the case when the ONLY other Tweet that breaks the 4th wall, as it were…that I can find is here:

There are no “dear litterers” or “dear jaywalkers” or “dear drivers who have a tail light out” entries in this feed. The LASD has a standard public agency feed…..with these weird little anti-protester primes sifted in.

That’s what police union feeds are for, not official feeds. In US politics, in general, public communication channels are not supposed to be self-dealing or electioneering. Donald Trump has traduced those norms, and the lines often are not that bright, but that doesn’t mean the norms weren’t a good idea in the first place.

(1) Are we really, really supposed to believe that any of these people genuinely think they can walk into a hospital for a protest or any other non medical reason? Have they been to a hospital in the last 20 years? I mean with the lousy health care set up we have in the US, maybe they haven’t but there’s two armed security guards on the way to my boob doctor. (Maybe they are just really healthy. That woud be nice.)

The divine fire burns sometimes, just like real ones

I am very fortunate during these lousy times. I get the need that many have to point out that the fires, the homicides, the demands for structural change, the pandemic are all the wheat we’ve sown with terrible systems, but that doesn’t make them less punishing to people. After the shooting at Virginia Tech, I didn’t write a word for nearly a year. Nothing I said or did or thought seemed to matter much in a world where a troubled young man could kill 31 people relatively close to me in one morning.

This happened to me when I was an assistant professor, alone, in a department of people who really couldn’t understand what it was like to have it happen, and I went through my days fearing that I was going to lose my job (ie get turned down for tenure) because I was hollow. Again, most senior faculty were not very helpful. One said “The cows would have to milked even if you are hurting, so does writing.” Naturally, but minding cows and creative work are in general different things, as cows know what they want doing and communicate to you that it needs doing. Writing does not.

I thus do have some empathy for the junior faculty out now trying like hell to teach online and write and cope with caregiving at home. I didn’t have children, so I can only imagine the extra work and worry there.

This time out, with the pandemic, I haven’t written much at all this year. I’ve been off a bit with publishing anyway, investing heavily in multiple book projects, and thus had to turn a “I didn’t publish anything” faculty report this year, which hurrrrrrrrrrrrt. Now, in reality, I am doing all sorts of things. I’ve got a large group of PhD students who need attending. I have been learning–or I thought I was–how to manage my time given the new realities of my health. Even though I try and try to internalize the idea that I am not my work or my writing…that message doesn’t move from my head really into my heart the way it would if I truly believed it.

That said, my new, 8-to-5, five days a week schedule has been difficult to maintain with a new course prep and everything else going on this semester, and my writing, which wasn’t going fast anyway, suffered even more.

So last night I just felt–for the first time in months, absolutely pregnant with ideas for writing about a book chapter I have been dreading a bit, as it’s due in January. Instead of going to bed at a normal time, I stayed up to write. I’ve done this a million times, I said to myself. I’ve written 10,000-word reports in a day, good reports, in spurts of manic creativity. Note these were never deadline-driven bits of inspiration. Going right up to the deadline forces me to work but I’ve never considered that work to be any good in particular.

Instead, I am talking about being the creative zone, when the ideas and words are coming easily, and fast. When that magic carpet ride shows up, I’ve always hopped on it and ridden until the magic ran out.

Last night, I did that, and wound up with what I think are 2500 pretty damn good words and solid analysis. I stayed up most of the night, from 3 until 10 am, high on creation and surging with the stress of ideas I felt needed to express. I slept for an hour this morning before dogs and street noise demanded I get up.

And now I am sick. Really sick. I’m not sure how sick, but it feels bad, and I have a three-hour seminar with PhD students this afternoon–one that leaves me drained under the best of circs. I was so weak I could barely hold a piece of toast this morning. I have been here, sorta, before: creating in bursts like this has left me emptied and (often) dehydrated as my focus prevents me from drinking water. (Lisa never forgets to eat. I’m not THAT crazy you know.)

Today, however, is somebody 50 years old with a serious chronic illness, and my ’emptiness’ today feels less like a little hangover and more the fatigue that I imagine one feels when one has fought for one’s life. That stress is not good. It likely never was good, but I had the reserves of youth to manage it before.

I don’t know what to do with this, other than to see it as potential evidence in the “retire to a small town and open a cafe to serve people pancakes and pie” idea. (Before you object, remember, I’m not getting much writing done anymore anyway, and you’ve never had my pie or pancakes, which are good if extant evidence serves.) If I can’t work normal hours, and rest, and this is how my creativity works…I can’t do this anymore.

The other idea is “jot down notes in a notebook and GO THE EFF TO BED YOU IDIOT and write when you are rested,” but that has never worked either. I roll around, stressed with the ideas, not sleeping, composing in my mind, my whirling brain on fire, annoyed if anybody talks to me or if I have to tear myself away. Maybe that happens even if I do go try to ride off into the sunset and pancake land.

I don’t know what to do, but I do know that my feelings of frustration about not writing much with the pandemic made me more susceptible to ignoring the “let’s keep the old girl running” time management plan I crafted precisely to keep myself from getting in a hole like this one. The last time I did it, I could barely function teh rest of the semester.

Don’t get old, don’t get sick. There’s wisdom you can’t get everywhere.