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.

What James Comey – and a lot of people – don’t know about the Nunes memo

A couple quick thoughts on the reception to the Nunes memo. I fear that democratic society isn’t aware how illiberal society greets the news.


Here is a little example. The Nunes memo ‘proves it!’


Soundcloud file here…

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‘Turbocharged by cyber’: one prime minister speaks up for democracy and against authoritarian interference

What could Donald Trump do to prevent foreign interference in the US? Spoiler: he likely won’t do anything – as he personally benefits from it.

But in a better world, an American president would act with politicians, regardless of their party affiliation, to protect his own nation – and fellow democracies. If that would happen, what would it sound like in the year 2017?

Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull
PM Malcolm Turnbull

To get an idea, listen to what Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in the second reading of the newly unveiled National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill of 2017.

Not only does he talk about changes in technology, he speaks of the underlying value and motivation in defending democracy this way. Rather than simply discussing the mechanics, he discusses the morals – and importantly, helps locate this complex issue for the public.

Turnbull’s entire statement is worth reading, as he distinguishes between fear and realism around the issue of China. However, he gets to the challenge in noting that technology “designed to bring us together…is being used as an instrument of division.”

And until the forces of democracy can align themselves in this new technological period, to reverse that situation, democracies will remain divided.

Turnbull’s words:

Our relationship with China is far too important to put at risk by failing to clearly set the terms of healthy and sustainable engagement. Modern China was founded by the statement that Chinese people have stood up. And today, and every day, the Australian people stand up and assert their sovereignty in our nation, with our parliament and with our laws.

Anyone who has glanced at the international media over the course of this year will see that questions of foreign interference are not all about China—far, far from it. Globally, Russia has been wreaking havoc across the democratic world.

There are credible reports that Russia was actively undermining the integrity of the Brexit referendum, this year’s presidential elections in France and last year’s presidential election in the United States.

And other nations are reportedly conducting interference operations outside their borders, including Iran and North Korea.

In some cases, authoritarian states have been literally manufacturing public opinion in order to hijack political discourse and tilt the decision-making landscape to their advantage.

These are their aims but it is up to us to determine whether they are successful.

And now these methodologies have been turbocharged by cyber.

The very technology that was designed to bring us together, the internet, is being used as an instrument of division.

Russian agents seeking to sow discord in the United States reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to YouTube, according to the belated admissions from those platforms.

We are witnessing the mass production, the democratisation if you like, of disinformation.

George Orwell portrayed a post-truth dystopia, where, ‘The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.’

His dark prophecy is not our present reality but nor is it entirely fantasy.

Listen to the recently retired US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony to the US Congress in May:

If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it.

This is not just a call for action in the US. It is a clarion call to open societies everywhere.

We must ensure Australian democracy is resilient to all threats, from any country, now and in the future.

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US National Security Strategy: Is the influence game about ideology or perceptions?

The US plans to prioritize competition in the information realm, where the private sector “has a direct interest in supporting and amplifying voices that stand for tolerance, openness,  and freedom,” according to the recently released National Security Strategy.

sealThe document gives the US government a failing grade for efforts to date:

“US efforts to counter the exploitation of information by rivals have been tepid and
fragmented. US efforts have lacked a sustained focus and have been hampered by the lack of properly trained professionals.”

To remedy this situation, the US government should “priortize competition” and “drive effective communications”.

In an extension of Cold War strategy, the NSS calls for activating local networks in targeted countries.

“Local voices are most compelling and effective in ideological competitions,” the document states.

My question is: Is this an ideological competition? Without communism as a framework to contrast against western capitalism, it’s not clear we have an ideological competition underway between authoritarians and democracies.

Certainly there are shades of ideology. But day-to-day, it seems to be a massive, ongoing perception conflict.

Authoritarians kleptocracies today don’t necessarily want to upend Western capitalism or Western power, as much as discredit liberal democracy, its values and virtues. Authoritarians regimes actually need lawful Western society in some cases, as a place to sink their wealth safely.

That’s not the same as the Cold War competition, when the economies were largely cut off from each other.

The NSS document describes China’s use of AI and data to rate citizen loyalty, which at least acknowledges that the mix between technology and the public has shifted in recent decades.

It’s important to understand in which way things have shifted, however;  how whole segments of society can live 24-7 in an information that only reinforces their often factually challenged views.

“We must amplify credible voices and partner with them to advance alternatives to violent and hateful messages,” the NSS document says.

OK. That’s good.

But what if these relevant voices don’t have access to contested minds in the first place?

This is the problem with our new media environment. Nearly every audience is discrete, with their own news cycles. Fewer news events reliably cut across all these different siloed areas. Fewer topics reach across diverse audiences.

All of which means, when considering strategy to counter influence campaigns run online, the US needs to start from scratch. Don’t think that because Russia, China and terror groups have a legacy of strategic messaging from the 1970s, you can rely on  solutions with roots from that time as well.

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