On June 18 2020, Facebook user Eric Wicklund shared the following post, claiming (in yet another warmed-over variation on very well-worn scarelore) that “four busloads” of protesters planned to descend on Ada, Oklahoma — but their nefarious scheme was foiled when they were met with 600 “armed Americans”:
That post (presented, of course, without citation or proof) was shared 80,000 times in just under a week, and iterations of the same story (down to “anyone see this on the news”) migrated to Twitter, too. In the first tweet below, even the odd punctuation remained intact:
On June 20 2020, user Joe Murphy shared an iteration of the same story — four buses met with 600 “armed citizens”:
An earlier, similar message was shared to the public group “We Ride Oklahoma” on June 2 2020 by user Cristy Moore. Moore requested “bikers” to “stand in protection,” and claimed merchants in Ada “were told to expect” four to eight buses
My fellow riders, I have a sincere request from you. Anyone available [June 5 2020] to come to Ada and help me protect my barbershop from protestors? Merchants of Ada ok were told to expect 4 to 8 buses of protesters are to arrive at 5 pm to protest the black lives matter. I’m single and own a barbershop on main street. I think having bikers to stand in protection would give a message of just go on your way. We need enough for our little main street and police department. I believe 12 pm Friday is a good time to start rolling in.
On June 22 2020, the New York Times reported that the same rumor had been observed in at least 41 separate cities:
On the last weekend in May , the police in Sioux Falls, S.D., decided to investigate whether busloads of antifa protesters were headed to town. It shows what can happen from a single tweet.
They were responding to a rumor spreading quickly among local residents online, and first posted to Twitter by the local Chamber of Commerce.
“We’re being told that buses are en route from Fargo for today’s march downtown…,” the group posted on Twitter. “Please bring in any furniture, signs, etc. that could be possibly thrown through windows.”
The tweet was later deleted, but not before the rumor spread verbatim on Facebook, where it was even translated into Spanish. On Facebook, screenshots of the tweet and other posts about the group’s message collected more than 4,600 likes and shares according to CrowdTangle, a Facebook-owned tool that analyzes interactions across social media.
The rumor led to dozens of people reaching out the local police that Sunday, according to Sam Clemens, the public information officer at the Sioux Falls Police Department.
Not long after Moore’s post in the “We Ride Oklahoma” group was shared, the Asheville Citizen-Times covered a localized version of the same rumor. In that iteration, the buses were expected to arrive at a local Harris Teeter:
“No, there were no buses,” a manager at Harris Teeter told me June 5 , asking that his name be left out of the paper. “I’ve been here every day this week, and there were no buses.”
Asheville Police Department spokeswoman Christina Hallingse provided a partial explanation for why some locals may have mistaken bus activity for out of town agitators, although that doesn’t explain all the previous rumors from all over:
“There was misinformation circulating social media regarding Young buses, with out of town tags, dropping people off at various locations throughout town. The buses people were seeing are a part of our current transit plan, through COVID-19, in order to adhere to social distancing requirements.”
Although the busloads of protesters never materialized, vigilantes — ginned up by their own disinformation and propaganda — often did. On June 19 2020, The Intercept reported:
In the days that followed [a tweet from President Donald Trump on May 29 2020], rumors flourished on social media that busloads of antifa actors were headed to small communities across the U.S. The rumors were repeatedly proven to be false. Twitter suspended an account that claimed to be run by antifa supporters but turned out to be associated with the white supremacist group Identity Evropa.
But the damage was already done. “Virtually everywhere major counterprotests emerged over the last two weeks, they involved reaction to rumors and speculation about antifa based on disinformation spread through social media and other online platforms,” said [Alexander Reid Ross, a researcher at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right]. In many communities, police and public officials encouraged the pushback.
On June 23 2020, we contacted police in Ada, Oklahoma to ask whether four busloads of protesters had arrived there, only to be turned away by 600 armed citizens. Police were aware of the claim, and said “nothing like that” happened in June 2020. This rumor is false — and pure disinformation.