As social networks and app stores crack down on disinformation purveyors and calls for violence, QAnon-based lies and conspiracy theories have found a new way to go viral: forwarded text messages.
It’s not clear just how many people have sent or received the texts, as person-to-person messaging services are difficult for researchers to track. NBC News received numerous tips about and screenshots of the messages from people who say they were forwarded from friends or family. The messages have already made their way to some prominent conservatives, who have amplified them on social media.
Twitter has permanently banned President Donald Trump and taken particular aim at users who promote QAnon. Twitter said Monday that it has suspended 70,000 accounts since the riots.
One viral false conspiracy theory shared across the U.S. implores users to disable automatic software updates on their cellphones, claiming that the next patch will disable an emergency broadcasting system message from President Donald Trump. The false rumors are usually attached to another urban legend about a blackout coming in the next two weeks, which say people should be “prepared with food and water.”
Another viral text is a link to a deceptively edited video, also known as a “cheapfake,” that first appeared on the Twitter-like social media platform Parler. It features a series of mashed-up speeches by Trump that are realigned to lead the viewer to falsely believe he is calling for an uprising on Jan. 20.
Chain-mail-style text message disinformation isn’t new, but it can prove to be dangerous, in part because of how the messages are delivered. The messages are usually forwarded by friends, so they carry the emotional weight of personal pleas for help, instead of simple Facebook rumors that can easily be ignored.
“I think that when we see panics like this, chain mail and people trying to circumvent different systems, it all speaks to the kinds of anxiety we have not being able to communicate and how important our communication system is,” said Joan Donovan, research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“When it’s in crisis, some people are going to take advantage of that, and other people are going to spread rumors in order to warn people, just in case,” she said.
Social media platforms that had allowed the QAnon conspiracy theory to flourish are moving to ban accounts that spread its evidence-free claims. But bans can push communities to other digital avenues, including text messaging, where there is less visibility for researchers and law enforcement.
Private, chain-mail-style disinformation played a key role in Myanmar’s genocide in 2017, U.N. investigators found, as copied-and-pasted rumors about Rohingya Muslims saturated Facebook’s Messenger service.
In the U.S., hidden viral text messages surged in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, warning recipients of “martial law” and often citing an unnamed source in government or a friend who knew the daughter of a prominent politician.
Some variations of the cellphone update rumor also refer to martial law, claiming that the information comes from friends who are government insiders. The rumor was heavily promoted by the pro-Trump lawyer Lin Wood, some of whose posts were removed from Parler before the site went offline Sunday.
The conspiracy theory was initially pushed by QAnon accounts, which have long said the country would descend into widespread blackouts before Trump would alert the country with a message about mass arrests and the executions of Democrats.
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A variation of the rumor gives specific instructions about how to disable automatic updates on iPhone and Android smartphones. The rumors have reached conservative media figures and personalities, such as the country singer John Rich, who told users how to disable auto-updating and wrote on Twitter: “if you see an update on your iPhone pending ya might want to hold off on that.”
Donovan said the rumors are a sign of powerlessness and confusion among those who “believe they are going to be rooted out and removed from the normal communication infrastructure” after Twitter banned Trump for inciting last week’s riot at the Capitol.
“What’s happening in terms of the corporate denial of service, because it’s playing out at such a huge scale, is it’s creating the conditions under which people will believe that martial law is coming,” Donovan said.
“Media manipulators often play on these moments that ratchet up the confusion and the anxiety, and ultimately it puts people into a more paranoid state.”