Gauging far-right and far-left traffic before anti-Trump protests
On November 4, far-left groups in the United States have called for a massive series of demonstrations to demand the end of U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration. In advance, groups on both the far left and the far right have been preparing for digital conflict, with each side apparently planning to spread information — and disinformation — against the other.
Neither side seems particularly numerous, so the threat should not be exaggerated. However, given the potential for clashes on the day, and the experience of earlier contests between the two extremes, internet users should be especially wary of disinformation and fake stories as the demonstrations approach.
Calling for revolution
The call for demonstrations came from a website called RefuseFascism.org, in terms which presented the event as the first step towards a revolution.
In a statement published on October 22, the organizers were explicit about their goal to “drive this regime” (the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump) from power.
ON NOVEMBER 4, 2017:
We will gather in the streets and public squares of cities and towns across this country, at first many thousands declaring that this whole regime is illegitimate and that we will not stop until our single demand is met: This Nightmare Must End: the Trump/Pence Regime Must Go!
Our protest must grow day after day and night after night — thousands becoming hundreds of thousands, and then millions — determined to act to put a stop to the grave danger that the Trump/Pence Regime poses to the world by demanding that this whole regime be removed from power.
Accompanying literature called the administration “fascist”, “a regime that imperils humanity and the Earth itself”, and “more dangerous to the world than even Hitler.”
Whatever the organizers’ views on the current administration’s policies or the American electoral system, Donald Trump is the President of the United States and was inaugurated in a constitutional manner. While the organizer’s language was both aggressive and exaggerated, the group’s primary methods appeared both peaceful and old-fashioned.
A separate statement underlined that the protests should be non-violent. In a list of the group’s goals and methods, the top entry was to “spread the slogans and the date far and wide” by utilizing:
Posters, stickers, flyers, chalking, light projections, banner drops, radio call-ins, social media, church bulletins, announcements at events, and much, much more.
Supporting posts from other organizations, notably the Revolutionary Communist Party of the USA, also emphasized the use of traditional methods and ruled out violence.
Strikingly, neither site paid particular attention to social media. RefuseFascism.org provided a handful of memes, compared with a Google Drive full of stickers, posters, banners and templates, laid out for printing rather than sharing online.
It also provided a page of posters, for printing out in 40″ x 60″ format (1m x 1.50m), with advice on how to print, attach, and waterproof them.
These resources were widely shared on social media: the RefuseFascism.org page of printable materials was shared over 39,000 times on Facebook. Other pages were shared far less often, in the range of 100–1,500 times.
A separate call for support on social-media site Thunderclap.it, which permits Twitter users to sign up for a specific message over a set period of time, and then tweets from their accounts all at the same time, was retweeted a modest 560 times, with a reported reach of 1.5 million users.
The Refuse Fascism Facebook page counted over 55,000 followers as of November 1. However, by the same date, the number of people signing up for each of its events was in the dozens or hundreds, from fifty in Cleveland, Ohio, to over 800 in New York City.
The available evidence suggests that these groups are small, and focused on traditional protest methods, rather than digital ones. Their rhetoric is revolutionary, and of (at best) questionable constitutionality; however, their menu of posters, banners, stickers, not to mention chalking and church bulletins, does not appear to represent a serious threat to law and order or the foundations of the state.
Some far-left groups have been significantly more aggressive in their rhetoric. For example, after the Charlottesville clashes of August 11, anarchist site CrimeThinc called for the creation of “fighting formations capable of facing down far-right violence.” The site acknowleged the importance of posters, handbills and other peaceful forms of expression; but it also said:
Any footage they can record of successful attacks, however cowardly, will help them recruit from their base of bullies and sadists. Because of this, it is preferable not to enter into conflict with them except when fully prepared — but at all costs, we must not let them attain control of the streets.
This is much more threatening; however, as of November 1, CrimeThinc’s Facebook page (which has some 7,000 followers) did not list any forthcoming events, suggesting that its (anarchist) organizers are either uninterested in the November 4 demonstrations, or not announcing their plans.
Separately, a Twitter feed which tracks claims of violence by anti-fascists, @AntifaChecker, posted that it had no knowledge of plans for November 4.
