#Antifa and #Berkeley were hot topics last weekend in America — and in Russia
In the case study below, I describe how the narrative surrounding Berkeley was picked up and shaped by Russian-linked influence networks, which saw a chance to drive a wedge in American society and ran with it. Next, I look at the individual accounts and users that were identified as top influencers on Twitter, and explore what they were posting, how they worked together to craft a narrative, and the methods they used to amplify their message. Finally, I look at how news coverage of the events in Berkeley was shaped by the skewed narrative that emerged on social media.
.. Three of the top 10 most frequently shared URLs within the Russian-linked influence network were related to Antifa or the Berkeley protests
.. these trends show that users in the network of Russian-linked influence operations wanted to exploit unrest in the U.S. and “amplify alt-right alarmism about the left-wing Antifa (short for anti-fascist) movement.” For several consecutive days this week, the most-tweeted link in the network was a whitehouse.gov petition seeking to declare Antifa a terrorist group.
.. Once it started trending, the ‘alt-right’ made a concerted effort to flood the hashtag #Berkeley with negative posts about #Antifa in an attempt to saturate the hashtag, as well as to mix in some misinformation and disinformation to muddy the waters. The purpose was to create and then establish control of the narrative, skew perceptions of the event and those involved in it, and influence mainstream media coverage by boosting the visibility of certain content.
.. the hashtag #Antifa looked quite different. Nearly all of the top influencers were ‘alt-right’/far-right Trump supporters, including
- Mike Cernovich,
- Paul Joseph Watson,
- Irma Hinojosa,
- Mike Tokes,
- Nick Short,
- Bill Mitchell, and
- Dinesh DSouza.
.. Only two of the top 30 influencers were not part of this ‘alt-right’/far-right group
.. Notably, a fake Julian Assange account was the most influential contributor to the #Antifa hashtag (as measured by engagement), and both Roger Stone (bottom row, far left) and Nigel Farage were also among the top influencers (bottom row, last on the right).
.. A final noteworthy observation: The third most influential contributor to the #Antifa hashtag was one of the many fake Antifa accounts (BevHillsAntifa) created in the spring and summer of 2017.
.. Antifa is not an organization
.. Other dominant themes included a concerted effort to connect Antifa to the Democratic party and to smear the name of Black Lives Matter, as well as to shift the focus from the surge of right-wing extremist violence to the individual actions of “leftist” protesters.
.. you can see the narrative surrounding #Antifa really start to take shape. The dominant themes all involved presenting an exaggerated threat and promoting right-wing alarmism about that threat. These themes included labeling Antifa as a terrorist organization, trying to link Antifa to George Soros, presenting Antifa as the aggressor and far-right extremists as the victims, and trying to portray Antifa as the “real” fascists. Both-siderism was also a common tactic used, often in attempt to equate hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan with Antifa and Black Lives Matter.
..Repetition is one of the most important elements of successful propaganda dissemination. Even when information is not true, being exposed to it repeatedly and from multiple sources boosts its credibility and increases the likelihood that an audience will internalize and believe the message. Repetition also increases the likelihood that any given person will be exposed to the message, while simultaneously drowning out alternative messages and perspectives.
.. When people see that other individuals with similar ideological viewpoints are propagating a certain message or position, they’re more likely to adopt that perspective themselves. Additionally, perceptions of widespread support can make extreme ideas seem more acceptable and “mainstream” —a key step in the process of normalization. These social normative factors make social media ripe for manipulation, as it’s easy to create false impressions of support using automated accounts (“bots”), cyborgs, and orchestrated hashtag campaigns.
..The methods used by these “alt-right”/far-right figures to shape the narrative surrounding #Antifa and #Berkeley may look familiar, as they mirror the methods used by authoritarian states to manipulate public opinion and skew perceptions of reality
..The experimental psychology literature suggests that, all other things being equal, messages received in greater volume and from more sources will be more persuasive. Quantity does indeed have a quality all its own. High volume can deliver other benefits that are relevant in the Russian propaganda context.
- First, high volume can consume the attention and other available bandwidth of potential audiences, drowning out competing messages.
