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Opinion: Denver’s protest shooting a superspreader of online misinformation

The recent killing of 49-year-old Lee Keltner following protests in downtown Denver brought national attention to Colorado news organizations. In particular, eyes were on KUSA-9News, the station that brought the private security guard – hired through Pinkerton – who shot Keltner, and who is now charged with second-degree murder.

But the danger of what happened in Denver does not rest with the events of that one day. What has been keeping me up at night is the additional violence that could be sparked as this incident takes on eternal life in the nether regions of the Internet.

In 1964, Marshall McLuhan famously wrote “the medium is the message,” arguing that we must pay careful attention not just to the content of what is communicated but the nature of how it is communicated.

Nancy Watzman

Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Reddit, WhatsApp, TikTok – each of these is its own universe, following its own algorithmic laws, and they are all almost completely unregulated Wild Wests, each of which make up their own rules of engagement.

And engagement is precisely the fuel that many of these sites profit from. Dependent on advertising dollars that come with the promise of micro-targeted content, social media sites like Facebook are gamed for broad sharing.

The more explosive and emotional the content, the more likely you will get it served up in your personalized feed, and the more likely you will share it back out. Meanwhile, the growth of these sites as the major source of information for Coloradans (and all of us), leaves us highly vulnerable to misinformation as online life spills into real life.

In the case of the Denver shooting, information quickly circulated online that named individual journalists and at least one state legislator. Many posts stopped just short of directly inciting more violence.

Amateur internet sleuths picked apart videos, frame-by-frame, and drew unsupported conclusions. Right-wing influencers with large online followings spread conspiracy theories, and President Donald Trump retweeted them. The online chatter continues as I write this, in comments on mainstream news stories and across social media platforms.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

The fallout from the Denver shooting is just one dangerous narrative spreading in Colorado. As we head toward a deeply divisive election during a global pandemic, Sandra Fish, First Draft’s local news fellow, has been monitoring online misinformation for the Colorado News Collaborative and has surfaced troubling trends online here in our state:

  • Confrontations over mask wearing turn verbally explosive and even violent in publicly shared videos
  • The wide sharing of dangerous and unproven cures for COVID-19
  • Unfounded rumors that Antifa forces would converge on rural towns during last summer’s protests for racial justice
  • Rumors around the voting process, ranging from questioning the color of ink on ballots, to malfunctioning machines, to sharing unsupported claims of voter intimidation
  • The spread of QAnon conspiracy theories in closed Facebook groups
  • Wide sharing of emotional and misleading photographs without context
  • Sites posing as “news” to spread partisan messages

Like high-quality science, the best journalism is a process. The truth does not rest with a single news report or newsroom, just as it doesn’t with a single scientific study.

The most reliable news organizations hew to professional standards, such as quick correction of errors, transparency about the reporting process, and dependence on supported facts that can be confirmed by other newsrooms. 

In Colorado we are fortunate to have professional news organizations. No one of them is perfect, but collectively they can help us navigate the rumors we are seeing online.

Recognizing they must earn the public’s trust, they are working hard to tell the public how they will report on the election and why, provide information about ballot issues, answer questions and safely investigate concerns, and debunk baseless rumors about voting.

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But we all need to do our part, by being careful not to spread rumors we see online. Journalists are learning (sometimes slowly) that sharing direct links to online rumors can spread dangerous misinformation, and that naming names may put people in real danger without adding to the quality of public information. 

As members of the public, we also need to think before we share, and to support local newsrooms working to report the truth and provide the public with context about breaking news events and complex issues. Just as it can take only one person to start a superspreading COVID-19 incident, each spark of misinformation has the potential to go viral. And that puts lives and democratic institutions in danger.


Nancy Watzman manages First Draft’s Local News Fellowship project, and is director of Lynx LLC. She is former director of and a local advisor to the Colorado Media Project.


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