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The Danger of Misinformation on Social Media

January 11, 2021

This article originally appeared in Loss Prevention Magazine.

With the presidential election looming over our heads in recent months, it’s not too surprising to see that the news cycle has become hyper focused on anything to do with the election. And it’s not just the basics of a political election in the United States: the media has become dominated by topics like right-wing politics, antifa, protests, and the many political buzzwords that have suddenly become part of our everyday vocabulary.

A global pandemic during an election year is almost a perfect storm. With so many of us staying at home and unable to distract ourselves from the news, it’s all too easy to scroll through social media all day. What else is there for us to do besides “doomscrolling” through our all social media feeds? But constantly watching social media isn’t the same as staying engaged and informed about current events.

Relying on Social Media as a News Source

I’ve always been a huge proponent of staying informed with whatever method is most convenient for you. For me, it’s a combination of reading the latest articles from my go-to news sources and checking Twitter and LinkedIn to catch up on current events, along with industry news about loss prevention and cyber security. And I’m not alone. In fact, about 20 percent of American adults rely on social media as their go-to source of news.

However, the Pew Research Center recently reported that adults who use social media as their main news source are less likely to follow major news stories, like the coronavirus pandemic or the 2020 presidential election. They also tend to have less political knowledge than adults who follow the news using more traditional methods, like print or TV or even with a news website or app.

Social media is an incredible tool: it keeps us connected to people and events we wouldn’t even know existed without this technology. We can’t deny that social media has helped people learn more about current events and politics. But social media is not a traditional news source, and it shouldn’t be treated as such. There’s no oversight to make sure that every bit of information shared on social media is factual, like most newspapers and other news sources have.

While social media has made it possible for anyone to share news, that’s just the issue: anyone can suddenly become a “journalist,” reporting on the latest news in their area. We are all aware of the nature of social media and that we shouldn’t automatically trust something we see on Twitter that hasn’t been verified by other sources. But because social media is so ingrained in our lives, it’s become difficult for us to remember this, even more so with the constant influx of news updates about COVID-19 and the election.

The Proud Boys and Social Media Perception

One of the topics I’ve seen trending on social media lately is the Proud Boys, a far-right street-fighting organization officially launched in 2016 with a sizeable online following and a presence across the United States. Although the Proud Boys claim not to discriminate based on race or sexual orientation, they’re well known for discriminating against people based on race, religion, and sexual orientation—and for loving Donald Trump. Many civil rights organizations, such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, have designated the Proud Boys as a hate group for their white nationalist and alt-right ideology.

Although the Proud Boys are a small group that doesn’t have a lot of influence on the national scale, the perception of this group on social media is far different. Part of this is because one of the central tenets of the Proud Boys is that violence is the best way to solve any problem. News reports about violence get far more clicks and views than reports about the reality of the Proud Boys. With growing public concerns about political polarization and the violence that could result from that, it’s natural for us to be afraid of a group that preaches this type of ideology.

However, reports show that the actual membership of the Proud Boys is merely in the hundreds, and they are often outnumbered by counterprotesters at public demonstrations. The alt-right has a very visible presence on social media, which makes it all too easy for people to perceive them as much more influential and dangerous than they really are. Although some Proud Boys have been convicted of violent crimes, the influence of the Proud Boys has been blown out of proportion due to social media.

Why Misinformation Spreads Easily on Social Media

The “threat” of the Proud Boys isn’t a new social media phenomenon. We’ve seen this kind of overblown social media trend before with the antifa (short for “antifascist”) movement. Antifa is a loosely organized collection of groups who believe in aggressive and often violent opposition to far right-wing political groups, such as the Proud Boys. The antifa movement entered mainstream media after they clashed with white supremacists at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017.

As I mentioned earlier, the current political climate has led to an increased risk of political violence at public events such as protests. Antifa’s violent approach to political protest has thrust them into the spotlight, making them almost synonymous with anything to do with political violence at all. When the Black Lives Matter protests started up again earlier this year in June, there were countless rumors on social media about antifa infiltrating these demonstrations in order to start physical altercations with both protesters and law enforcement.

It’s more common than not for news about antifa to really be misinformation spread on social media. Oftentimes, these false reports begin on major social media networks such as Twitter, Facebook, or YouTube before eventually filtering to community networks, like local Facebook groups or NextDoor, where people are more likely to trust this information. So what could originally be a random tweet from an unverified account on Twitter could eventually lead to local municipalities warning their communities to prepare for violent counterprotesters coming from out of town. This type of misinformation spread like wildfire, even leading to a far right-wing community uprising in retaliation to rumored antifa presence in Forks, Washington, in June.

The visceral image of busloads of antifa counterprotesters traveling hundreds of miles to instigate violence in suburban communities is hard to let go of. And although it seems pretty unlikely in hindsight, it’s not completely unbelievable given the many instances of political violence we’ve witnessed in recent years.

I’ve written about using social media monitoring as a tool in your loss prevention strategy, but it’s important to remember that it’s not an infallible source of information. Instead, I recommend that you treat information you learn from social media as just one potential truth. When you are conducting investigations or surveying social media for any threats against your organization, you should always verify the information you find before investing your resources in fighting a threat that might not even exist.

Tom’s column is featured in every issue of Loss Prevention Magazine. To subscribe to the printed version of the magazine and enjoy other great content, visit