If you were to believe certain corners right-wing Internet communities, Nov. 4th marked the start of civil war in America.
Last week, hundreds of people across the country took to the streets for a protest action called “The Nightmare Must End,” to demand the removal of President Trump and Vice President Pence from office. Organized by left-leaning group Refuse Fascism, the series of protests — which took place in over 20 American cities — condemned attacks on minorities, immigrants, access to healthcare, the environment, and even truth itself, all of which they believe are encouraged by the Trump administration.
“Our actions will reflect the values of respect for all of humanity and the world we want — in stark contrast to the hate and bigotry of the Trump/Pence fascist regime,” writes Refuse Fascism on their website. “Our determination to persist and not back down will compel the whole world to take note. As we draw more and more people forward to stand up, all of this could lead to a situation where this illegitimate regime is removed from power.”
It was not what both conspiratorial sites like the Daily Stormer and Breitbart, and mainstream outlets like Fox News, warned would be an “antifa apocalypse.”
Other websites like InfoWars promulgated lies for weeks that the protests were a unified attempt to overthrow the government and spark a communist revolution. On their YouTube channel, known nut Alex Jones ranted that “antifa super soldiers” would lead the charge in tandem with a coordinated attack on the nation’s electrical grid. They cautioned Americans to be on the lookout for “masked anarchists sparking violence to promote its agenda.”
But last week’s protests never reached numbers higher than a couple hundred or escalated farther than shouting matches between anti-fascists and Trumpians. The majority of anti-racist activists didn’t even don masks and black clothing, and only one got arrested — a woman in NYC for throwing her drink at a Trump supporter. All in all, the protests were certainly nonviolent and almost uneventful.
So why were so many people obsessed with an imaginary coup?
A sizable portion of the blame falls not just on fringe media, but mainstream media for exaggerating the threat antifa poses by focusing their coverage in recent months on the few protesters that smashed windows, set trash cans on fire, or got arrested, while largely ignoring the thousands of others that demonstrated peacefully. The FBI’s recent classification of antifa back in September as a “domestic terrorism group” not only confirmed the far-right’s already exaggerated fears, but it made many run-of-the-mill liberals and centrists uneasy about throwing their support behind the decentralized movement.
But as Inkoo Kang, a writer for Slate argued last week, “antifa is clickbait for conspiracy theorists,” and most people who critique them don’t have a clear handle on what the “group” actually is.
“Epistemological chaos is a precondition for the conspiracy community,” writes Kang. “Add a dose of sneering superiority, the emotional register and quite possibly the attitudinal appeal of so many right-wing YouTubers, and it’s not surprising that conservatives with traditional values and wild imaginations can’t make up their minds about whether antifa activists are unmanly nuisances or a super-powered army ready to mow down everything decent about America.”
Whether right-wingers critical of antifa believe they're a whiny collection of leftist snowflakes, or an organized, apocalyptic threat to Western civilization is irrelevant; all in this camp are comfortable labeling anyone that marches under the movement as a violent enemy that must be fought.
This viewpoint falsely asserts that antifa is organized (indeed people and groups considered by others to be 'antifa' have popped up independently around the world for decades all with disparate political leanings, tactics, and even protest attire). It’s also dangerous because it breeds violence under the guise of fighting it; if a group is considered an enemy, violence is justified. According to the Combating Terrorism Center the U.S. sees an average of 300 attacks a year by far-right activists, and others forecast this number could rise under the current climate.
The events of Charlottesville come to mind as a more recent example of how the villainization of left-wing protestors can lead to real-life tragedies. And this dangerous mentality is incubating online across every major social media platform. Spend a couple minutes searching and you'll find plenty of evidence of right-wing influencers who might not have assaulted an anti-fascist protester themselves but are actively calling for others to do so.
Here are just but a few examples from the last week:
Retweeting a tweet with the hashtag #LockandLoad, conservative actor James Woods imagined that an antifa protest in Phoenix would be a “catastrophe” because of the city’s open-carry laws.
The day before the nationwide protests, notorious agitator Milo Yiannopoulos — whose hateful rhetoric sparked a big antifa protest in Berkeley last year — changed his Facebook avatar to a photo of himself holding a shotgun above the phrase, “I choose war.”
Youtuber “Glock Fanboy” told his subscribers in a video last month to prepare for the revolution.
“Honestly, I’m happy,” the YouTuber said in the video that currently has more than 400,000 views. “Dude, we’ve been on the verge of the great war for what seems like forever and I’m just ready to get it going.”
Hundreds of more examples that mirror this pro-violence sentiment exist online. Riled up by fake news, the far-right isn’t warning of a civil war, they’re trying to provoke one.
And as J.J. MacNab, an author, and researcher on anti-government extremism said last month, “fake news is going to get people killed.”
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