The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fox News removes manipulated images from coverage of Seattle protests

A mural on Seattle's Pine Street spells out “Black Lives Matter” in an area dubbed the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, an experiment in police-free self-government. (Karen Ducey/Getty Images)
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Fox News on Friday removed manipulated images that had appeared on its website as part of the outlet’s coverage of protests over the police killing of George Floyd, which has occasioned peaceful assemblies in cities across the country and, in Seattle, given rise to an unusual experiment in self-government.

The misleading material ran alongside stories about a small expanse of city blocks in Seattle that activists have claimed as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone.

The police-free environment has become an object of scorn for right-wing activists and President Trump. As protesters occupied a six-block area surrounding an abandoned police precinct — and as Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan (D) promised to protect their First Amendment rights — Trump this week labeled them “domestic terrorists” and pledged to “take back” the city if state and local officials didn’t.

The occupation has been peaceful, with activists from around the city visiting the car-free streets for political speeches, concerts and free food. But Fox’s coverage contributed to the appearance of armed unrest. The misleading material spliced a June 10 photograph of an armed man at the Seattle protests with different photographs — one also from June 10, of a sign reading, “You Are Now Entering Free Cap Hill,” and others from images captured May 30 of a shattered storefront and other unrest downtown.

Activists have taken over a six-block area in Seatle's Capitol Hill neighborhood and made one core demand: that police officers stay away. (Video: The Washington Post)

The conservative news site, in coverage that labeled Seattle “CRAZY TOWN” and called the city “helpless,” also displayed an image of a city block set ablaze that was actually taken in St. Paul, Minn.

Activists take over a Seattle neighborhood, banishing the police

Fox removed the edited images in response to an article in the Seattle Times, telling the outlet in a statement, “We have replaced our photo illustration with the clearly delineated images of a gunman and a shattered storefront, both of which were taken this week in Seattle’s autonomous zone.” The image of the shattered storefront, however, was not captured this week in the autonomous zone.

In response to an inquiry from The Washington Post on Saturday, a Fox spokeswoman, Jessica Ketner, pointed to an editor’s note appended to three online articles and declined to comment further.

The editor’s note reads: “A home page photo collage which originally accompanied this story included multiple scenes from Seattle’s ‘Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone’ and of wreckage following recent riots. The collage did not clearly delineate between these images, and has since been replaced. In addition, a recent slide show depicting scenes from Seattle mistakenly included a picture from St. Paul, Minnesota. Fox News regrets these errors.”

The use of the deceptive material marked a new chapter in an ongoing debate over synthetic media, which includes both sophisticated, computer-generated “deepfakes,” as well as more rudimentary mash-ups that still may mislead the public.

“These are shallow fakes, really basic manipulation,” said Emerson Brooking, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab. “What I fear is that many people seeing them, especially people already primed to believe the worst about the protests, will take that to be reality and think there are heavily armed, antifa super-soldiers patrolling the streets.”

The episode unfolded as Trump and his political allies escalated their attacks on antifa, a loose collection of anti-fascist protesters who have played no organized role in the unrest, according to a review of charges filed so far in connection with the protests, which have at times tipped into turmoil. False online warnings about antifa’s planned invasion of cities large and small — incubated on fake Twitter accounts and in private Facebook groups — have brought armed residents to the streets and forced local law enforcement to mobilize in response.

Armed residents lined Idaho streets amid ‘antifa’ protest fears. The leftist incursion was an online myth.

In San Antonio, a 43-year-old man was recently arrested on charges of terrorist threats and public fear for promising on Twitter to “personally kill” any “antifa soldiers” preparing to join a local protest. Antifa never mobilized.

Seattle has become a particular fixation for the president, who said he would crack down on the city following a concerted attempt this week by some of the Internet’s most prominent right-wing personalities to blame antifa for the upheaval there.

Their claims were contradicted by local law enforcement. “We have no evidence that antifa are in any way involved in the ongoing protests,” said Patrick Michaud, a Seattle police spokesman.