- President Donald Trump, senior Justice Department officials, and Republican lawmakers have amplified the theory in recent weeks that the far-left group “antifa” is infiltrating protests against police brutality to stoke violence.
- A closer examination of media reports, public records, intelligence assessments, and social media activity shows little evidence of a widespread or coordinated effort by antifa to weaponize the protests.
- One investigation into court records of those arrested in connection to the protests show that the majority of those charged are local residents trying to take advantage of the chaos.
- Another investigation that combed through the first set of federal criminal complaints related to the arrests found no mention of antifa or anti-fascist ideology.
- Law enforcement veterans and experts in disinformation told Business Insider the allegations against antifa are more of a bogeyman for the far right than legitimate claims.
- Meanwhile, there’s been radio silence from Trump and Republican officials about credible warnings of violence in the protests linked to right-wing and white supremacist groups.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
As widespread protests against police brutality rage across the country following the Memorial Day death of George Floyd, President Donald Trump, senior Justice Department officials, Republican lawmakers, and right-wing media figures have accused the far-left group “antifa” of using the demonstrations to incite violence.
But a closer examination of media reports, public records, and social media shows little evidence of a widespread or coordinated effort by antifa to weaponize the protests and spark riots.
On May 30, the president accused “ANTIFA and the Radical Left” of sparking riots, adding, “Don’t lay the blame on others!” Following a wave of violence that weekend in Washington, DC, protests, Trump announced on May 31 that the US “will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organisation.”
The same day, Attorney General William Barr released a statement saying the “violence instigated and carried out by Antifa and other similar groups in connection with the rioting is domestic terrorism and will be treated accordingly.”
Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida echoed the president, writing that individuals who sparked violence or committed other crimes at the rallies are part of antifa and should be hunted down like terrorists.
(Twitter flagged Gaetz’s tweet for glorifying violence but determined it was in the public’s interest to keep the tweet viewable, though users can no longer like, retweet, or reply to it.)
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton struck a similar chord, writing in a controversial New York Times op-ed that “cadres of left-wing radicals like antifa” are responsible for starting riots during the protests “to exploit Floyd’s death for their own anarchic purposes.”
(The Times later determined that Cotton’s op-ed fell short of its editorial standards and should not have been published.)
Barr singled out the group again during a Thursday news conference. “We have evidence that antifa and other similar extremist groups, as well as actors of a variety of different political persuasions have been involved in instigating and participating in the violent activity,” the attorney general said.
FBI Director Christopher Wray also weighed in as he stood alongside Barr that day. “We’re seeing people who are exploiting this situation to pursue violent extremist agendas,” he said. “Anarchists like antifa and other agitators.”
But recent media reports, intelligence assessments, court records, and social media posts fly in the face of these allegations.
A ‘bogeyman’ for the far right
An Associated Press investigation into the arrest records, employment histories, and social media activity of 217 people arrested on May 30-31 in Minneapolis and Washington, DC – two cities at the epicentre of the demonstrations – found that more than 85% of the people charged with crimes connected to the protests were local residents.
Only a “handful” of those charged with curfew violations, rioting, and failure to obey law enforcement appeared to be affiliated with organised groups, the investigation found. Those charged with more serious offences like arson, burglary, and theft were “overwhelmingly” local residents, many with past criminal records, who appeared to be taking advantage of the chaos, the report said.
The AP’s investigation appears to line up with a separate report from The Nation, which said the FBI had “no intelligence indicating Antifa involvement/presence” in the violence that took place on May 31. The report cited an internal situation report from the FBI’s Washington, DC, field office.
The situation report listed a series of violent acts, including instances of bricks being thrown at police officers and a backpack that contained explosives. But based on “CHS [Confidential Human Source] canvassing, open source/social media partner engagement, and liaison,” the bureau had no evidence that those acts were directly linked to antifa, The Nation reported.
The Daily Beast also combed through the first 22 criminal complaints federal agents filed since May 31 that were related to the protests. None of them list antifa or anti-fascist ideology as being a motivating factor for the alleged crimes.
According to the report, only three out of the 22 complaints referenced a specific political ideology. One person appears to hold anti-Trump views and is accused of shouting, “Trump must die,” and “This is a revolution” while pointing a semi-automatic weapon at a crowd in Texas. This person also allegedly posted on Facebook about wanting to “off racists and MAGA people,” referring to Trump supporters.
In another complaint, authorities accused an 18-year-old in Massachusetts of throwing Molotov cocktails and telling local police he was “with the anarchist group.” And in the third, three men connected to the far-right Boogaloo movement, whose gun-toting members advocate for a second civil war, were arrested on domestic terrorism charges in Nevada for trying to start a riot during Las Vegas protests.
Matt Chandler, a deputy chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, told Business Insider that while there “certainly are individuals and groups seeking to take advantage of the protests to distract from their true purpose,” practically speaking, antifa is not “a centrally organised group, it’s a loose collective of those who share anti-fascist, anti-white supremacist, and sometimes anarchist ideologies.”
