How Right-Wing Neighborhood Groups Use Facebook To Spread Dangerous Hoaxes & How We Might Be Powerless To Stop Them

This past Saturday, Safe Seattle, a local, right-wing neighborhood group with almost 10,000 members, posted a gruesome story to their facebook page. As they tell it, a homeless person living in an encampment on Beacon Hill had been beheaded with a saw, in what they speculated was a drug-related murder, and the killer was still on the loose and living in one of the other camps across the city. To support their claims they offered a screenshot of a months-old google map where the murder supposedly took place, and referenced a Seattle Police Dept case number to confirm, which they had entirely redacted, so that “the media would come calling” to find out more information. The story would go on to be shared over 300 times on facebook alone, also spreading across NextDoor, and finding its way into various community newsletters and message boards. The only problem? The story was a fabrication.

Days later, Seattle Police Dept confirmed that a body had been recovered in an encampment on Beacon Hill in mid-February, but that no criminal investigation was taking place and they did not have reason to suspect a homicide. But by then, the damage was already done, as the story spread rapidly across social media and conservative radio outlets like KIRO. Over on the Safe Seattle facebook page, dozens of commenters attempted to challenge the authenticity of the story, only to find themselves banned from the group and unable to comment any further. The administrators of the group even went so far as to make a separate post threatening that any commenters insinuating the story was a hoax would be immediately banned. This made it virtually impossible to counter the narrative being presented, and allowed the story to propagate further without any real pushback from the community.

All of this comes in the context of a murder that took place a few months ago in North Seattle. In November of last year, John Davis, 55, shot and killed Daniel Alberto after becoming fixated on crime in his neighborhood, which he attributed to the homeless people in the area. Davis harassed and threatened Alberto for months, claiming Alberto has broken a window at his home. He also expressed his outrage in online forums, stating on multiple occasions that he was going to violently take the law into his own hands. The kind of hoaxes being propagated by Safe Seattle, claiming gruesome murders are taking place and city government and media is conspiring to hide it from the public, directly cause the kinds of violence that took the life of Daniel Alberto. Spreading these sorts of hoaxes have real consequences for real citizens of Seattle, and put our most vulnerable residents in life-threatening danger. For their part, Safe Seattle has shrugged off as ridiculous any suggestion that their actions are reckless and dangerous, meanwhile their members continue to leave comments on the hoax, saying that they see “the homeless problem taking care of itself.”

We’ve seen this type of fraud play out on the national stage, with conservative news outlets using hoaxes like this to drum up hysteria and outrage, but it is becoming more common in our local politics, as groups like Safe Seattle, Neighborhood Safety Alliance, Speak Out Seattle, and campaigns like that of Ari Hoffman, sow division in our communities and poison our local politics. And as local newsrooms shrink, papers shut down, and fewer local journalists can afford to live in our city, this has only become more prevalent and more difficult to combat. Unless platforms like Facebook and NextDoor take serious steps to curb fraud like this, or at least provide outlets for people to disprove them without being banned, this problem will only get worse. For its part, Safe Seattle has left the hoax posted up without correction, still being shared by its members.