Valentines Day this year came and left leaving behind great pain for anyone who has the capability of feeling. At the time of writing, 17 young lives have been lost at the hands of a violent young man. That's 17 families that will never again have the chance to hug their child, to kiss them, or to tell them that they love them. For the trolls of 4chan and the right wing of American politics, however, tragedy is not a time of mourning and reflection, it is simply a time of new opportunity for them to use the deaths of children in a pathetic and transparent attempt to smear their opposition.
Somewhere around 4PM on Wednesday, my heart sank as I was directed to a live feed posted to our Facebook page. Details were sparse, but the horrifying scene unfolding live in front of us all was more than enough for us to feel like our hearts had been torn from our chests. Children should not go to school and have to fear for their lives. Parents should not put their children on the bus in the morning and have to wonder in the darkest recesses of their minds whether or not their babies will be safely returned.
Unfortunately, as has been the case with almost every single recent tragic event - be it a mass shooting, an Amtrak derailment, or train crash, it was just a matter of minutes before we knew our social media inboxes would soon be innundated with wild conspiracy theories attempting to make any possible, desperate connection between this awful situation and the new, anti-fascist "bogeyman".
Our social media and intelligence gathering teams were quickly summoned to action, and while the typical light insinuations on social media were present, the online cesspool that is 4chan's /pol/ message board was already in full-gear and living up to this afforementioned description. Anonymous cowards, their IDs adorned with Nazi, Kekistani, and AnCap flags, at first cheered on the armed assailant, encouraging him to acheive "a new High Score" - a term used by these vile "people" to describe a killer's body count.
After just a few minutes of observation, however, some of the board's users began to shift their focus toward talk of changing the narrative in the press. The usual /pol/ scapegoats came at first - "false flag" operations orchestrated by "the Jews", that the killer was certainly a racial minority, etc. - however, they settled on a target they've found to be quite convenient in recent months: Those damn Antifa...
Priming the Pump
When Stephen Paddock killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more from a casino-hotel window in Las Vegas, the right wing, assisted by 4chan quickly mobilized to start false rumors that he was a registered Democrat his body was found with so-called "antifa literature" (whatever that is). This was the beginning of several false stories appearing in top search results for the incident, and right-wing propaganda sites like the Gateway Pundit took the bait, no questions asked. While it was later revealed that Paddock had no known motive or ideological associations, many hard-right Americans still believe the lie they were told.
When Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 men, women and children as they worshipped in their church, 4chan fed right wing publications doctored screenshots of his social media pages. One of these pictures included a superimposed image of an antifascist flag stolen from another website. The owner of the website later posted online that the picture was actually taken from their online shop.
When Black Lives Matter wanted to march leading up to the Super Bowl, they didn't "plan to march". According to right wing sources, they would "vow to target" and were "plotting to hit" the Super Bowl, promoting the peaceful events as "scary attacks" and painting groups as violent as they could in the eyes of the right.
With every Amtrak incident, every mass shooting, every protest, hell, even the riots in Philadelphia after the Eagles won the Super Bowl, the right wing throws itself at any opportunity to shoehorn leftist movements and antifascists into the story and make them appear as violent threats.
Which Brings Us To Yesterday
Once 4channers were able to shift their focus away from their appalling cheers, they quickly began to embark upon their mission of hanging the deaths of children around the necks of their political adversaries. Two Instagram accounts believed to belong to the actual killer were found (both of which have since been taken down). One account (archived here) shows what is believed to be the killer sporting a mask, and a red MAGA ballcap. The other (achived here) shows a darker mask and what appears to be a United States Army winter hat. The second was obviously the first piece of propaganda pushed into social media.