- Second, high volume can overwhelm competing messages in a flood of disagreement.
- Third, multiple channels increase the chances that target audiences are exposed to the message.
- Fourth, receiving a message via multiple modes and from multiple sources increases the message’s perceived credibility, especially if a disseminating source is one with which an audience member identifies... By focusing on the isolated fights and outbursts by individual actors, a handful of Twitter accounts (amplified by bots & cyberborgs) shifted the focus away from the widespread, ongoing, and orchestrated activities of groups like the
- Kyle Chapman, (aka “Based Stickman”, leader of FOAK),
- Gavin McGinnes (leader of the Proud Boys),
- Nathan Damigo (leader of the white supremacist group Identity Evropa),
- Joey Gibson (leader of Patriot Prayer, and the organizer of Saturday’s canceled rally in San Francisco),
- Mike Peinovich (aka Mike Enoch, founder of the racist and anti-Semitic website “The Right Stuff”),
- Milo Yiannopoulos,
- Tim “Treadstone” Gionet(aka “Baked Alaska”, former Buzzfeed editor and current “Internet personality” who manged the speaking tour of Yiannopoulos),
- Jack Posobiec(formerly of Rebel Media), and
- “alt-right” leader Richard Spencer, among others.
.. For months, these “alt-right” and far-right extremists have been traveling to liberal cities and showing up at rallies wearing helmets, goggles, and body armor, and often carrying shields, flagpoles, and weighted sticks. While they’ve gotten (somewhat) more discreet in recent months, their plans for violence — including directions for making weapons to get past security, instructions for making improvised explosive devices, and discussions about the best gear for battle — are often made out in the open, reflecting just how emboldened these groups have become.
.. They carry this out under the guise of buzzwords like “free speech” or “patriotism”, but their intent is clear: They want to provoke violence.
.. They use these so-called “free speech” rallies as recruitment events to increase their membership, and they know violence sells. They also know that increasing their size and consolidating power requires more mainstream support, and a quick way to get that support is by portraying themselves as brave martyrs fighting against a supposed uprising of “violent leftists” — represented by Antifa, Black Lives Matter, and anyone else they can fool the media into demonizing.
.. By traveling to liberal cities where they know they’ll encounter resistance, they can then frame their violence as a defense against “intolerant leftists” trying to “shut down free speech.” This, in turn, gives mainstream conservatives and right-wing figures a reason (or, in some cases, an excuse) to support their cause.
.. Violence sells. Mainstream news outlets know this, too, which is why they often prioritize sensationalism over context. As Shane Bauer warned in his account of the events in Berkeley, “reporters shouldn’t lose sight of the big picture: Fascists and other far-right extremist groups in America are visible and organized in a way that they haven’t been in decades.” Only this time, they’re harnessing the power of social media to increase their visibility — and Russia is helping them do it.
despite what Trump has claimed, repeatedly, in his public statements since the tragic events there, the willingness to employ organized violence to achieve political goals remains a signature quality of only one side. And it’s not the left.
.. Extremism on the left is real. It can be seen in attempts to stifle the free speech of conservative speakers on university campuses (as at Middlebury and Berkeley); in the belligerent attitudes toward corporations and capitalism expressed, for instance, by some fringes of the Occupy Wall Street crowd and anti-globalization protesters; and among anti-Zionist movements that peddle conspiracy theories (such as the contention that Jews control U.S. foreign policy) to delegitimize Israel.
.. organized and strategic violence and incitement embraced by right-wing extremists, whose leaders profess faith in the necessity of the fight. Nothing the left can do today even comes close to that — and hasn’t for decades.
.. Labor unions battled constantly with railroad barons, industrial tycoons and mining bosses during the Gilded Age. Even while outnumbered and outgunned, usually by private armies that enjoyed the backing of law enforcement and state militias, workers fought in bloody clashes that left dozens dead on battlefields such as Chicago’s Haymarket Square (1886) and West Virginia’s Blair Mountain (1921).
.. for many younger activists who came of age in the postwar era, violence remained a key strategy — even a way of life.
