Drug cartels, white supremacists, outsider arrests: MN elected officials worst offenders for riot misinformation

Much of what people heard about the nature and sources of rioting in the Twin Cities turned out to be false. And much of that, the Star Tribune lays out in a stinging after-action report today, came from Minnesota’s elected leadership — who should have known better than to spread unverified rumors. From drug cartels to Confederate-flag-waving truck driver all the way to white supremacists, official channels from the governor’s office on down made matters worse:

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter apologized Saturday for saying “every single person we arrested last night” was from out of state, after data showed most were from Minnesota. The mayor said he received inaccurate figures before the briefing and has “taken further steps to safeguard our ability to provide relevant and accurate information.”

Even Gov. Tim Walz, who criticized Winkler’s now-deleted tweet as “not helpful,” had to walk back some statements he gave as he led the state’s response.

On Saturday morning, as the Twin Cities reeled from another night of unrest, the governor blamed outside agitators for the worst damage to Minneapolis and St. Paul. About 80% of protesters, he said, were from out of state. …

Rumors and false claims about the aftermath of Floyd’s death surged over the past week, fueled largely by social media. Media research company Zignal Labs has tracked more than 1.7 million mentions of misinformation related to Floyd’s death on May 25 and subsequent protests. Some top state officials have expressed concerns that some disinformation is being deliberately spread.

But public officials are not immune. In Minnesota, unconfirmed reports about drug cartels and white supremacists, a National Guard retreat and plans to block cellphone service during protests flourished after coming up through official channels.

The problem now is that the lies went around the world before the truth got its boots on. Everyone heard the initial claims, but few have heard the walkbacks. To this moment, people in Minnesota are still convinced that the riots were instigated by white supremacists and “boogaloos,” and/or that the drug cartels played a role in them. Despite later retractions from Carter and Walz, the impression that all of this was created by out-of-state agitators (boosted by Donald Trump after Carter’s claim) remains firmly fixed.

My friend Steven Schier told the Strib that bad information comes up in a crisis, or a “fog of conflict,” as Steven puts it. That, however, means public officials have to be more careful about what they share — and have to ensure that the corrections get as much traction as the misinformation:

“They’re trying to make real-time assessments,” he said. “A lot of that information is going to be fuzzy or false and they have to correct it as they occur.”

That’s certainly true, but these examples seem particularly egregious — and slanted in one particular direction. It doesn’t seem like an accident that the mayor of a very progressive city would want to amplify a narrative of outsiders as the cause of the unrest, even though Carter could have easily checked with the police department before making that claim. (The Star Tribune checked it the next day and punched holes in Carter’s claim.)

It also doesn’t seem like an accident that the top-ranking Democrat in the state legislature rushed to Twitter to amplify rumors he heard from protesters about a truck driver intentionally hitting protesters while waving “Confederate flags and white supremacist insignia.” That turned out to be completely false, as the truck driver was trying to make sure a black-owned gas station had enough fuel before the city shut down the highways.  And it doesn’t seem like an accident that our Democratic governor embraced all of these rumors as an explanation rather than the more obvious conclusion that anarchists — home grown and otherwise — had exploited the protests to pursue an agenda and tactics we’ve seen since the WTO riots in Seattle twenty-one years ago.

All of this was clearly misinformation, even if chalked up to the “fog of conflict,” and perhaps truly was an artifact of legitimate confusion. However, its unifying theme of blaming the extreme right certainly looks convenient in retrospect. At the very least, it demonstrates the lack of leadership Minnesota has had in place in this crisis, and the way bad leadership can make crises much worse than they needed to be. And that doesn’t even count the way these same leaders all but disappeared in the first couple of days of rioting.

From this point forward, Minnesotans can be forgiven if they have this reaction to any more crisis updates from Walz, Carter, Jacob Frey, and John Harrington. The “thank you” is just to maintain Minnesota nice.

Update: Be sure to read Gary Gross’ thoughts on the “outside agitators” claim, too. It’s likely there were a few, and perhaps more than a few, but we have plenty of home-state agitators already.