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‘Antifa bus’ hoaxes are spreading panic through small-town America

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Mythical buses full of bloodthirsty antifa protestors are causing panic in rural counties throughout the country — even though there’s no evidence they exist. The Associated Press has catalogued at least five separate rural counties where locals have warned of imminent attacks, although none of the rumors have been substantiated. Notably, the rumors are often tailored to a specific local region, a “hyperlocal” approach sometime used to boost the spread of misinformation on social media platforms.

NBC News first reported on the recent surge of antifa-related misinformation, some of which was promoted by white nationalist groups posing as antifa accounts. But even after the rumors were debunked, they continue to spread on Facebook, often inspiring real-life confrontations and instances of violence.

In Forks, Washington, a multi-racial family of four was harassed by armed locals, who believed they represented an antifa incursion. The family had arrived in town on a camping trip, traveling in a full-sized school bus. Local police say they were confronted by “seven or eight carloads” of people, who aggressively questioned them about their antifa connections. When the family attempted to drive off, locals felled trees across the roadway to prevent them from escaping. They were only able to leave after a group of students intervened.

In other cases, everyday bus charter businesses have been pulled into the confusion, treated as presumed troop convoys until proven otherwise. On Wednesday, an Idaho fleet services business was targeted by a minor panic, after a debunked rumor claimed incoming agitators were targeting the state. One local posted a picture of his bus on Facebook as evidence of the antifa incursion, claiming “this bus was full of them.”

“If anyone sees a post about my bus, please flag it,” the company owner posted on Wednesday. “Nolan was driving home from work and someone posted it saying it’s full of antifa.”

Elsewhere, the misinformation has come from sheriffs themselves. In Curry County, Oregon, Sheriff John Ward told his department’s Facebook followers, “I got information that three buss [sic] loads of Antifa protestors are making their way” into the county — although he added, “I don’t know if the rumors are true or not.”

He called on civilian volunteers to help defend the town, should the buses materialize. “Without asking I am sure we have a lot of local boys too with guns that will protect our citizens and their property.”

Ward took down the post after harsh criticism from Facebook commenters. He insists it was not intended as a call to arms. It’s unclear where Ward got his original tip about the incoming buses — including the specific location and number — but it appears to have come through a similar chain of rumors. “Our county attorney forwarded me a post from somebody,” he told local reporters, “and it was sent to him by another attorney that is kind of a private attorney.”

The rumors have been particularly lively on Facebook. One post, written by a previously unknown outlet called DC Dirty Laundry, claims to have discovered specific plans to bus large numbers of “antifa terrorists” into a small town called Sparta, Illinois, “where they will be directed to target rural white Americans by burning farm houses and killing livestock.” The article names specific routes that the buses will be taking (sourced to “highly reliable individuals”), and claims Illinois was targeted because restrictions on gun ownership have “transformed the state into a shooting gallery for Antifa terrorists.”

The post is a credited reprint of an earlier report from Natural News, a notorious anti-vaccination outlet that has been banned from posting on Facebook. But syndicating the article to a new URL seems to have completely evaded those restrictions, allowing the post to travel widely on Facebook. Links to the DC Dirty Laundry post have been shared more than 1,000 times since Thursday, including by fan groups for President Trump, Candace Owens, and Rush Limbaugh.

Sparta’s sheriff addressed the rumors on Friday, saying “we have no evidence leading us to believe this threat is at all credible.” Facebook did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

In some ways, the panic has been stoked by the federal response to protests, which continues to pose antifa groups as a primary driver of the ongoing unrest. This week, President Trump announced his intention to designate antifa as a terrorist group, but neither the FBI nor the Department of Homeland Security have any available intelligence to back up the assertion. None of the 22 criminal cases filed in connection with the protests have shown any ties to antifa groups.

But in a statement last week, Barr warned of traveling antifa cells similar to those described by Natural News. “In many places, it appears the violence is planned, organized, and driven by anarchistic and far left extremists,” Barr said, “using Antifa-like tactics, many of whom travel from out of state to promote the violence.”

It’s a more restrained version of the rhetoric used by President Trump, who has used antifa as a political foil since early in his campaign. “It’s ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” he tweeted on the same day. “Don’t lay the blame on others!”

