Network nationalism

Imposing national will through digital networks – either by expanding them or censoring them – may not always be the intention. Yet with such a tool of influence in hand, nations will be drawn to use it.

Tinanamen Square 1989 (ritkanlathatotortenelem.blog.hu)

As I wrote for the ANU: “Policymakers may struggle to understand the risks and exposures inherent in various networks. The viral nature of technology promotion shortens decision-making time for government.” 

That comes to mind with the news that Zoom, the popular web conference platform, blocked the accounts of people organizing a Tiananmen Square anniversary event, including people outside of China.

According to Zoom, the PRC government warned them that the activity was illegal in China, and the company acted once it saw that the planned meetings involved PRC-citizens.

This is a policy that Apple has used in the past with regards to China. The lack of corporate resistance to authoritarian influence is a vulnerability for democracies, giving hardline regimes veto power of activities in networks whether happening in their native country or in the regime’s jurisdiction.

The digital technology companies are active in international markets, but, as commercial entities, don’t have the competency or will to make determinations about real political consequences, and to stick with them. They certainly don’t have the incentive to lock horns with regulators in markets. History hasn’t asked these companies to consider political rights as a matter of doing business, either.

If you don’t think Western companies can’t be leaned on to uphold authoritarian values for fear of offending a customer, just consider that Zoom’s statement on the Tiananmen Square anniversary incident doesn’t mention the words “Tiananmen Square.”

While the misalignment between networks and local laws is stark between Asia and the US, it’s going on in every jurisdiction, including between companies from the US and open democracies, like Australia.

Those companies, however, function more like nation-states than enterprises existing under the rules of a government.

GOP: ‘China, China, China!’

Imaginary ‘Antifa’ buses, real life impacts

What is truly concerning about the mostly-phantom menace of Antifa is that it may not need to be a real flesh-and-blood threat to be a motivating factor for Donald Trump, William Barr or rank-and-file Republicans.

To the extent that it is real, Antifa is happening in the information world to a larger degree.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is capturerita.jpg
This is not ‘Antifa’ but a black bloc anarchist group in Washington, DC in 2009. Photo: CC/Ben Schumin

And Republicans wanting Trump to win in 2020, agree that Antifa is real.

The latest version is that buses loaded with Antifa members are coming small towns to riot and destroy them.

From AP: “In the days since President Donald Trump blamed antifa activists for an eruption of violence at protests over police killings of black people, social media has lit up with false rumors that the far-left-leaning group is transporting people to wreak havoc on small cities across America.

“The speculation was being raised by conservative news outlets and pro-Trump social media accounts, as well as impostor Facebook and Twitter accounts.”

US-based researcher JJ McNab has watching this space and noted the preponderance of Antifa-on-buses stories.

And Josh Russell, another US-researcher note endorses that view.

The mere utterance of “Antifa” nags at the conservative mind.

We live in a time when, because of the peculiarities of the internet, social media and the way they’ve been deployed to society, there is no built-in veracity filter.

The possibilities of using the internet to promote a tactical mass hallucination is unchecked.

Hillary Clinton, for example, didn’t need to be dead, or using a body double, or involved in a child exploitation ring, for the rumors to weigh on her campaign. They diverted and absorbed precious attention during the 2016 election.

Jade Helm didn’t have to be Barack Obama’s instituting martial law for people in Texas to worry that the US president was doing that.

As the voices close to the Kremlin have said, there can now be regime change without war. Likewise, there can be perceptions online with no correlation IRL (in real life).

That doesn’t mean Russia is actively promoting the Antifa talk. This could be a form of collective Trumpian paranoia, that is crystallized into a meme online, that takes on a momentum of its own.

During the Vietnam War, for example, LBJ was reportedly told by Secretary of State Dean Rusk that widespread campus protest was linked to the “Communist apparatus”.

Looking back at history, few now doubt the organic nature of campus protest in the 1960s.

Probably an organic anti-war protest in 1967. (Photo US Army)

In Trump, there is a person exceedingly prone to conspiracy theory. He sees grand conspiracies in nearly every direction (except perhaps Moscow) and he has an enormous platform to promote them on.

In a time when the public remains in a state of near-constant mobilisation through social media – not to mention agitation through political anger -politics simply feels different than before.

If you want to see a phantom menace, be it Jade Helm or Hillary’s decaying health, the charged environment is more conducive than ever to see it. Thus Antifa on buses, everywhere, but especially out of the way places.

If an outside power, such as Russia were involved, however, the prospect of phone calls being part of the campaign shouldn’t be discounted. They were used in 2016.

But if, say, Russia were involved, you would have to ask how many resources they would be able to deploy with the coronvirus crisis, and the Putin political power grab underway in Russia. Those issues could require state-directed resources, too.