- Inspired by the Black Panthers’ embrace of violence for self-defense, and
- enraged by the escalating war in Vietnam,
- antiwar protesters from New Left organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) sought to “bring the war home” to end the fighting abroad.
- This concept culminated in the rioting during the 1968 Democratic convention and on university campuses.
- Radical offshoots including the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army took things even further: The former bombed government buildings, and the latter committed homicide, robbery and, famously, kidnapping.
But since the 1960s, left-wing movements in the United States (and in the West writ large) have gradually turned away from violence. There are three main reasons for this.
- The first is practical: It backfired terribly.
- The Vietnam War protesters initially believed that their country was beyond redemption, so a revolution was imperative. This The Vietnam War protesters initially believed that their country was beyond redemption, so a revolution was imperative. This alienated the general public, helped unify a deeply divided conservative movement and emboldened Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” Violence proved counterproductive to ending the war; if anything, it helped prolong it. and emboldened Richard Nixon’s “silent majority.” Violence proved counterproductive to ending the war; if anything, it helped prolong it.
- Mark Rudd, a leader of the Weather Underground, sounded an unequivocal mea culpa. “Much of what the Weathermen did had the opposite effect of what we intended,” he conceded. “. . . We isolated ourselves from our friends and allies as we helped split the larger antiwar movement around the issue of violence. In general, we played into the hands of the FBI. . . . We might as well have been on their payroll.”
- The left’s second reason for rejecting violence was even simpler: There were better ways to get things done. The civil rights and feminist movements showed that nonviolent protest could achieve tangible political goals.
- it was not based only on ethical principles of Christian brotherly love but also on shrewd political calculations.
- The lesson: There was no point in challenging the legitimacy of a government that enabled them to accomplish many, albeit not all, of their goals through the democratic process.
- the modern left, which coalesced around George McGovern’s quixotic 1972 presidential run, effectively represented a gathering of fugitives.
- African Americans,
- gay men and lesbians,
- Native Americans, and
- These long-ostracized groups, which came to replace the New Deal coalition anchored by the white working class, were the very peoples against whom violence had been done for so long.
- Their painful histories made them instinctively averse to, and intolerant of, political violence. Those who had survived lynchings, beatings, bombings, sexual violence, forced removals and economic exploitation were least disposed to employ them in return.
- Antifa is mostly anarchist in nature; its members are suspicious and dismissive of the left’s embrace of government institutions. More important, it is loosely banded, disorganized and low scale. Brawling on campuses, throwing rocks or vandalizing property is reprehensible and illegal. But it is incomparable to the scope and breadth of organized violence demonstrated by the extreme right.
The left has successfully integrated into most political, economic and cultural facets of the country, but members of the extreme right say they have been
- devastated by the economic effects of globalization,
- disempowered by multiculturalism and
- disenfranchised by the election of the nation’s first African American president.
.. Organized militias that are well armed, well trained and well networked have seen a particular spike since the beginning of the Obama presidency.
.. “Sovereign citizens” are armed to the teeth and willing to challenge officials, as they did in last year’s armed standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. Many such militiamen have killed or injured local police.
.. They pose a greater threat than the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, according to a 2016 U.S. government report: “Of the 85 violent extremist incidents that resulted in death since September 12, 2001,
- far right wing violent extremist groups were responsible for 62 (73 percent) while
- radical Islamist violent extremists were responsible for 23 (27 percent).”
Antifa’s activists say they’re battling burgeoning authoritarianism on the American right. Are they fueling it instead?
.. The alliance said it didn’t object to the Multnomah GOP itself, but to “fascists” who planned to infiltrate its ranks. Yet it also denounced marchers with “Trump flags” and “red maga hats” who could “normalize support for an orange man who bragged about sexually harassing women and who is waging a war of hate, racism and prejudice.”
A second group, Oregon Students Empowered, created a Facebook page called “Shut down fascism! No nazis in Portland!”
.. Next, the parade’s organizers received an anonymous email warning that if “Trump supporters” and others who promote “hateful rhetoric” marched, “we will have two hundred or more people rush into the parade … and drag and push those people out.”
