The Importance Of Social Media Literacy

Spotting Bad Actors In Social Movements

Robin Babb
8 min read
mysterious hooded figure
Everyone loves hooded figures on the internet. So mysterious! (
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Last weekend the Weekly Alibi made a very intentional decision to not report on a protest that was opposing the deployment of federal agents to Albuquerque through Operation Legend. We made the decision not to cover this event after much deliberation, based on the evidence (or, more specifically, lack of evidence) we had on the protest’s purpose, origins, organizational affiliations and details. Ever since I have been thinking about this choice and the instincts that led us all to make it. Those instincts have everything to do with social media literacy and, perhaps, with the sense of self-preservation that journalists tend to learn after working in the industry for a few years.

The flyer for the event was very simple. It gave a date, a time, a location and a very cursory slogan of a purpose: “Protect NM residents and 1st Amendment rights.”

On the surface it covers all the bases, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting to protect NM residents and their First Amendment rights. But there were a few red flags around this event flyer and the Facebook page where we first encountered it:

• The group was only created on July 3—not much history—and had begun with the group name “BLACK LIVES MATTER NEW MEXICO.” They eventually changed their name on July 23, just a few days before the proposed event.

• None of the BLM organizers we know or have met before were involved with the event, or with this group.

• In the days leading up to the event, other local Black Lives Matter organizations publicly distanced themselves from the event on social media.

• Very few details were given about the event. No specific demands were listed, nor who, if anyone, would be speaking at or leading the march, nor what roles they were asking protestors to fill in terms of front line protestors, support or street medics.

• Shortly after the event, this group became private on Facebook, preventing anyone not already in the group from seeing its posts.

It is entirely possible that whoever organized the event had the best of intentions and truly meant to protest feds coming to occupy our city. They might have been young or inexperienced organizers who meant well, but didn’t follow through on the details. That said, we live in the strangest timeline right now, where people can get doxxed or jailed because of somebody else’s good intentions—so, unfortunately, good intentions aren’t enough.

However, it is also possible that the people who organized this event were acting in bad faith. A rumor that one member of our staff brought up is that the event was a phishing front—an attempt to gather the personal information of protestors and people sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The bit about there not being any specific demands related to the protest is what made us the most suspicious—despite what many may believe about protests and the people who attend them, these organized events typically have multiple very specific demands. For instance, in a release from the Red Nation last week regarding a protest they held on Friday, they listed, “We demand an immediate withdrawal of all federal agents from Albuquerque and every city they have been deployed to” as one of their several demands. Whatever you think about the political agenda they represent, it is an undeniably specific and actionable demand. In comparison, “Protect NM residents and 1st Amendment rights” is vague and doesn’t involve any actual proposed changes.

Now, we certainly don’t want to play “good protestor, bad protestor” here, or gatekeep a growing and necessary social movement. And we don’t want to make anybody feel bad for trying to make a positive change happen. But we
do want to impart some lessons about how to read between the lines on these social media posts and pages so that everyone can stay safe and know what they’re signing up for.

People’s lives can be immensely impacted by what is shared on social media, as we’ve seen here very recently when the New Mexico Civil Guard, the local right-wing militia that has deputized themselves as armed peacekeepers, posted the home addresses of two members of The Red Nation last week on their public Facebook page. When this information is shared online, especially with a group as ideologically extreme as the NMCG, it is done so for the purpose of intimidating, harassing and potentially harming the people involved.

This is why we must be careful about what we share and with whom.

So how
do you tell the difference between a genuine member of the movement and a bad actor? Although there are no hard and fast rules, here are a few that we’ve determined are good litmus tests for weeding out the bad guys. When assessing a profile or group page on Facebook or any other social media site, ask yourself:

1. The most obvious one: If it’s a person’s profile, do they have photos of themself? If so, do all the photos actually seem to be the same person? Or do they look like stock photos? No photos or stock photos probably mean it’s a fake identity.

2. Does the page or profile seem to exclusively post things that elicit hate and vitriol from their followers? Is there a distinct bent toward “This is what we’re against” rather than “This is what we’re
for”? This could be somebody trying to bait protestors into looking bad online or into doing something even more stupid.

3. Are their posts mostly reposted and/or uncredited material from elsewhere? Do they have no or very few original posts that give you a glance at the human behind the page? This is the hallmark of somebody—probably using a fake identity—who doesn’t actually engage with the political discourse themself, but who wants to make it
look like they do.

4, If a group makes public who their organizers or even their members are, is there anybody you know in that list? If you don’t, investigate those people’s profiles—do
they seem legit? Never go to a protest alone or with people you don’t know personally. Seriously.

Are they selling something? Literally, do they have products available for purchase on their page? If so, selling that product is likely their primary motivation, rather than any political or ideological goal.

The best rule of all, though, is to use your instinct. If a person or a group or a page seems fake or like it’s misrepresenting its actual purpose, it probably is.

At the
Weekly Alibi, we hold ourselves to journalistic standards that involve not reporting on something when we don’t have all the relevant information about it. These standards also involve not giving airtime to potential bad actors and people who do not have the best interest of the people of Albuquerque in mind.

Since it is easier than ever to be a “publisher” of one kind or another these days because of social media, all of us ought to have similar standards about the information or misinformation we put into the world. Did you find a four-slide graphic on Instagram that concisely communicates a point that resonates with you, that you would like to share with others? That’s great! But where did the original poster get their information? What does the rest of their account look like? Have they said something elsewhere that seems extremist, or like trolling?

They might be sharing bad information to mislead people or intentionally sowing discord among people of the same political mindset. Unfortunately, these tactics often work—the infighting that people talk about in political or social movements is often a result of a bad actor bringing in divisive and extraneous points to bait people into arguing or splintering the group into factions. Our best defense against these tactics is to know them when we see them and not engage.

For more on the “knowing the tactics” bit, we recommend watching a series called “The Alt-Right Playbook” on YouTube. It will help you not only to spot bad actors but also know which political arguments are actually worth having and how to have them. It will also make you grind your teeth sometimes, but we promise it’s worth it.

As always stay safe on the wild frontier of the internet and determine for yourself who’s trustworthy and who’s not.
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