After facing backlash, the city of Minneapolis has scrapped plans to pay social media influencers to share city-approved messages to combat misinformation during the upcoming trials of the four police officers charged in the killing of George Floyd.
The city faced criticism on social media and from residents and community groups after details about the program were discussed at a Minneapolis City Council meeting Friday.
In a letter sent Sunday night to elected officials and obtained by NBC News, the city’s director of communications, Greta Bergstrom, and the director of neighborhood and community relations, David Rubedor, said they would not move forward with the strategy.
“While we believe in and support the intention of this recommendation, we have seen the impact has caused harm,” they said. “We are sorry and acknowledge that we will have to work to repair the harm that has been caused.”
During a news conference Monday, Rubedor said that the Neighborhood and Community Relations Department had recommended social media influencers be used as part of the Joint Information System intended to create multiple channels — on the ground and online — “to share timely and relevant information” with the public throughout the trials.
“In our experience, we have heard repeatedly that many residents are not connected to the city’s traditional routes of sharing information and we often hear from residents that they were not informed of significant information or resources that are available,” he said. “So with this, we are constantly seeking out ways to make sure that all of our residents are informed of timely and accurate information in ways that are meaningful to them.”
In retrospect, he said, the term “social media influencer” did not reflect “what we are asking of our partners and it caused confusion in the community.”
“This was never about trying to persuade or change public opinion about any particular message,” he said. “But it was about getting important information out quickly and in an equitable way.”
Under the program, the city would have entered into contracts with six social media influencers who “are considered trusted messengers” with large social media presences to share city-approved messages with the African American, East African, Hmong, Native American and Latino communities, officials said. The influencers would have been paid $2,000 each, city spokeswoman Sarah McKenzie said Monday.
The program had been approved by the City Council in preparation for the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former Minneapolis police officer who was seen on video kneeling for several minutes on Floyd’s neck. Chauvin faces second-degree murder and manslaughter charges. Jury selection is expected to begin March 8. The three other fired officers involved in Floyd’s death are scheduled to go on trial in August.
McKenzie said that many of the people who took exception to the plan — online and locally — misinterpreted its intentions.
“The intent really is about keeping everyone in the city safe, sharing timely, critical, public information and recognizing not everyone gets their news from local TV or the newspaper,” she said in a telephone interview Monday.
Floyd’s death prompted global protests, some of which grew violent. Stores in Minneapolis were looted and set ablaze and officers used tear gas and fired bullets into crowds. National Guard troops were deployed to help restore order.
McKenzie said city officials are paying particular attention to the criticism from residents.
“The city is listening to the feedback. We’re in a tough spot,” McKenzie said. “We realize it has been a horrific year for people in our city and there is mistrust in the government.”
The influencers would have been tasked with sharing information on their Twitter or other social media accounts from the city about road and building closures, as well as with dispelling misinformation.
During a City Council meeting Friday, Mark Ruff, the Minneapolis city coordinator, said that officials want to make sure that “we get the word out about what’s happening with the trials and what the options are for community to engage, and particularly communities who are not utilizing, maybe, the city’s website or the other traditional media sources where there’ll be disinformation also disseminated.”
McKenzie said Monday that the irony is that an initiative meant to dispel rumors and lies was misconstrued.
“I think sometimes when people saw the term influencer, they misinterpreted what the plan was,” she said.
Janelle Griffith is a national reporter for NBC News focusing on issues of race and policing.