.. But in the country at large, some militant leftists are offering a very different answer.
- On Inauguration Day, a masked activist punched the white-supremacist leader Richard Spencer.
- In February, protesters violently disrupted UC Berkeley’s plans to host a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart.com editor.
- In March, protesters pushed and shoved the controversial conservative political scientist Charles Murray when he spoke at Middlebury College, in Vermont.
.. these activists appear to be linked to a movement called “antifa,” which is short for antifascist or Anti-Fascist Action. .. how the rest of the activist left responds will help define its moral character in the Trump age... In the late ’80s, left-wing punk fans in the United States began following suit, though they initially called their groups Anti-Racist Action, on the theory that Americans would be more familiar with fighting racism than fascism... some American activists had adopted the name antifa.. To most left-wing activists during the Clinton, Bush, and Obama years, deregulated global capitalism seemed like a greater threat than fascism... Trump’s rise has also bred a new sympathy for antifa among some on the mainstream left. “Suddenly,” noted the antifa-aligned journal It’s Going Down, “anarchists and antifa, who have been demonized and sidelined by the wider Left have been hearing from liberals and Leftists, ‘you’ve been right all along.’ ” An article in The Nation argued that “to call Trumpism fascist” is to realize that it is “not well combated or contained by standard liberal appeals to reason.” The radical left, it said, offers “practical and serious responses in this political moment.”.. Since antifa is heavily composed of anarchists, its activists place little faith in the state, which they consider complicit in fascism and racism. They prefer direct action:
- They pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet.
- They pressure employers to fire them and landlords to evict them.
- And when people they deem racists and fascists manage to assemble, antifa’s partisans try to break up their gatherings, including by force.
.. Such tactics have elicited substantial support from the mainstream left. When the masked antifa activist was filmed assaulting Spencer on Inauguration Day, another piece in The Nation described his punch as an act of “kinetic beauty.” Slate ran an approving article about a humorous piano ballad that glorified the assault. Twitter was inundated with viral versions of the video set to different songs, prompting the former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau to tweet, “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”
.. The violence is not directed only at avowed racists like Spencer: In June of last year, demonstrators—at least some of whom were associated with antifa—punched and threw eggs at people exiting a Trump rally in San Jose, California. An article in It’s Going Down celebrated the “righteous beatings.”
.. Antifascists call such actions defensive. Hate speech against vulnerable minorities, they argue, leads to violence against vulnerable minorities. But Trump supporters and white nationalists see antifa’s attacks as an assault on their right to freely assemble, which they in turn seek to reassert.
.. At that rally, a 41-year-old man named Kyle Chapman, who was wearing a baseball helmet, ski goggles, shin guards, and a mask, smashed an antifa activist over the head with a wooden post.
.. A politicized fight culture is emerging, fueled by cheerleaders on both sides. As James Anderson, an editor at It’s Going Down, told Vice, “This shit is fun.”
.. The Pacific Northwest has long attracted white supremacists, who have seen it as a haven from America’s multiracial East and South.
.. Now, in the Trump era, Portland has become a bastion of antifascist militancy.
.. A local paper said the ensuing melee resembled a mosh pit.
.. Trump supporters hosted another Portland rally, this one featuring Chapman, who had gained fame with his assault on the antifascist in Berkeley. Antifa activists threw bricks until the police dispersed them with stun grenades and tear gas... What’s eroding in Portland is the quality Max Weber considered essential to a functioning state: a monopoly on legitimate violence. As members of a largely anarchist movement, antifascists don’t want the government to stop white supremacists from gathering. They want to do so themselves, rendering the government impotent.. Demonstrators have interrupted so many city-council meetings that in February, the council met behind locked doors... activists protesting police violence and the city’s investments in the Dakota Access Pipeline hounded Mayor Ted Wheeler so persistently at his home that he took refuge in a hotel. The fateful email to parade organizers warned, “The police cannot stop us from shutting down roads.”All of this fuels the fears of Trump supporters, who suspect that liberal bastions are refusing to protect their right to free speech.
