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.