How Russian & Alt-Right Twitter Accounts Worked Together to Skew the Narrative About Berkeley

#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.

  1. First, high volume can consume the attention and other available bandwidth of potential audiences, drowning out competing messages.
  2. Second, high volume can overwhelm competing messages in a flood of disagreement.
  3. Third, multiple channels increase the chances that target audiences are exposed to the message.
  4. 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

.. 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 securityinstructions 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.

The Rise of the Violent Left

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.

  1. On Inauguration Day, a masked activist punched the white-supremacist leader Richard Spencer.
  2. In February, protesters violently disrupted UC Berkeley’s plans to host a speech by Milo Yiannopoulos, a former Breitbart.com editor.
  3. 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:
  1. They pressure venues to deny white supremacists space to meet.
  2. They pressure employers to fire them and landlords to evict them.
  3. 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.