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Fact Check: NPR Says Vehicle Attacks Are On The Rise

Published 23 June 2020 | 991 words | Categories: Journalism

On June 21st, 2020, NPR published an article with the headline “Vehicle Attacks Rise As Extremists Target Protesters.” The article gained attention when people complained to NPR about their photo choice, which contradicted the headline. NPR had used a photograph of a woman in a car defending herself against assault. The organization later changed the photo to a 2017 stock image and added an update to their article.

The first line reads “Right-wing extremists are turning cars into weapons, with reports of at least 50 vehicle-ramming incidents since protests against police violence erupted nationwide in late May.” This seems like a dishonest sentence when it’s followed by “At least 18 are categorized as deliberate attacks; another two dozen are unclear as to motivation or are still under investigation.” This leads us to the fact check—are vehicle attacks actually on the rise, and what is the motivation behind each? Are they all linked to right-wing extremism? NPR is implying there’s a causal relationship where all 50 incidents are far-right.

The article, written by journalist Hannah Allam, cites “a count released Friday by Ari Weil, a terrorism researcher at the University of Chicago's Chicago Project on Security and Threats.“ Unfortunately NPR doesn’t provide a link to this report, so we can’t see raw data for ourselves. Allam also leaves out comparison data, and simply uses a quote from Weil to say attacks are “surprisingly high.” The data doesn’t seem difficult to find for ourselves because it’s apparently taken from public police/court records, plus news reports. But it’s odd NPR doesn’t elaborate further. The rest of the article is mostly examples of recent ramming attacks in the United States, and examples of alleged encouragement from far-right extremists.

Halfway into the article, Allam writes “From May 27 to June 17, Weil recorded at least 50 vehicle-ramming incidents nationwide. Of those, five were by law enforcement and 45 by civilians. At least 18 of the civilian incidents involved malice, and another 23 remain unclear as to motive, according to Weil's analysis of police and court records, as well as news reports. The bulk of the attacks occurred in the first 14 days of protests.” Four were labeled accidents.

The article ends with a quote from a Minnesota protester: “...maybe this is more of an actual thought-out process, a deliberate plan for them to run people over.”

Overall, the article reads like an opinion piece. It conveys a narrative and uses selective examples to support the hypothesis. A more honest headline would read "A New Report Says Vehicle Attacks Are On The Rise" or something similar.

I looked for the data, and didn’t immediately see it. So I checked to see what other media organizations were saying. Vox published an article on June 1st, 2020, with the headline “People are running over George Floyd protesters. Are far-right memes to blame?” The article itself isn’t great—it has more spin than NPR’s piece—but it does include an interview. The author, Alex Ward, actually called him after finding a Twitter thread.

Weil says “...It really goes back to the Black Lives Matter and North Dakota Access Pipeline protests in 2015 and 2016. They innovated the use of street-blocking protests to make their claims. But then the far right responded by running their vehicles through these protesters and that led to a whole series of ‘run them over’ memes online that were shared to glorify and encourage more of these attacks.… I’m not making a strict causal link between the media online and these events. But I am saying the media online helps create a broader atmosphere that makes these events more likely.”

Ward mentions that vehicle attacks aren’t exclusively within the domain of far-right Americans. Weil notes “There are three major waves in the last year [of people and groups using] this tactic.First, the Palestinian nationalists in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories from 2015 to 2017. Second, jihadists in North America and Western Europe in 2016 and 2017. And third, on the far-right from 2016 onward.”

Eventually we get to the source of the data. Weil says “If we look at the Global Terrorism Database, there are 127 of these attacks from 1999 to 2017 — and 108 of those appeared just from 2014 to 2017. So there’s really a big, recent wave.” The database uses Adobe Flash, which is no longer supported, so I’m not sure how much longer the website will function.

Weil hypothesizes that vehicle attacks in the U.S. are largely spontaneous, and easy to carry out, especially when protesters try to block roads. He then mentions the 2016 terrorist incidents in Nice and Berlin, which used trucks to kill hundreds. But in reference to the Global Terrorism Database, he doesn’t differentiate between U.S. attacks and international ones.

A later article from Bloomberg says “Weil says waves of these attacks in different places have followed a pattern: There’s a first mover, then a flood of support online for the attacker, then a spike in copycat incidents. For the most part, the lone actors behind these attacks are responding to other attacks or to propaganda…. It’s too soon to say whether any of the vehicle ramming attacks happening now can be directly linked to white supremacist propaganda, in part because few assailants have been apprehended…. As chaotic scenes of violent unrest unfolded around the country, cops were the targets of assaults with vehicles as well. Three officers were injured in Buffalo on Monday when the driver of a Ford Explorer smashed through a law enforcement blockade.

In conclusion: vehicle attacks do seem to be on the rise. If 1999-2013 had 19, then 2014-2017 had 108, and we have 50+ in less than half of 2020... that’s probably a big deal. But we don’t have a perfectly clear picture of why or where these attacks are taking place. I would rate the NPR article as Mostly True, subject to further details being released.

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