Hundreds of posts from bots, 4channers, and then eagerly credulous right wingers, already starving for an excuse to add fuel to the "anti-antifa" (read: fa.) fire, began to flood social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Knowing their audience would not look any further, the originators of these known to be false conspiracy theories were also quick to point to a picture which contained the meaning of "Allahu Akbar" and stating that the killer had ISIS sympathies. Obviously not shared was the caption the killer had posted along with his search, himself trying to learn what the phrase meant, which was an anti-muslim slur.
Antifa with ISIS sympathies? Sounds pretty scary when all you've been fed regarding antifascists is a steady diet of headline-grabbing street brawls, right?
Their work wasn't finished there, however. The next step was to find a picture that fit their narrative, and they didn't have to look very far. Just a couple days prior, a user with a Nazi flag for their ID had posted on the board with a picture of an unwitting individual taken from a different Instagram account. The image was complete with the individual bearing an extremely ambiguous resemblance to a couple photos released of the killer snapped during his arrest and this individual was wearing a red "The Communist Party" tee shirt! Perfect!
A brief research into the photo would lead any discerning follower to the Instagram profile of a 24-year old Massachussetts resident by the name of Marcel. However, the conspirators placed their bets (correctly) on the fact that their marks would not follow these basic steps toward verification.
The trap was set. The hundreds of posts hinting that the killer could have been an antifascist became thousands of posts that he absolutely was. With the pump being primed for months by inflammatory headlines from right wing sources, suddenly, all antifascists were to blame for this horrific tragedy. Calls for government agencies to treat antifascists as they would terrorists and for antifascists to be "shot on sight" torrentially poured across timelines all over the US.
What Does This All Mean?
A few years ago, before the Overton Window drastically shifted to the right and open white supremacists (or white nationalists, or white identitarians, or whatever they're calling themselves now) were a prominent part of our politics, 4chan trolls and fringe right-wing personalities lurked quietly in the shadows. With the rise of unabashed
racists "race realists" like the Steve Bannons and Richard Spencers in the political sphere, these people no longer feel the need to hide. They are empowered, and any threat toward the lingering status quo of white supremacy - in their minds - must be violently crushed.
The only way they can possibly accomplish this is to subtly (and, as shown above, sometimes blatantly) manipulate and mold public opinion toward thinking that it's their opposition that is violent. They do this by shifting the focus away from our intentions of defending our comunities and toward the means by which we're sometimes forced to do so; shifting so-called "moderate" attentions away from the dispicable things said by a speaker at an event and toward a burning trash can.
Obviously, they don't accomplish this on their own. Running hot feeds for the local unhoused, giving them warm clothing in the cold winters, running community gardens, supporting prisoners, preparing them for re-entry into society, and the other things we do as 99% of our anarchist and antifascist work isn't sexy. It sells no clicks and no newspapers.
That 1% where a large group of protestors in black bloc physically fights for their community, however, does sell papers. It does sell clicks.
The right wing knows this. They see that the only time we make headlines is when we're doing the things we least often do, and they seize on it. That's when the bots fire up and start blaring loudly into the conservative Twitter echo chamber. That's when they're able to frighten those "moderate" conservatives and make them believe in their heart of hearts that "antifa are violent thugs".
From that point, it's simply a matter of marketing. "Violent thugs" become "domestic terrorists". Some creative wording here ("vow to target", "plot to hit"), an insinuation there ("he was found with antifa literature"), and soon enough, the moderates begin to believe the narrative. Suddenly, in their minds, we really are "dangerous, violent terrorists", at which point, in a heavily armed nation, it becomes open season.
This isn't to dissuade anyone from performing antifascist work. If any of us were honest with ourselves from the beginning, we knew that what we do could put our lives on the line. We're up against actual fascism - an inherently violent ideology.
What this is meant to do is to encourage us all to continue our work. It's to show us all just how much work we face and how difficult the path to doing it is. It's meant to encourage people to create media surrounding the other 99% of the work we do in order to make the rest of the world see what actual antifascist and anarchist work is and how we benefit our communities.
Unfortunately, you may have to light a garbage can or two on fire for traditional media to cover it.