Opinion: Case study of how disinformation works

Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr speaks to reporters Thursday. A recent operation led by the U.S. Marshals Service resulted in the recovery of 39 missing children, including 15 who were the victims of sex trafficking, officials said.
Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr speaks to reporters Thursday. A recent operation led by the U.S. Marshals Service resulted in the recovery of 39 missing children, including 15 who were the victims of sex trafficking, officials said.

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid

Credit: Shaddi Abusaid

How a Ga. good news story became a widespread disinformation campaign overnight

It looked like an innocent enough Facebook post, and fairly typical of what your well-meaning friend might share: “Why is finding 39 missing children in a double wide trailer in Georgia not the biggest story in America?!” You read this and ask yourself the same thing. “Yeah, why isn’t it? Oh my God, did this really happen?” The image of 39 scared and missing children huddled together in a cramped trailer is horrifying.

You then notice your friend has prefaced her post with the comment, “I think we all know why.” Wait, we do? You think, maybe it’s because the kids weren’t white. News stories don’t get as much attention in America when the kids are Black. A legit inference, right? You scan the comments to find out you’re not even close. It’s not because of racism. It’s because of COVID-19, of course. COVID, COVID, COVID! Hogging the limelight at the expense of all other important news stories: murders, looters, opioid overdoses missing children, sex trafficking.

You head over to Twitter to see if this story has legs only to find the same question, often with identical wording (right down to the question mark and exclamation point) tweeted out dozens, if not hundreds, of times: “WHY IS FINDING 39 MISSING CHILDREN IN A DOUBLE WIDE TRAILER IN GEORGIA NOT THE BIGGEST STORY IN AMERICA?!” Okay, this is starting to look a little botty. Oh look, James Woods is weighing in too. Huh. What’s really going on here?

You’re starting to think 39 children weren’t actually found in a double wide trailer in Georgia. You’re right. It only takes a minute for you to find the press release issued by the U.S. Marshals Office of Public Affairs.

The story is not a complete lie, however. There were, in fact, 39 children removed from bad, sometimes criminal, situations. During a recent two-week U.S. Marshals Service operation throughout the state of Georgia, 26 children considered to be in potentially dangerous circumstances were (presumably) removed from those situations and nine arrests were made. Thirteen others who had been reported missing over a two-year period were located. It’s worth noting that in 2019 there were 421,394 NCIC entries in the U.S. for missing children, 91% of whom are runaways. Tragically, some of the children rescued in August were teen runaways who reportedly had been sold into sex trafficking. Other children located by the operation had reportedly been abducted by a parent or were victims of some sort of custodial issue.

Shannon Gillies
Shannon Gillies

Credit: contributed

Credit: contributed

But back to the comments on Facebook and Twitter where the double wide trailer story is still going strong.

A Twitter user says: Police finding 39 children in a trailer is of course not on the news because it doesn’t fit their anti-police AGENDA! Can you see how biased the media is yet?

Another offers: MSM rarely reports on these things.

Yet another writes: Look at the top stories on news websites until you get to 39 missing children found in a trailer and tell me again how the media isn’t the problem.

When it’s pointed out to outraged folks on Twitter and Facebook that the whole “39 kids in a trailer” story is completely bogus, the consensus is, well, even if all the facts weren’t *exactly* right, the story is true enough. Weren’t 39 children rescued from bad men, you monster?! Why isn’t this on CNN? (It is.)

Yet another person pipes up: “What do you mean, it isn’t true? Come out from under the bed and realize that many and more are stolen daily. To even think about those little ones with their little hands and feet or no matter if they’re even bigger and the fear that they go through. Please pray for the protection of our children.”

This social media user gets hundreds of likes and shares because who wants young children trafficked for sex? No one.

Another insists angrily, and without any evidence, that mainstream media ignore the issue of child sex trafficking. THEY DON’T CARE!

39 Kids Rescued from a Double Wide Trailer has now reached millions of people. What effect will it have on the Americans who already believe COVID-19 is being overhyped? Will they wonder what else journalists are keeping from them? Will they now believe there’s no need for mail-in voting? How many of them believe journalists deliberately downplayed the story? Will they now question an incriminating story about President Donald Trump?

It’s that easy. This little disinformation campaign achieved what it was supposed to. Who knows where the double wide trailer story originated (Russia wouldn’t be a bad guess, you think), but it worked. The Georgia “Operation Not Forgotten” story, in its manipulated form, is just one simple example of how trust in journalists and news media can be gradually chipped away, unfairly and without any basis, until there’s nothing left. It’s happening every day on social media in plain view. All the Dr. Fauci memes, or anti-vaccine anecdotes shared by your college roommate or uncle seem harmless, but over time, they have the power to bring down a democracy.

Shannon Gillies lives in Toronto, Canada, where she spent more than a decade in the publishing industry. She’s currently an English language teacher.