#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.
1. The President of the United States cannot control himself. I know, this isn’t really news, but good grief, it is hard to imagine a president who does more damage to himself by not being able to handle his own temper. Even if he 100 percent believed the things he said today, he ought to have enough sense than to say them publicly. If I worked for this administration, I would send my resume out tonight — if not out of a sense of self-respect, then out of a sense of self-preservation. Trump’s temperament is going to bring his presidency crashing down. It has already started.
2. Trump is openly trying to legitimize people who should never be legitimized. Look at this exchange from today’s press conference
.. Now, let me be clear: there really are very fine people who are opposed to taking down Confederate statues. I know some of them. Their kind would not have gone anywhere near that far-right event in Charlottesville.
Among the far-right groups engaged in organizing the march were the
- clubs of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer,
- the neo-Confederate League of the South,
- the National Policy Institute [Richard Spencer’s think tank],
- and the National Socialist Movement.
Other groups involved in the rally were
- the Ku Klux Klan,
- the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights,
- the 3 Percenters,
- the Traditionalist Workers Party,
- Identity Evropa,
- the Oath Keepers,
- Vanguard America,
- the American Guard,
- the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia,
- the New York Light Foot Militia,
- the Virginia Minutemen Militia,
- the Nationalist Front,
- the Rise Above Movement,
- True Cascadia,
- and Anti-Communist Action.
Prominent far-right figures in attendance included
- Richard B. Spencer,
- Baked Alaska,
- Augustus Invictus [an occultist, by the way — RD],
- David Duke,
- Nathan Damigo,
- Matthew Heimbach,
- Faith Goldy,
- Mike Enoch,
- League of the South founder Michael Hill,
- AltRight.com editor Daniel Friberg,
- former Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson,
- Daily Stormer writers Johnny Monoxide,
- self-described “white activist” and organizer Jason Kessler, and
- radio host Christopher Cantwell.
.. Who among this crew is a “very fine” person? The rally was called “Unite The Right,” so named by organizers because they wanted to bring together all the far-right groups. If you went down to that protest this weekend and marched alongside neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen, you deserve to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.
3. Trump was right about the role of the antifa provocateurs, and he was right about this:
It is perfectly legitimate to raise the question of where this ends. Once the anti-Confederate crusaders remove all those statues, they’re going to turn on the Founding Fathers who owned slaves. Why wouldn’t they? And on what principle will they be stopped?
.. Christine Emba in the Washington Post. “It’s privileged status, not history, that’s being protected.” If this is a war on symbols of “privileged status,” it can never end.
.. Trump’s point is perfectly legitimate, and an important one. But the aftermath of Charlottesville is not the time or the context in which to discuss it. It is also perfectly legitimate to discuss the role of violent antifa provocateurs — but not when you are the President of the United States, and you are under fire for being unable to straightforwardly condemn neo-Nazis and Klansmen.
.. The Left is emboldened now, and fired up. Trump is an accelerant. They will get nastier and more confrontational.
.. People on the Right — ordinary people, not far-right activists or people who identify with the far right in any way — will become angrier and more afraid of what the Left in power means for them.
.. watch the reaction to Mark Lilla’s book The Once And Future Liberal, which exhorts the left to abandon identity politics so they can start winning elections.) The radicalized Left will overreach, and we will see even angrier, more conservative Republicans elected to Congress.
.. 5. The Left — including in the media — will now despise all Trump voters equally, without qualification.
.. The liberal journalist Chris Arnade has been doing incredible work actually traveling the country and visiting Trump voters among the down and out. He’s made the point over and over again that a lot of people voted for Trump not because they’re bigots, but because they are in desperate straits, and have concluded that they have been forgotten by elites.
6. Trump has definitively made his brand pure poison. Anybody who stands by him going forward is going to suffer for it. Look at this:
7. The nation is at an extraordinarily weak moment. Nearly two out of three Americans disapprove of the president. That’s bad news for any president, but in Trump’s case, it’s worse, because he’s so polarizing. If this country were to face a serious crisis — a war, in the worst case — do you really see the nation uniting around Donald Trump? If I were an enemy of America, I would see this as an opportunity.
UPDATE: Here is a link to a 22-minute VICE report on the weekend’s events in Charlottesville. Warning: it is not safe for work, because of language. But you need to see it if you have time. These far-right provocateurs are demonic. At the end, Christopher Cantwell, one of the leaders (and a heavily armed dude from New Hampshire) tells the reporter that the killing of the female protester by the fascist kid driving a car was justified — and that by the time they’re done, there will be a lot more dead. Watch it. It’s chilling.
Richard Spencer and Nathan Damigo, two leading figures of the white nationalist alt-right movement who had participated in Saturday’s “Unite the Right” rally , spoke to reporters at Spencer’s office and apartment in Alexandria.
.. Spencer blamed the authorities for what happened in Charlottesville, saying the city’s mayor and governor of Virginia have “blood on their hands” for not policing the situation properly. The alt-right, he said, is “nonviolent;” he waxed nostalgic while speaking about the hundreds of white nationalists marching through Charlottesville with torches on Friday night, calling the event “really beautiful.”
Some fighting between them and counter-protesters reportedly took place during the Friday event;
Saturday’s rally attracted militia members with guns, and descended into all-out street violence.
.. But one person who didn’t come in for unequivocal criticism was Charlottesville suspect James Alex Fields, who has been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old woman who had come to protest the Unite the Right event. Fields was photographed earlier in the day at the rally with Vanguard America, a self-identified white supremacist and fascist group that attended the rally.
.. General Jeff Sessions has called the incident an act of terrorism.
.. “I am not going to condemn this young man at this point,” Spencer said. When he first saw the video, he said, he saw it as a “malicious act of violence”; but he’s now less sure that it was a purposeful act and won’t come down on one side or another until an investigation is complete.
.. Spencer dismissed Trump’s statement as “kumbaya nonsense” and said he didn’t view it as a repudiation of his movement, which he defended as “non-violent.”
“He sounded like a Sunday school teacher,” he said. “I just don’t take it seriously.”
.. “I don’t know exactly what he meant by that statement,” Damigo said. “People in his position, they’re not stupid, they make these very ambiguous statements with words that are very loaded and hard to interpret.”
.. we don’t know the facts yet.
.. “We were connected with Donald Trump on a kind of psychic level,” he said of the alt-right. Trump is the “first true authentic nationalist in my lifetime.”
.. Asked who in the White House he views as a fellow traveler of the alt-right, Spencer named top policy advisor Stephen Miller and chief strategist Steve Bannon
“They at least are connected with identitarian ideas in a way that the rest of them are not,” Spencer said.
.. But he seemed less than cowed, promising to return to Charlottesville.
“There’s no way in hell I’m not going back to Charlottesville,” he said.