By Elizabeth Lepro

All eyes are on college campuses as protesters across the country face arrests and suspension for encampments they’ve set up while calling for universities to divest from funding that supports Israel’s military assault on Gaza.

In New York City, police moved onto the Columbia University and City College of New York campuses Tuesday night, locking down the perimeters, blocking the news media and arresting nearly 300 people while using pepper spray and batons against students and demonstrators.

Before that, though, a popular disinformation tactic was gaining traction. 

In an April 23 interview with Fox5 News, New York Police Department Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kaz Daughtry noted a number of student protesters at Columbia and New York University had the same lime green tent. This, he said, was evidence someone was funding the student protest at Columbia, an unfounded accusation echoed by New York Mayor Eric Adams. 

“Look at the tents,” Daughtry said. “They all were the same color, the same ones that we saw at NYU, the same ones that we see at Columbia. To me, I think someone is funding this.” 

Online, hundreds of posts on X and Facebook circulated the same copy-pasted language about the tents, alongside a photo taken by a photographer at the Columbia student newspaper, The Columbia Daily Spectator. The posts again questioned why many of the student protesters at Columbia had the same tent, insinuating they had been provided by “outside agitators.” 

A surge of social posts using the same language is a sign of a coordinated effort to create confusion and panic. Many of the accounts making the posts appeared to be bots or shell accounts not run by actual people, or at least, not representing the people they claim to be. 

Here’s a useful explainer from First Draft News about how to spot a bot account.

Journalists set to work investigating the tent claims. Reporters from The Forward went to Columbia to see the tents and to speak with students. Wired and the local NYC news site Hell Gate found the tents were often the cheapest available online, and the top results in a Google Search for “tents.” 

After the New York Post said hedge fund manager and progressive philanthropist George Soros had been directly funding student protesters and buying them supplies, Washington Post columnist Philip Bump followed the money, debunking that claim as well. 

New York officials stuck to the message. By Thursday, Daughtry was calling the protesters “students/professional agitators/protesters/outside influencers.” 

After Tuesday’s raid at Columbia and City College of New York, Daughtry and other members of the NYPD attended press conferences and interviews carrying a chain that students had used to lock the doors to Hamilton Hall after taking it over.

“This is not what students bring to school,” NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Tarik Sheppard aid in an interview with MSNBC. “This is what professionals bring to campuses and universities.”

Journalists from a number of outlets investigated that claim–demonstrating that the lock was actually a bike lock Columbia University advertised that its students use. The CITY reporter Katie Honan confronted Sheppard with evidence to that effect on Wednesday.

A final claim Adams used to insinuate that students were being manipulated was that a woman whose husband was “convicted for terrorism” was encouraging protesters at Columbia to escalate their tactics.

Associated Press reporter Jake Offenhartz corrected this claim by speaking with the woman in question, confirming she wasn’t on Columbia’s campus that week (though she had visited previously),wasn’t arrested, and hadn’t taught the students anything. Her husband is a Palestinian activist who was arrested in 2003 “on charges of supporting the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group in the 1980s and 1990s,” but was not convicted, according to the AP.

New York Police Department Deputy Commissioner of Operations Kaz Daughtry at a press conference April 30. Photo: @NYPDnews on X.


The “outside agitator” allegation is  familiar in the disinformation sphere. During the 2020 George Floyd protests, unproven rumors that protesters had been given checks by Soros were stated to discredit protesters’ motivations.

On Thursday arrest numbers revealed that there were 134 non-students arrested in raids on both City College of New York and Columbia University. But calling these protesters “outside agitators” or “professionals” is a manipulation of the truth, implying the arrested protesters had motivations beyond supporting the aims of the demonstration. At City College, many arrests were made outside campus Tuesday night as pro-Palestinian group Within Our Lifetimes Palestine led a protest on the street and sidewalk in front of the university. These arrests likely would have contributed to the number of non-students arrested.

When the NYPD moved into Columbia’s campus Tuesday night, it forced all members of the news media–including many student-journalists–from the premises, making it difficult for reporters to confirm who had been arrested for the next 48 hours.

Student-run radio station WKCR provided live coverage, debunking in real-time the claim that a majority of protesters arrested were not students by getting confirmation from their student sources.

“These are people who have seen these students in classrooms, people who have seen them on campus, that have perhaps lived on the same dormitory floors and so on,” WKCR reporter Alejandra Díaz-Pizarro said.

Student journalists have provided vital coverage of protests on their campuses–offering at times, the only live coverage of events as they happen. Here are PEN’s resources for student journalists to counter disinformation.