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.

The Republican 2020 ‘attack China’ strategy

Contained below, the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s 2020 strategy document urging candidates to make China a campaign issue.

This previous post surveys some of the propaganda network aimed at Americans around the issue of China in the 2020 election.

Here is a commissioned strategy document.

Sample question:

Q: Isn’t this Trump’s fault?
Note – don’t defend Trump, other than the China Travel Ban — attack China. (Emphasis mine).

Clearly, this is playing with fire, especially as the death toll mounts in the US from coronavirus.

The China side of MAGA, and the CCP’s racism claim

Donald Trump has claimed China’s handling of the coronavirus is proof that Beijing “will do anything they can” to make him lose the presidency in November. While on the surface, it’s a fanciful claim, the invocation of “China” as an all-around boogeyman is a trend that is being amplified online. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party has been quick to claim “racism” as the motivator for its many critics.

Here is an excellent little summary of one wing of the coronavirus debate: anti-CCP activity backed by Guo Wengui (aka Miles Kwok) who owns GNews and former Trump-adviser Steve Bannon with his anti-CCP website America’s Voice.

From Graphika:

Guo Wengui and his media outlet GNews, along with Steve Bannon and his anti-CCP website America’s Voice, are pushing a pro-US, anti-CCP narrative. Wengui is a Chinese billionaire who now lives in the US and works with Steve Bannon. This partnership has often been accused of stoking tensions between the US and China using sensationalist and often conspiratorial content. Popular content … includes videos featuring Guo Wengui that claim the coronavirus is a bio-weapon and that the death toll has been underreported by the Chinese government. This narrative appears to have spread to other conspiracy groups, including the dedicated coronavirus “news” group, where GNews is among the most shared domains…Their goal, as stated in their website description, is to be the bridge between breaking Chinese news and the Western world, though their main outputs are Fox News and America’s Voice clips that have been translated into Mandarin Chinese. Similarly, the English account translates Guo Wengui and GNews clips into English.

The COVID-19 “Infodemic”, Graphika

But the Bannon-Kwok axis is just one side of the effort.

The Epoch Times, founded by the Falun Gong, has “evolved from a nonprofit newspaper that carried a Chinese-American religious movement’s anti-communism message into a conservative online news behemoth that embraced President Donald Trump and conspiracy content.”

Epoch Times‘ ads were blocked from Facebook last year for trying to evade Facebook’s review system. At the time it spend some “$2 million worth of ads that promoted the president and conspiracy theories about his political enemies.” That was more than the Trump campaign itself at the time.

(Hardcopies of the Epoch Times are distributed free in various locations in Australia. It’s not difficult to find them.)

I have no evidence Bannon-Kwok axis and Epoch Times are coordinated between each other, just that the share similar pro-Trump, anti-CCP goals.

To give a sense how this international meta-blame game is being directed with focus into the 2020 election, see how Trump, in recent weeks, has claimed that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has been weak on China.

Biden has responded in kind, drawing attention to Trump’s initial trust of China on the coronavirus in the early phases of the pandemic.

From the Los Angeles Times:

President Trump’s intensifying criticism of China isn’t just about deflecting blame during the coronavirus crisis — it’s opening up a new line of attack against Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee…. Trump’s reelection chances now rest heavily on his ability to successfully frame the choice voters will face in November as a referendum on China, according to the president’s campaign aides and allies.

For Trump, it’s an update of the unapologetic nationalism he ran on four years ago, when he played up dangers supposedly posed by Mexicans and illegal immigration, and cast opponents as weak and naive… Unwilling to let Trump’s arguments go unanswered, Biden’s campaign battled back Friday with a spate of ads disputing his alleged support for China, and going on offense — blaming Trump for being too trusting of President Xi Jinping as the coronavirus spread.

April 17, 2020

Amping up a loathing for “China” (rather than specifically “the Chinese Communist Party and its various organs”) can create a level of tension that cuts through the ambient noise of the US political information sphere. At the same tine, the emotion of fear and loathing for “China” could overwhelm voters’ creeping anxiety for Trump’s record. (60,000 US dead of coronavirus so far).

A campaign stretching around the world and involving perceptions of China and Trump would likely hit all the right notes: blame-shifting away from Trump and the US, towards China and Biden. Specific stories can be seeded in global media this way. But the real power would the scale and persistence.

Already I see friends on social media with Asian backgrounds calling out a resurgent anti-Asian bigotry (comments, signs in public aimed at “Chinese.”) The Biden campaign has come under fire of its ad assailing Trump’s handling of “China.”

Part of tension arises from the fact that the parties involved, China-born Falun Gong members, people of ethnic Asian backgrounds, people with no -Asian identity have real feelings about the China and its rise. Instrumentalizing existing organisations like the Epoch Times helps embed the feeling more deeply into individuals already invested in them. Why reinvent the wheel? The Kremlin did something similar with WikiLeaks fans and the cadres of Noam Chomsky leftists, who adopt views that the Kremlin promotes – all in the name of combating Western “imperialism.”

There is another dimension that many people outside of China, many people in the US may not realize: The Chinese Communist Party itself – the actual rival to the US government (not the Chinese people) uses race and claims of “racism” as a way to advance the regime’s goals.

As John Garnaut has written of the Australian example:

A key to the party’s operations in Australia is collapsing the categories of Chinese Communist Party, China, and the Chinese people into a single organic whole—until the point where the party can be dropped from polite conversation altogether. The conflation means that critics of the party’s activities can be readily caricatured and attacked as anti-China, anti-Chinese, and Sinophobic—labels that polarize and kill productive conversation.

Mind your Tongue, ASPI, 2019

The CCP has access to some huge megaphones to project this message.

All of which means that the hot blast of racism around the issues of “China” and people who are “Chinese” may be flowing from both side of the Pacific. The Trump campaign is happy to marshal anti-Chinese racism for domestic political gain. The CCP, meanwhile, would seek to conflate racism with any criticism of the authoritarian party.

In this world view, the CCP calling itself “China” speaks for people as unrelated to mainland China as former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang, for example.

As always, the defense against the polarization on race, identity and otherness is to refocus the debate onto issues of governments, politics, actions, and the ideals that define democracy.

In our current information environment, imprecise, reckless communication is easier than ever. The issue of “China” in the 2020 election will likely prove that.