Ashli Babbitt, a President Donald Trump supporter, was identified by US Capitol Police as one of the five people who died after a mob stormed the US Capitol on Wednesday. It didn’t take long, though, for conspiracy theorists to falsely claim the 35-year-old Air Force veteran was actually alive and well.
On Parler, Facebook, Twitter and other sites, posts and videos suggested Babbitt’s shooting was a “false flag.” Some social media users shared a link to a QAnon-affiliated video of the shooting that racked up more than 371,000 views. Conspiracy theorists slowed down the speed of the video to sow doubt about whether Babbitt was shot. (QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory that falsely claims there’s a “deep state” plot against Trump and his supporters.)
“You have been PLAYED. Chalk one more for the DeepState. Sheeple will still believe whatever they are told,” the captions in the video read. “In this Slowed Down and Stop Motion video you will witness with your own eyes the Capital Police Officer swings his gun in a different direction before firing.”
The baseless conspiracy theory about Babbitt’s death is just one of many new online lies that social media sites are battling after the riot on Capitol Hill that shocked the nation. The outbreak of violence has served as another wake up call for social networks, which have long been criticized by politicians, celebrities, civil rights activists and others for not doing enough to combat misinformation and hate speech. That includes unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud posted by Trump, some of which fueled the deadly riot while Congress was certifying Democrat Joe Biden as the next US president.
On Friday, Twitter took the unprecedented step of permanently banning Trump from the social network. Facebook has locked Trump’s accounts on the main social network and its photo service indefinitely. But unsubstantiated claims of voter fraud, as well as other conspiracy theories, continue to spring up. Facebook and Twitter have been adding labels to some of these false claims, but the practice has been inconsistent. Other social networks, such as Parler and Gab, have allowed conspiracy theories to spread freely on their sites.
“It’s not against the law to have a conspiracy theory,” Parler CEO John Matze said in an interview with The New York Times.”But if they have a conspiracy theory, people should call them out for it.”
Politicians, including former First Lady Michelle Obama, and civil rights groups are calling on social networks to take even tougher actions including permanently suspending Trump from their platforms. Now that Twitter has banned Trump, Facebook, YouTube and other social networks face pressure to do the same. Social networks, critics say, should have also acted more swiftly.
“The racism, antisemitism, xenophobia, islamophobia, and other forms of hate on display this week at the United States Capitol are easy to find with the click of a button on platforms that serve billions of people around the globe,” the Stop Hate for Profit coalition said on Friday. The group is made up of civil rights and advocacy groups including the Anti-Defamation League and Color of Change.
Facebook and Parler didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. A Twitter spokeswoman said it’s labeling misleading tweets and that content depicting a moment of death violates its rules.
Kate Starbird, an associate professor at the University of Washington, says labeling of misinformation hasn’t stopped its spread on social networks.
“I think that’s a real mistake,” she said on Friday at a press conference. Instead, social networks should crack down early on influential accounts that serve as sources of misinformation. On Friday, Twitter banned Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell and other high-profile Trump supporters who promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory before permanently suspending the president’s account.
One unsubstantiated conspiracy theory that has spread widely is a claim the rioters were members of a left-wing anti-fascist movement called Antifa disguising themselves as Trump supporters.
US Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Florida Republican, promoted the bogus idea on both social media and in a speech on the House floor. He cited a now-corrected article in the Washington Times that falsely claimed facial recognition company, XRVision, identified rioters as members of Antifa. The technology company refuted the claim in a statement.
That didn’t stop the conspiracy theory, though, from continuing to pop up on various social media sites. Actor Kevin Sorbo, known for his role in the 1990s television series Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, also pushed the unsubstantiated claim on Twitter. One tweet he shared this week was labeled by Twitter as manipulated media while others were not. Clicking on the label brought users to a page stating fact-checkers haven’t found any evidence that Antifa activists stormed the US Capitol.
Another video shared on social media claims an Antifa member admitted he was paid to protest at the Capitol building. The video has been debunked by fact checkers.
On Facebook, some posts pushing the Antifa conspiracy theory were also labeled for containing false information or missing context. A screenshot of a tweet from defamation lawyer and Trump supporter Lin Wood that falsely claimed that QAnon supporter Jake Angeli is a member of Antifa was labeled as false information on Facebook. Users were directed to an article from a fact-checking site. Wood has been suspended from Twitter. The same claims, though, using other images were not labeled.
Outside of major social networks, conspiracy theories continue to spring up on sites frequented by conservatives. A site that was created after Reddit banned a popular Donald Trump subreddit has become a haven for conspiracy theories.
In a thread displaying an illustration of Babbitt’s shooting, users who went by pseudonyms argued back and forth about whether she was actually dead with some calling her a crisis actor or member of Antifa. Others seemed unsure what to think.
“I am still trying to figure out if this was real,” one user wrote, referring to Babbitt’s death. “A lot of strange things happened in that video.”
Another user replied: “It was real.”