.. Joey Gibson, a Trump supporter who organized the June 4 Portland rally, told me that his “biggest pet peeve is when mayors have police stand down … They don’t want conservatives to be coming together and speaking.” To provide security at the rally, Gibson brought in a far-right militia called the Oath Keepers.
In late June, James Buchal, the chair of the Multnomah County Republican Party, announced that it too would use militia members for security, because “volunteers don’t feel safe on the streets of Portland.”.. Antifa believes it is pursuing the opposite of authoritarianism. Many of its activists oppose the very notion of a centralized state. But in the name of protecting the vulnerable, antifascists have granted themselves the authority to decide which Americans may publicly assemble and which may not. That authority rests on no democratic foundation... Antifa’s perceived legitimacy is inversely correlated with the government’s. Which is why, in the Trump era, the movement is growing like never before. As the president derides and subverts liberal-democratic norms, progressives face a choice. They can recommit to the rules of fair play, and try to limit the president’s corrosive effect, though they will often fail. Or they can, in revulsion or fear or righteous rage, try to deny racists and Trump supporters their political rights. From Middlebury to Berkeley to Portland, the latter approach is on the rise, especially among young people... Revulsion, fear, and rage are understandable. But one thing is clear. The people preventing Republicans from safely assembling on the streets of Portland may consider themselves fierce opponents of the authoritarianism growing on the American right. In truth, however, they are its unlikeliest allies.
For years, professor Glenn Reynolds, a.k.a., the Instapundit, has examined high-profile climate-change activists and responded skeptically, “I’ll believe it’s a crisis when they start acting like a crisis” — i.e., they believe the problem can only be solved with punitive measures like higher energy costs, but refuse to make any discernable sacrifices themselves.
There’s no shortage of glaring contradictions. When the Paris Conference certified itself as carbon-neutral, they didn’t count the carbon emissions of the 40,000 attendees traveling to and from the conference. One round-trip flight from New York to the West Coast or Europe has a warming effect equivalent to two or three tons of carbon dioxide per person. Richard Branson, who owns an airline, spoke at a march about climate change recently. Self-described environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio continues to crisscross countries in his private jet. Al Gore made $500 million selling his television network to Al Jazeera, a network owned and funded by the Qatari royal family, which enjoys the world’s third-largest oil and natural gas reserves. Gore has a giant home in Tennessee, although maybe not as big as Thomas Friedman’s 11,000-square-foot mansion in Maryland; he wrote in one of his books the construction of the giant house “prevented it from being redeveloped into a subdivision of a dozen more houses.” He’s willing to live in luxury to avert the carbon footprint of those other families.
The celebrities are the most glaring examples, but you can find non-famous cases of environmentalist hypocrisy, too. Residents of Park Slope, Brooklyn, filed a lawsuit against a bike lane. Cape Cod, Mass., residents fought the construction of a wind farm off the coast. Berkeley, Calif., residents fought the establishment of bus-only lanes on roads.
Now, in the years and years Americans have been debating climate change and what to do about it, have you ever heard an environmentalist say, “You know, you’re right. We really do look like we’re not practicing what we preach. We really do look like we’re telling other people to make sacrifices we’re not willing to make ourselves. The glaring hypocrisy of these figures really undermines the message we want to communicate”? If so, please point out those statements; I haven’t found many.
.. Environmentalists fume at the average voter’s inability to see the big picture and the long-term consequences. They think Americans are insufferably entitled, way too focused on their own individual material and financial circumstances, unwilling to see how their decisions collectively impact everyone else, and stubbornly resistant to data, numbers, and bad news. They insist that the collective shrugging belief that someone else will solve the problem someday is willful blindness. They fume that the status quo is one of worsening circumstances, but moving so slowly and gradually that most people can ignore it. By the time the crisis is really visible, it will be too late; the only way to mitigate the problem at that point will be drastic, unpopular action and widespread sacrifice. They believe that whatever pain they’re proposing now, it’s exponentially milder than the pain that awaits us if we do nothing.
Perhaps we should have a little sympathy. When they talk like this, they sound a lot like us conservatives when we talk about the ticking time bomb of our entitlement programs and the need for reform