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Social Media Misinformation About 'Buses Of Rioters' Fuels Real Fears In Iowa And Across The Country

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False rumors on social media have spread in multiple Iowa communities, warning of "busloads" of outside protesters coming to wreak havoc. Some citizens have armed themselves to go look for the phantom rioters.

Last week, officials in Council Bluffs implemented a curfew and shut down three interstate exits while armed civilians equipped themselves with military-style rifles to patrol the courthouse, waiting for the rioters who were rumored to be coming to destroy the city.

Main street businesses closed early, boarding up their windows, in advance of the violent outsiders that they had read about on Facebook, or heard about from friends.

Residents feared that anger in neighboring Omaha over the killing of a young black man by a white storeowner would spill over the river and into their downtown.

According to Mayor Matt Walsh, all three shifts of the city police department were mobilized, two shifts working overtime, a real cost to the city at a time when revenues have been hard-hit due to the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

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Owners of shops and restaurants, having only just reopened as coronavirus restrictions lifted, found themselves battening down the hatches, as if for a hurricane.

In the end, a handful of protesters gathered at Bayliss Park. No rioters materialized in Council Bluffs.

But the events drove home the feeling that the majority-white city was no longer insulated from the unrest that gripped the nation.

“It's right here. It's not hundreds of miles away,” said Tom Hanafan, Interim President of the Council Bluffs Chamber of Commerce, one of a number of businesses that volunteers boarded up. “It's right here in their metro area, in Iowa, Nebraska. That makes people nervous around here.”

Across Iowa and across the country, similar false rumors warning of violent rioters have spread through Facebook and Twitter feeds, fueled by imposter accounts. With no evidence, the social media posts warn of “busloads” of outsiders being sent in to wreak havoc in small cities, often traveling from larger metros.

Some specifically allege the rioters were coming to “shoot as many white people as they can." Others explicitly urged residents to arm themselves against the outsiders.

The posts appeared as President Donald Trump has blamed antifa for violent clashes at protests around the country, a claim Politifact has debunked, pointing out the activists lack any formal hierarchy or organization.

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The false rumors come at a time when the nation is reeling from a wave of demonstrations and unrest, brought on by anger that has built up over generations, as white leaders have repeatedly failed to act on calls for racial equity and justice for black Americans.

While many protests have been peaceful, images of tear gas, broken windows and burning businesses from Minneapolis to New York to Los Angeles paint a picture of American cities devolving into chaos.

In Muscatine and Burlington, social media users warned of rioters coming in from Davenport; in Spencer, they were reportedly driving in from North and South Dakota; Sioux City residents warned of rioters from Omaha and Sioux Falls. Violent protesters from as far away as Chicago and Detroit were said to be descending on Iowa, playing into long-held, racialized stereotypes that new arrivals from Chicago bring crime to the state.

In each case, no buses arrived. No crowds of rioters materialized. But for some Iowans, the concern was real.

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Burlington Mayor Jon Billups was skeptical of the rumors, and joked there were “bigger fish to fry” than his city of 24,000. Still, at a time when Iowans are battling multiple crises of historic proportions simultaneously, he gets how some of his constituents could be on edge. So he and some others drove around looking for the rumored buses, just to check.

“We had normal citizens driving out, when they would see a rumor to go out and take a look,” Billups said. “They did mention places that the buses were supposedly coming in and congregating. We went and checked those locations and nothing was found.”

Multiple law enforcement agencies and local elected officials have declared there is no credibility to these social media rumors that have spread like wildfire through Facebook community pages and neighborhood watch groups.

Media organizations have debunked the rumors, with NBC reporting that one of the original tweets came from white supremacist organization Identity Evropa posing as antifa. The post was also shared on Facebook, where it was flagged as part of an effort to combat misinformation, according to Politifact.

Similar, unsubstantiated rumors have been identified and discredited in a number of other states, including Florida, Idaho, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota.

In Washington State, “seven or eight carloads of people” confronted a multiracial family on a camping trip, accusing them of being antifa protesters. The family became temporarily trapped in the woods after someone apparently felled several trees to block their way out, before a group of high school students came to the family’s aid.

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In some cases, local officials’ responses seemed to bolster the claims made online. The City of Muscatine issued a community alert, notifying citizens that while there was no credible threat at the time, that police were “watching for protesters heading to Muscatine."

“We have been preparing since these rumors first appeared in social media this morning,” Police Chief Brett Talkington said in a written statement. “All law enforcement, along with the Fire Department, are ready to respond to the needs of keeping our community safe.”

State Rep. Steven Holt shared a post by the Council Bluffs Police Department from both his personal and official Facebook pages, thanking officers for protecting the community from “anarchists and the terrorist group Antifa."

Matt Hildreth has been tracking these rumors through his nationwide network of local elected officials and community leaders, through his work as Executive Director of RuralOrganizing.org, a progressive political organization based in Ohio.

After initially hearing the rumors from his own mother in South Dakota, and watching the posts spread across the country, Hildreth says he is deeply alarmed by not only the frenzy the rumors have whipped up on social media, but that they are spurring some civilians to arm themselves and take to the streets.

“There's three people that are falling for it the most: business owners, civil patrol groups or the militias, and police departments. And that scares me,” Hildreth said. “I don't know how those groups are being so easily manipulated.”

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He says the posts prey on what he describes as a distrust of outsiders, coupled with a far-reaching partisan polarization that is intensified by social media.

Monitoring online message threads in real time, he say he’s seeing misinformation “radicalizing people”, at a time when local law enforcement agencies, elected officials, and the shrinking footprint of local journalism are seemingly incapable of wrapping their arms around the issue.

“The problem is that people are listening to people on Facebook who they don't know but agree with, rather than the people they do know but disagree with,” Hildreth said. “That is the fundamental vulnerability in our democracy that's being exploited right now.”

Americans have clearly demonstrated themselves vulnerable to online misinformation. Russia used social media to exploit Americans’ political divisions ahead of the 2016 election, creating hundreds of fake accounts, profiles and groups, and even staging in-person political rallies across the country. The Russian content reached some 126 million Americans.

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Central College Political Scientist Andrew Green says it is plausible that online misinformation drumming up fear about violent outsiders could affect voters’ feelings in an election year, at a time when Trump is doubling down on a “law and order” message.

“If a group can convince voters that we have real problems with violent groups, they may view Trump as the best candidate to solve those problems,” Green said. “This could be particularly impactful for those who may currently be skeptical about a second Trump term, but have not yet closed the door to voting for him entirely."

There have been no reports of violent encounters stemming from Iowa residents’ responses to the social media hoaxes.

But now that the mirage of a busload of armed rioters has appeared in the collective imaginations of Iowans, for some it seems a difficult image to un-see. While the threats in Council Bluffs may not have been real, they were real enough, says Hanafan.

“I believe it was credible just due to the fact that, you know, the police department felt that it was close enough to reality it was better to prepare than to not be prepared,” he said.

The phantom buses don’t have to appear on the edge of town to create real panic, Billups, the Burlington mayor adds. Damage has already been done in Iowa communities.

“In the end, if people had bad intentions for Burlington, they were able to achieve their goal by establishing chaos and some anarchy and some unrest, just by throwing rumors around,” Billups said. “If that's the goal, they were able to achieve that without coming here.”