The article on responses to Charlottesville also called for disinformation against right-wing forces:
We need people to infiltrate their groups; we need to set up fake online accounts with which to monitor them or spread disinformation and strife. We need to identify the fault lines along which their alliances can be split, and open gulfs between them and the rest of the right wing.
As multiple cases have shown, online disinformation is very easy to create, and only marginally more complicated to spread. Given the size of the groups involved, and the explicit commitment to non-violence by the protest organizers, disinformation about far-right activities is the most likely way in which the planned November 4 protests will impact those who are not involved.
The exception to this lies on the opposite end of the spectrum, on the far right, where rumors of a “civil war” launched by “Antifa” (anti-fascist) groups have been circulating for over a month.
The main driver of these rumors was far-right radio host Alex Jones, whose InfoWars conspiracy site ran an alarmist report on September 29, claiming that “Antifa plans ‘civil war’ to overthrow the government.”
The article itself was deceptive, most notably in the use of the phrase “civil war,” which was placed in quotation marks in both the headline and the lede. This suggests it was Antifa activists who had used the phrase in connection with November 4; in fact, it was drawn from the title of a pamphlet published in 2005 by Revolutionary Communist leader Bob Avakian.
The article also conflated the RefuseFascism group with Antifa, and interpreted the November 4 protests as “nationwide riots”, based on the RefuseFascism statement. As we have seen, the group itself proclaimed its attachment to non-violence; while this should not be taken at face value, the protestors’ methodology of posters, stickers and chalk does not add up to a serious physical threat.
The InfoWars piece was picked up by a number of other sites over the following days, and was shared over 45,000 times on social media, principally Facebook.
Response to the various posts was vocal and aggressive, with commentators calling for the demonstrators to “die a coward’s death” and urging one another to “rid our country of this scourge.”
On October 27, Jones, whose site offers for sale a variety of merchandise aimed at conspiracy theorists, announced the sale of a “limited edition” series of T-shirts designed to “trigger [i.e. provoke] the commie alt-left during their scheduled anti-Trump protests this November 4th”.
Separately, an anonymous far-right troll and bot herder known as “Microchip” posted on the Gab social network a call for disinformation targeting the demonstrations. Gab is a preferred platform for far-right internet users who have been banned from Twitter.
“Microchip” rose to prominence during the 2016 U.S. election for his ability to coordinate large numbers of bots and online activists. As of October 2017, the user appeared to have been blocked from Twitter, but predicted his return in time for November 4.
Many of the references are to classic disinformation tactics — for example, accusing the Left of wanting white people killed and being terrorists. The phrase “like we did with Antifa” suggests that the user makes a distinction between the groups, which Jones did not.
The reference to petitioning Congress harks back to a genuine petition for which the same user took credit, immediately after the Charlottesville clashes, calling for anti-fascist groups to be labeled as terrorists.
An intriguing sidelight on the difference in approach between the far right and far left shines from a post “Microchip” made on October 28, again commenting on the need to create “false flag” operations on November 4.
The phrase “I think more time online and less IRL [in real life] is the answer” stands in striking contrast to the methodology proposed by the far left, with its heavy emphasis on “real-life” tools such as posters, billboards, and banners; it also reflects the far right’s known preference for online memes.
The “massive nationwide protests” called for November 4 appear unlikely to involve the numbers which the organizers have predicted. Online response to the RefuseFascism events has been muted; those who have already expressed an interest in events number in the low thousands, spread across the country.
There are some warning signs of potential violence, in the shape of CrimeThinc’s call for “fighting formations”; however, the group has expressed no interest in the November 4 demonstrations.
On the far right, InfoWars’ warning of a “civil war” spread widely online, and was welcomed with aggressive language. There is a significant difference between violent speech and violent action, but the threat of clashes cannot be ruled out.
The likeliest danger, however, appears to be in the information space. On both sides, activists have called for disinformation and “false flag” operations designed to demonize the far left or demoralize the far right. Such exercises are far easier to manage than physical confrontations: they can be handled remotely rather than “in real life,” they are cheap to create, and they can easily be amplified by online communities and bots.
Internet users should therefore exercise particular caution when viewing any reports of clashes at or around the demonstrations. Activists on both sides have expressed an interest in spreading fakes; the first step towards preventing it is to be aware of the danger.
Ben Nimmo is Senior Fellow for Information Defense at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).
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