And people believe them.
Rage and frustration over the death of Freddie Gray, a young black man who succumbed to severe spinal cord injuries while in police custody, continues to explode in Baltimore in the form of riots and looting. Twitter trolls are fueling the fire by posing as looters and posting images of ostensibly stolen goods with the hashtag #BaltimoreLootCrew.
One user, "Juice," tweeted an image of a drawer full of pharmaceuticals with the caption "Don't even know what I took #BaltimoreLootCrew #BaltimoreRiots." Despite the obvious tip-off that Juice has an anime avatar and most of the posts on his account appear to be 4chan screenshots, people took the bait. "Those are life saving medications," one user responded. "Please turn them in," wrote another.
Juice is hardly alone in the troll, either. Numerous other users are posting similar messages, and with similar responses. One user, "Gentoolpa," tweeted an image with a photo of a Macbook and the caption, "Y'all got laptops? I do." One response to that tweet was, "I've reported this to the Baltimore Police. I hope that each one of you dirty little niglets will get raped in prison."
These tweets, and those like them, are in all likelihood completely fake. Both Juice and Gentloopa's accounts, like many of the others involved in the troll, contain numerous references to the Ayy Team, a group of online trolls, 8chan, an anonymous online message board similar to 4chan, and Gamergate. 8chan is thought to have been Gamergate's central hub.
A hashtag that popped up during the Hurricane Sandy flooding, #SandyLootCrew, featured similar posts and is believed to have been the work of trolls.
So, trolls are being trolls. What's the big deal? The problem is that people are actually taking these posts seriously, as the previously mentioned responses indicate. The hashtag was even cited with credulity in an article in the National Review titled, "What Are Baltimore's Rioters Trying to 'Communicate'?"
"News outlets that jump on the story indirectly benefit from the trolls' exploitative behavior," Whitney Phillips, a professor at Humboldt State University and author of This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things, told Motherboard in an email, "and purposefully or not become part of the reason these behaviors have become so common, especially in the wake of national tragedies."
The danger with these kinds of tweets being taken seriously is that they serve as a perfect excuse for people essentially insulated from the effects of over-policing and police murder, either by virtue of their geographic location or ethnic heritage, to demonize protesters and rioters in Baltimore, as they did in Ferguson last year.
In a way, the responses to these tweets—full of self-righteousness and vitriol—hold a dark mirror to the mainstream perception of the Baltimore riots as chaotic and counter-productive, instead of a Newtonian reaction to systemic oppression. But that doesn't mean the tweets should be entertained or engaged with, and certainly not cited in the media as proof that looting has gotten out of hand.