'Hacktivist' Hysteria in Baltimore

The debunked #BaltimoreLootCrew tweets find a new way to feed fearmongering.


I'm all for debunking social-media memes and telling people not to believe everything they read. But this Baltimore Sun piece takes a kind of weird approach to it:

After riots overtook West Baltimore on Monday, a hashtag began to appear on Twitter and other social media—#BALTIMORELOOTCREW—linking together posts that depicted pilfered prescription drugs and demolished store shelves.

But that "crew" was not actually in Baltimore protesting the death of Freddie Gray, according to a local cybersecurity company. Many photos shared using that label, and others, were taken years ago, and often not even in the United States, employees at Federal Hill-based ZeroFox found.

Bad actors and so-called "hacktivists" descended on Baltimore—electronically, at least—this past week, flooding social media with automated accounts and inauthentic images, said James C. Foster, CEO of the social media risk management firm. Law enforcement and cybersecurity experts said such barrages increasingly target areas of unrest around the world, spurring violence and challenging efforts to contain it.

"There's a global reach now where they don't have to be here to further instigate it," Foster said.

Note the outside-agitator framing, in which Twitter trolls are presented as "hacktivists" who "instigate" violence around the world. In the second-to-last paragraph of the story, we're finally informed that "there was no proof that such misinformation led to any specific acts of violence."


The company's specialty is rooting out cyber criminals lurking on social media. And when West Baltimore erupted in rioting Monday, its employees felt compelled to apply their skills. ZeroFox worked into the night tracing tweets and Facebook accounts that shared photos of looting and violence.

What they found was that much of the activity was coming from well outside of Baltimore, in some cases from Russia, China, India and the Middle East.

"I just killed a pig," wrote one tweet, showing a bloodied police officer slumped on the ground. Not only was the photo of an officer in South America, but the account sharing it was not in Baltimore.

I guess it's nice to know the highly skilled specialists at ZeroFox can do a reverse image search. But you really don't need to adopt such a spy-story tone to remind readers that the Internet is global or that trolls post faked or otherwise misleading photos during disasters and riots. Apparently, the people who pulled the #SandyLootCrew prank are still at it, or have inspired imitators. There's an interesting story to be written about that, but it won't read like an advertorial for a security firm.

Related: BuzzFeed gets trolled.