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Facebook and Instagram ban all posts promoting conversion therapy

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Instagram on Thursday announced a new ban on all forms of content, including posts and videos, promoting the widely discredited practice known as conversion therapy, which attempts to forcefully change an individual’s sexual orientation. The news was first reported earlier today by CNN.

A spokesperson for parent company Facebook tells The Verge this recent change in policy is an expansion of an earlier rule specifically banning ads promoting the practice put in place earlier this year, and that the policy now includes a ban on any content that directly promotes the practice, too. The spokesperson confirmed the ban applies both to Instagram and the company’s main social network, which share hate speech policies.

“We don’t allow attacks against people based on sexual orientation or gender identity and are updating our policies to ban the promotion of conversion therapy services,” Tara Hopkins, Instagram’s public policy director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said in a statement given to CNN in response to conversion therapy content promoted by a UK religious group called Core Issues Trust. “We have removed violating content from @coreissuestrusttv. We are always reviewing our policies and will continue to consult with experts and people with personal experiences to inform our approach.”

Conversion therapy is banned in one form or another in at least 19 US states, in most cases protecting minors, but it remains legal at the federal level in the US and allowed in large swaths of Europe and elsewhere in the world. It is often peddled by religious organizations as a pseudo-science with no basis in fact and studies show it has direct links to higher rates of depression, drug use, homelessness, and suicide among young adults, many of whom are subjected to it without their consent.

Instagram says the ban applies worldwide as part of an expansion of its global hate speech policies. Only Germany has a law on the books banning the practice for minors, meaning Facebook and Instagram’s shared content ban on conversion therapy should help shut down organizations in Africa, Europe, the US, and other regions trying to advertise or promote the practice online.

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Facebook reportedly considering ban on political ads before election

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Facebook is reportedly considering a ban on political ads before the US elections this year. Bloomberg reported the news this afternoon, saying that the idea is being discussed internally but is not yet a firm policy. Sources also confirmed the discussion to The New York Times. The step would drastically escalate Facebook’s current plans for preventing misinformation or meddling in the 2020 elections.

There’s not much detail about the policy, but based on Bloomberg’s report, the blackout would be brief — a matter of days before election day in November. Facebook has previously allowed users to “turn off” political ads and added disclosure requirements, and it’s attempting to provide reliable information with a voting hub. But it’s stopped short of banning the ads themselves, in contrast with its rival Twitter, which announced a political ad ban last year.

Bloomberg writes that there are concerns about hampering “get out the vote” efforts or restricting how a candidate could respond to breaking news.

However, a ban would also protect Facebook from bad publicity from inflammatory ads — like a Trump ad that it removed due to Nazi imagery. For Facebook critics who argue the site promotes polarization and manipulation, a temporary blackout may also be considered a way of limiting its effects in the immediate lead-up to the election.

Update 4:00PM ET: Added corroboration from The New York Times.

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Supreme Court will hear Facebook robocalling case

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The Supreme Court has agreed to hear Facebook’s defense after an appeals court determined it violated anti-robocalling rules. The court will examine whether Facebook’s automated alert texts count as an “automatic telephone dialing system,” establishing a clearer definition of illegal phone spam.

Facebook was sued in 2015 by non-Facebook user Noah Duguid, who complained that he’d been receiving unwanted text messages from the site. The alerts told Duguid that someone was trying to access his nonexistent Facebook account, and he couldn’t get Facebook to stop sending them. Duguid argued that Facebook had violated the Telephone Consumer Protection Act, which is supposed to protect Americans from unwanted auto-dialed calls.

Facebook said the texts were sent by mistake, and it claimed its automated system was functionally similar to a standard smartphone, so a ruling against it could make ordinary phone calls illegal. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed with this logic and said Facebook’s texts clearly fit the category of “automated, unsolicited, and unwanted” phone messages. The Supreme Court will settle the question for good.

This case will complement another recent Supreme Court robocalling decision. Earlier this week, the court overturned a legal exception for government debt collectors, sidestepping an attempt to strike down the prohibitions. Facebook raised a similar issue in its petition, but the court will focus instead on the definition question.

If Facebook ultimately loses its case, it could be required to pay damages to any user who received unwanted messages within a period of several years. The Supreme Court’s decision may also affect which automated calls are considered legal. But robocalls are surging regardless of the laws against them — so it might not make a huge difference to many people.

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