Officials see extremist groups, disinformation in protests

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Members of the Shiloh Christian Center pray, sing and speak in tounges on the "With God All Things Are Possible" seal on the west lawn of the Ohio Statehouse as protesters gather at the Ohio Statehouse for a peaceful Sunday, May 31, 2020 protest over the death of George Floyd, a black man who was killed in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25. (Doral Chenoweth/The Columbus Dispatch via AP)

WASHINGTON – U.S. officials sought to determine Sunday whether extremist groups had infiltrated police brutality protests across the country and deliberately tipped largely peaceful demonstrations toward violence — and if foreign adversaries were behind a burgeoning disinformation campaign on social media.

As demonstrations spread from Minneapolis to the White House, New York City and overseas, federal law enforcement officials insisted far-left groups were stoking violence. Meanwhile, experts who track extremist groups also reported seeing evidence of the far-right at work.

Investigators were also tracking online interference and looking into whether foreign agents were behind the effort. Officials have seen a surge of social media accounts with fewer than 200 followers created in the last month, a textbook sign of a disinformation effort.

The accounts have posted graphic images of the protests, material on police brutality and material on the coronavirus pandemic that appeared designed to inflame tensions across the political divide, according to three administration officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss investigations.

The investigations are an attempt to identify the network of forces behind some of the most widespread outbreak of civil unrest in the U.S. in decades. Protests erupted in dozens of cities in recent days, triggered by the death of George Floyd, who died after he was pinned at the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Pandemic-weary Americans were already angry — about COVID-19 deaths, lockdown orders and tens of millions of people out of work. The pandemic has hit African Americans harder than whites in the U.S., and the killings of black people by police have continued over the years even as the topic faded from the national stage.

But there are signs of people with other disparate motives, including anarchist graffiti, arrests of some out-of-state protesters, and images circulating in extremist groups that suggest the involvement of outside groups.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Sunday that state authorities were hit with a cyber attack as law enforcement prepared to diffuse protests in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the epicenter of the unrest. He described it as a “very sophisticated denial of service attack on all computers.”