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Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

What protesters learned from CHOP's dueling Twitter accounts

Who was behind the mysterious Twitter account that claimed to represent CHOP leadership but then told protesters to go home? No one knows, or at least no one we know of. But in its final days, CHOP fought back against fake social media accounts and learned a few lessons, too.

The CHOP was governed collectively, by its people. There were no elected leaders in charge of the CHOP who were making top down decisions for everyone. And in the beginning, there was no official channel to get the CHOP’s message out to media.

That left a lot of reporters confused. And some of them turned to Twitter where there were various accounts that claimed to be leaders.

In the CHOP, organizer Sarah Tornei says that was a bad idea.

“It’s insane! The fake accounts are crazy," Tornei said.

One account in particular caused a lot of confusion before Twitter shut it down in late June. It claimed to represent a nine-person solidarity committee at the CHOP that was in left in charge when there wasn’t a big group meeting in session.

Some of the things on the account sounded legitimate, though no one knew who was behind it. But then the account started spouting Chinese propaganda against Hong Kong protesters (it later claimed its account had been hacked).

People never figured out if the account was set up by someone in CHOP or an outside agitator.

Still, this questionable Twitter account was about to have a big influence. It came when Mayor Jenny Durkan offered to cut the Seattle Police Department by 5%.

The account declared victory, and told everyone in the CHOP to go home now.

Protesters had demanded the police budget be cut by 10 times that amount. So this was basically a big red flag for CHOP organizer Tarika Powell.

"That was very obviously a fake account," said Tarika Powell, an organizer in the CHOP.

“It doesn’t matter which particular individual was behind the account, it only matters to see what the purpose of the account was, and that is to make people believe that they were speaking as a Black leadership voice of CHOP, and then causing people to disperse,” she said.

caption: Tarika Powell at CHOP, before it closed
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Tarika Powell at CHOP, before it closed
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

By this time, major news organizations were treating the Twitter account as a possible “official” voice of CHOP.

Yahoo News, the National Review, CNN -- they were all quoting its instruction for protesters to go home.

Protesters did the opposite.

Omari Salisbury, a journalist with Converge Media who was in the CHOP live streaming every single day, said that the retweet of the suspicious account reinvigorated the CHOP.

“Before that retweet of a fake account out here, the CHOP was losing a lot of energy quickly. And man, that retweet put so much energy back out here,” he said.

(Although Twitter has since suspended the account, you can still read most of @CHOPOfficialSEA's tweets thanks to the magic of the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.)

caption: An archived order from an self-described "official" CHOP account (since deactivated by Twitter due to complaints) asking protesters to view the mayor's concession as a victory and go home happy.
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An archived order from an self-described "official" CHOP account (since deactivated by Twitter due to complaints) asking protesters to view the mayor's concession as a victory and go home happy.

To organizers, it was clear that the CHOP had a messaging problem. It's not that decentralized leadership doesn't work in the age of misinformation, Tarika Powell said, it's just that it doesn't work for messaging.

So organizers in the CHOP took matters into their own hands. Volunteers stepped forward to help reclaim the narrative and refocus on the central message of the protest and its three original demands: Defund the police by 50%, reinvest in Black communities, and free the protesters who had been arrested.

Many people I spoke to endorsed two relatively new accounts as trustworthy – one by a group called Seattle Black Collective Voice, and another called InsideCHOP. Both have continued their work even after protesters lost CHOP as a physical territory.

Unlike fake accounts, these accounts had people behind them who were known to people on the ground in CHOP.

InsideCHOP’s founder Debra Beatty even set up a table in the CHOP where people could meet with her.

“I refer to myself as a protester that’s just trying to get the truth out,” Beatty said.

One place where InsideCHOP had a role was in vetting rumors and dispelling misinformation.

One night, when there was a shooting, people were jumping to all sorts of conclusions. Which vehicles were headed where, and who the shooters were. But InsideCHOP didn’t want to publish anything it couldn’t verify.

“We have people that are at home, going over the live streams, trying to get more information, trying to dig through Twitter and hashtags and Instagram, everything, to find proof of the claims that are now being made," Beatty said.

These "legitimate" accounts haven't yet gained as many followers as the fake accounts did, at least not at the time this article was written. But they have some core strengths that could take them further.

They can verify facts on the ground, or they can live stream what’s in front of them, like Omari Salisbury does. Those are things that are really hard for fake twitter accounts to fake.

READ: Omari Salisbury reflects on CHOP's lessons

caption: Omari Salisbury of Converge Media outside his office in the (former) CHOP.
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Omari Salisbury of Converge Media outside his office in the (former) CHOP.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Joshua McNichols

People thank Salisbury for that every day.

“So many people that are like, 'Hey, my parents are in California or Texas ... and they’re seeing this stuff on the news and I send them your stream so they can see what it is from a third party.'”

If people don’t start demanding that kind of on-the-ground reporting from their news sources Salisbury says something like the CHOP will never be more than a propaganda fest.