The Baltimore Sun made the following claim about the riots on Monday:
The incident stemmed from a flier that circulated widely among city school students via social media about a “purge” to take place at 3 p.m., starting at Mondawmin Mall and ending downtown. Such memes have been known to circulate regularly among city school students, based on the film "The Purge," about what would happen if all laws were suspended.They were not alone. Many of the broadcasters made claims that there was some kind of Purge intended for Monday. The Purge was trending on twitter.
The flier included an image of protesters smashing the windshield of a police car Saturday during a march spurred by the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old man who suffered a spinal cord injury earlier this month after being arrested by city police.
Now, I have spent the past week digging through social media posts, and I can find no evidence to support the claim that Baltimore high school students planned any sort of action for Monday. It's not just that I can't find them talking about a purge before the riot started (there's plenty of stuff posted after 3:00 PM) I can't find them making posts about planning anything at all for Monday.
The image tweeted by a number of organizations and described by the Baltimore sun is this one:
I can't find a single account tweeting this image until after 3:00 on Monday.
The Hashtag #Fdl mentioned in the above image does not produce the above image on any social media search engine, nor any image which is even tangentially related to a riot on Monday.
The Hashtag #Purge produces thousands of images from bulimic women talking about food and suicide, but it does not produce any results relevant to a protest from last Monday.
These were only two of around a hundred hashtags and keywords I used to search through Topsy, Gramfeed, and other social media search engines which plug directly into social media sites like Twitter and Instagram, the latter being the place this image allegedly came from. I searched for the Baltimore protests, and then searched through most of the Hashtags used to discuss it.
I found only one image posted to Instagram in Baltimore which mentioned the unrest on Monday before it happened:
The officer at the mall just said it's suppose to start here at mondawmin and go downtown... Tell Everybody."The officer at the mall" told people that someone was planning a riot. That is all I could find. A secondhand statement where someone is quoting a supposed "officer." That person could be a security guard, for all we know. This image was posted to Instagram several times before the unrest began.
All we have hear is hearsay and rumor. At this point, this is all the evidence I can find of the allegedly "planned" riot.
In the hours I spent looking through every single Instagram photo I could find from Baltimore last weekend, I did see a lot of food, a lot of memes, and a ton of racism. Things like screengrabs from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" with a caption reading "Welcome to Baltimore." These images were all posted before the unrest, which started at 3:00 PM. After the unrest began, there are a ton of posts mentioning a "Purge" but nothing from before 3:00 PM which would lead me to believe that anything was planned by High School Students.
I did, in my research, find other images relating to a purge:
Someone took that image and made another joke post implying that there would be a purge on Saturday night:
It was another hoax, just like all the rest. It was posted just after Midnight, early Sunday morning.
They've happened quite a lot, and never turned out to be anything other than a joke.
If this unrest was in fact planned, it does not look like High School kids on social media were the ones doing the planning.
But maybe I've just been tricked. Maybe a bunch of high school kids whose Instagram accounts sometimes contain pornography, underage drinking, and marijuana use had the presence of mind to coordinate and universally delete every single image and post they'd made about their dastardly plans for a riot. Maybe they then convinced everyone who responded or reacted to these dastardly plans to go ahead and delete their responses, too. That's not completely impossible.
The laws of physics just might stop working tomorrow. After all, who can know the future? It's not completely impossible, and no one could say for sure.
Baltimore high school students might just be better at operational security than the Navy Seals, whose raid on Osama Bin Laden's headquarters got tweeted by a random witness in Pakistan. Even Seal Team 6 couldn't prevent their covert actions from being outed on social media accidentally. But maybe some Baltimore high schoolers figured out how to leave no electronic trace behind.
If these kids really were planning a riot, then it's extremely likely that images like the one above would have been all over social media, with a ton of angry responses as well.
At this point, I can't find any of that posted before 3:00 PM on Monday. There's a ton of it afterwards.
So let me be extremely clear about what I am saying, and what I am not saying.
What I am saying:
I can't find any evidence of the "Purge" flier allegedly distributed by Baltimore HS kids until after the riot was underway. Nor can I find any evidence of a planned riot. This is all I am saying.
What I am not saying:
I am not accusing anyone of lying or fabricating things. I'm simply saying that I, as someone who works with social media, can't find any evidence of this stuff on social media.
What this means:
If it turns out that these purge rumors were as false as the "credible threat" rumors about gangs, then the stories being told about the Baltimore police having themselves started the riots on Monday begin to look true.
We don't yet know what happened. But there are some very specific questions that need answers.
1. Where does this purge poster come from? Who created it? Who shared it first?
2. Who is the Baltimore sun's source for these purge claims?
3. If the source is the police, then do they have the information I asked for above?
I'm not yet willing to say that the police started this riot, as others are alleging, because I don't have hard evidence of this.
I am also not willing to believe that this riot was started by angry high school kids, who planned it in advance, because I have absolutely no evidence of that either.
I am happy to say that I don't know what happened here until I actually have evidence of what happened. But when there's so little evidence, it makes me think that a lot of other people who are talking about Monday don't know anything either.
I'm going to keep digging, and I'm going to try to do it from an evidence-based perspective. I'm also going to say that if other journalists were using the same evidence-based perspective that I'm using, there would not have been the rush to judgement we saw in the reporting on this topic.
It looks like our lazy, corporate media is happy to line up behind the official police account of the situation, and report this as fact, because it means they don't have to do any actual work.
But I don't know. Maybe the Baltimore Sun has some screenshots of accounts sharing that flier. I sure would like to see the evidence, if this is the case.