How YouTube Helped Spread Dark Hoaxes About Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Users pushed disinformation about the liberal justice’s absence during State of the Union broadcasts.

The State of the Union is usually guaranteed to be among the year’s highest-profile political broadcasts. This Tuesday, internet conspiracy theorists hijacked the audience watching livestreams of the broadcast to push hoax theories about the purported death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

On Tuesday night, one of the streams that YouTube’s algorithm prominently suggested to viewers was hosted by Phoenix’s Fox 10. In live YouTube comments collected and displayed alongside that broadcast, Mother Jones tallied 20 comments noting the justice’s absence from the event following cancer surgery and another nine suggesting she was dead in just a 30-second window where cameras showed the justices in attendance. The Fox affiliate’s video was viewed about 100,000 times. 

Other streams hosted similar comments. Time‘s was the fourth-most-seen of the night, accruing more than 600,000 views. As of Friday, it remained the widest-watched stream with live comments still accessible. On that broadcast, in a 60-second span Mother Jones counted 63 comments with references to Ginsburg’s health, 44 noting she was missing, and another 19 suggesting she was dead.

Hoaxes related to Ginsburg’s health have been bubbling through the internet’s fringe since she sought treatment, but have been slowly moving closer to the mainstream. Last week Trump ally Sebastian Gorka, a Fox News contributor and former administration official, tweeted out a reference to the conspiracy theory.

People on the far right are known to use YouTube comments to get their claims in front of eyes that wouldn’t see the internet message boards that nurture their favored conspiracy theories, or the kinds of private conspiracy Facebook groups that, as Mother Jones has reported, have spread hoaxes on Ginsburg. 

A YouTube spokesperson explained that the company uses human reviewers and “smart detection technology” to flag live comments on livestreams that potentially violate YouTube’s policies. It also lets any user do the same even after the stream has ended. Websites hosting livestreams have the ability to turn off commenting, to block certain words or users, and to stop displaying user comments once the stream ends. The spokesperson noted that spreading false information doesn’t necessarily violate YouTube’s policies against hate speech, scams, harassment, or inciting violence.

It’s unclear if there was any sort of coordinated effort to push Ginsburg conspiracies alongside State of the Union livestreams. In the comments surrounding the January 28 8chan message board post that started a hoax about Ginsburg being in a coma, posters loosely suggest working to make it go viral.

“We should probably start meme’ing that she is dead,” one user wrote. Another suggested that “Maybe we can blow up twitter with this and then they have to come out with the truth.”

Alongside an image bearing a fabricated quote from Ginsburg saying she never met a non-Jew she liked, another poster wrote some advice: “Doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Meme it anyway.”

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