#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
Proud Boys and their “military division” known as the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights (FOAK), as well as provocateurs and instigators like
- 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.