Undercover cops posing as Orthodox Jews? An exercise in skepticism

I received a message from a trusted but skeptical Jewish person who subscribes to Twitter and knows I just posted an op-ed addressing propaganda.  He said, "I don't know if you can confirm this somehow but that's really messed up if true."

The challenge was accompanied by a tweet with a picture of three men in dark suits, two with hats and one with a yarmulke.  Their garb made them look like observant Jews.  Some people in the comments section suggested that the lack of tzitzit visibility is a hint that they were not Jewish, but some observant men simply wear their tzitzit tucked in.  The most horrific part of the tweet was the caption by the person who retweeted the original.  "Liv BLM" said, "Cops are using OUR synagogues and dressing up as OUR people to harm Black people and innocent protesters.  I am so pissed about this all Jews should be so pissed about this."

If Liv BLM is who she claims to be, how does she know that cops are using anyone's synagogue?  How does she know that these are even cops dressed as Jews?  And how does she know that these men are out to "harm Black people and innocent protesters"?  After all, there are Orthodox communities walking with the protesters.  And the day in question, Saturday, June 6, passed with no fulfillment of said prophecy.

These are deliberate and dangerous accusations.  When stated in the public realm — the burden is to disprove it — the default is to accept it.  "Liv BLM's" Twitter account managed to get that tweet retweeted over 10 thousand times and liked more than double that in one day.  Those figures just seem too outrageously high from an account with fewer than 600 followers.

 "Liv BLM" retweeted it from "bratt_skoff," whose post with the caption saying, "Getting word that cops went undercover as Haredim at the Lakewood protest yesterday" was retweeted over 1,600  times and liked almost four thousand times in a day.  Those figures are also high for an otherwise mostly slow account with only 768 followers.

The original tweet, which catapulted into the Twittersphere, curiously started with Mishpacha Magazine's Twitter account.  It's a simple six-second video with a caption that says, with such certainty, "Undercover law enforcement dressed as frum Jews as [sic] yesterday's protest in Lakewood.  Not clear where they buy these disguises."  Others, like the aforementioned, took that original, unconfirmed caption and added to it, making it more and more sinister each time, making sure more and more people would see it.  The initial site for the origin of this Tweet, Mishpacha Magazine, has fewer than 2,800 followers and a relatively slow Twitter feed, except for this one post, which got retweeted more than 600 times and liked much more than double that in a day.  Most of their other posts have light activity.  I reached out to Mishpacha Magazine to ask about the tweet and did not get a response.

Then the Forward reported, as if it were fact, that there were undercover police dressed as Jews, just because of a six-second video with a caption on Twitter.  This sloppy reporting is irresponsible at best, when the region has already dealt with a spate of attacks on the Jewish community, some violent, others deadly.  The title of the Forward's piece implies that one of the Orthodox men held a phone on the Sabbath, which is how that writer seems to have confirmed that the men were imposters.  Nonetheless, the phone seems to be held by a man in jeans, not one observing the Sabbath.  And really, who knows when and where this video was even taken?  So many images in social media turn out to be a distortion of the truth or an outright lie.

Anyone can post a picture or video of anything or anyone and label it however he wants, manipulate it, and likely get some bots to help with the numbers to increase the popularity.  But he will also get the intellectually lazy on board with his cause.  People with ill will will have a bunch of "followers" in the palm of their pixels, and those on the receiving end of the propaganda will need a lot more than just skepticism.

Faith Quintero is the author of Loaded Blessings, a family saga that alternates between Inquisition-era Spain and modern-day Israel.  It's on the Federalist's top books of 2019 list and a Montaigne Medal finalist for the Eric Hoffer awards.  The Montaigne Medal is an additional distinction, awarded to "the most thought-provoking books."