In any case, for a functional democratic future, political leaders and publics will have to make efforts to refine an accurate reality through the online prism of paranoia and conspiracy.

The Antifa fantasy

If the term “Antifa” appears to have emerged out of the blue, it’s because Trump and right-wing voices have assiduously promoted the organisation as an inaccurate catch-all for left-wing protest groups.

Donald Trump mentioned the left-wing anti-fascist group by name at the White House when announcing plans to deploy active duty troops to quell nationwide protests in the US.

The right-wing has systematically pumped up the popularity of this group out of proportion to its actual strength on the ground.  “There are certainly violent elements on the left involved in these riots,” wrote Tennessee-based disinformation researcher Jay McKenzie.

“Some almost certainly identify as or with Antifa, but [pro-Trump activists ]have also created this ‘Antifa’ boogeyman somewhat out of thin air through trolling amplified by Kremlin media.”

How do we know this?

A search of the term shows its dramatic growth in recent years. Anti-terror experts have also witnesses its growth. Counter terrorism instructor Clint Watts wrote on twitter that in the last three years of teaching to police departments, officers began to rate Antifa as the No. 1 terror threat, above IS and Al-Qaeda.

“Antifa suddenly became #1 threat for the majority of the class,” he wrote. “Some in the classes from major cities had never heard of it.”

Watts wrote that he was confused as this occurred even after major ISIS or White supremacist attacks in the news. “I’d ask,’who is the leader of Antifa?’ No answer. ‘When was last time someone from Antifa killed someone?’ Silence. Usually amounted vague recollection of property damage might be Antifa.”

“Some who said Antifa was the top priority, literally did not know Antifa stood for anti-fascist. As a result, I just stopped doing the exercise as it became way too political.”

Yet it spread wildly, as the google chart shows. How? Through right-wing social media accounts and personalities. US-based observer of right-wing media, Andrew Rosebrook credits a network of accounts such as Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, Tim Pool, Gavin McInnes, Paul Joseph Watson and Infowars/Alex Jones for “pumping up the keyword antifa over the past few years as the main threat to Americans.”

The term was also embraced by Russian propaganda network RT.

“Most of the early ‘Antifa’ coverage was from Russian government affiliates,” McKenzie wrote.

“Pro-Trump RW figures took it from there and were a major factor in memeing them into existence.”

In fact, a key moment when “Antifa” jumped from the ambient noise, into the fore may have happened in 2017, when a right-wing activist and troll submitted a petition to a White House petition for the Pentagon to designate Antifa as domestic terrorist.

The goal of the petition was not action as much as communication to “help shift the narrative toward decrying ‘leftist violence’ and [to] galvanize conservatives.” Politico reported: “The petition’s viral dissemination on social media is a tactic aimed at focusing conservatives on a common enemy.”

But is Antifa real?

Yes, but its membership is not anywhere near the scale it is being discussed as having.

Even academic Mark Bray, who wrote the book on the protest movement, acknowledged that it was “impossible to ascertain the exact number of people who belong to antifa groups because members hide their political activities from law enforcement and the far right.”

But “basically, there are nowhere near enough anarchists and members of antifa groups to have accomplished such breathtaking destruction [as Trump blames them] on their own.”

In other words, Antifa is more of an accusation than a description.

The Trump campaign has been a sophisticated communication assault from the earliest days of the campaign. In fact, often the Trump White House messaging exceeds its action on various issues.

Co-opting a real world event, or in this case, protest group, makes it much harder for onlookers to contest the fact. So it makes the battle to understand what is really happening much more difficult.

For example, the media can find actual Antifa members to speak to. But that doesn’t mean Antifa, or violent left-wing liberals are pivotal in understanding what exactly is happening on the streets. Or what Trump is up to.

Finally, casting protest as extreme and violent rather than mainstream and legitimate helps the Trump White House control the storyline about the news.

I would wager that controlling the storyline with the public is a major thrust of the Trump administration. It’s a heavily propagandistic venture. It hands Trump a tremendous amount of power.

The action of the right-wing and Donald Trump exploits the new information reality in which things don’t have to remotely factually true in order to mobilize people.

We’re seeing that in the “anti-Antifa” rhetoric today.

Leading civil society types and Democrats should experiment with the best way to counter this exploitation of our new communications reality, where it’s so easy for an unreality to be soft-peddled into our news cycle. (Remember Jade Helm!)

Perhaps the answer is a culture that circumvents the reliance on open and fallible communication technology. What would that look like? In a rush, I’d say the left/civil society is actually suffering from “over communication.” Maybe they should reconsider the value of dumb phones and email, of television and the printed pamphlet. At the same time, they should shun the technology that makes reality so fungible.