Jeffrey Cramer, a longtime former federal prosecutor who spent 12 years at the Justice Department, echoed that view, telling Business Insider that antifa does not have an organizational structure or command and control. Instead, “it is a bogeyman for far-right Republicans to explain civil unrest,” Cramer said.
Moreover, because there still isn’t a standard process for publicly designating domestic terrorist groups, Trump’s focus on antifa “appears to be political in nature and paints anyone who disagrees with him – in this case protesters who have nothing to do with antifa and are exercising their First Amendment rights – as an ‘enemy,'” said Chandler, who is now a managing director at the Democratic consulting agency Bully Pulpit Interactive.
And “while individuals have certainly instigated violence during these protests, it is hard to claim an amorphous entity is responsible for criminals deciding to loot stores or cause problems,” Cramer said.
Theory of antifa-led riots bears ‘all the earmarks of current-day disinformation’
Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the New York University Stern Centre for Business and Human Rights who released a report last year on how disinformation would affect the 2020 election, told Business Insider that efforts to frame the George Floyd protests as “a violent leftist conspiracy” bear “all the earmarks of current-day disinformation.”
“The now-familiar elements include profuse social media posts of dubious provenance, flat-out falsehoods by President Trump, and deft amplification by right-wing figures on Fox News,” said Barrett, who is also the author of a newly released report on content moderation.
The theory that antifa is behind organising the riots is the most prominent piece of misinformation flying around about the demonstrations, according to Zignal Labs, which tracked and analysed certain types of mis- and disinformation connected to the protests.
Out of 873,000 pieces of misinformation linked to the demonstrations, 575,800 mentioned antifa, Zignal Labs told The New York Times.
The allegations gained traction after Trump tweeted on May 31 that antifa and other left-wing radicals were responsible for the violence. But they started bouncing around social media days earlier, according to The Times, which found more than 6,000 Facebook posts linking antifa to the protests that garnered 1.3 million likes and shares from May 25 to June 1.
On Thursday, the hashtag #exposeAntifa began trending on Twitter as the president and his allies continued amplifying the theory.
And a number of media reports in the days since have documented instances of people across the country acting on bogus warnings of antifa-led infiltrations of anti-racism demonstrations.
As protests unfolded in Idaho last week, white residents armed with military-style assault rifles lined the streets of some towns after seeing unfounded reports of “ANTIFA agitators” planning to invade the state, the Washington Post reported. One of the armed locals told the outlet that he mobilized after hearing trusted sources warning of “antifa types” being on the move.
It turned out the warnings were an online hoax. Indeed, local officials in the state confirmed to the Post that not a single participant in the rallies was known to have defaced homes or storefronts in the name of antifa.
An NBC News report described a similar scenario in Klamath Falls, Oregon, where a group of about 200 protesters gathered at a local hotspot and were met with hundreds of their mostly white neighbours across the street, who were armed with guns, hammers, axes, baseball bats, and American flags.
The armed counter-protesters told NBC News they wanted to protect their town after hearing that the billionaire philanthropist and right-wing bete noire George Soros had paid for antifa activists to be bused in to destroy Klamath Falls.
Barrett said the events show the risks of “purposeful confusion” regarding major events like the police brutality protests.
“Ordinary people may misunderstand important public events,” in this case, “the identity and motivations of throngs of people earnestly protesting racism and injustice,” he said. More generally, these developments indicate how swaths of the American public are becoming cynical “about the very possibility of understanding basic truths about society and politics.”
The regression is similar to “what you see in autocracies like Russia, where Trump’s friend Vladimir Putin has so debased the notion of truth that many Russians have given up on trying to discern it,” Barrett said.
Radio silence on violence linked to the far right
At the same time as they blame antifa and radical left-wing activists for violence connected to the rallies, Trump, Barr, and other Republican lawmakers have remained silent about media reports and criminal charges brought against those who identify with the far right.
On Monday, CNN reported that a man accused of driving his car through a crowd of protesters in Virginia over the weekend is an “admitted leader” of the Ku Klux Klan and a “propagandist for Confederate ideology,” according to the county attorney.
The man, Harry Rogers, has been charged with attempted malicious wounding, felony vandalism and assault, and battery.
Barr’s news conference on Thursday also came one day after the Justice Department announced charges against the three Nevada men who self-identified as being part of the Boogaloo movement. When the attorney general was asked why he singled out antifa but not the Boogaloo arrests, Barr replied that he had acknowledged “actors of a variety of different political persuasions” in his opening statement.
Meanwhile, the FBI’s internal situation report which found “no intelligence” indicating antifa’s involvement in the May 31 protest violence did warn that people associated with a right-wing social media group had “called for far-right provocateurs to attack federal agents” and “use automatic weapons against protesters.”
Politico also reported earlier this month that a Department of Homeland Security intelligence note warned law-enforcement officials that a white supremacist channel on the encrypted messaging app Telegram encouraged its followers to incite violence to start a race war during the protests.
Citing the FBI, it said that two days after Floyd’s death, the channel “incited followers to engage in violence and start the ‘boogaloo.'”
One of the messages in the channel called for potential shooters to “frame the crowd around you” for the violence, the note said, according to Politico.
On May 29, the note said, “suspected anarchist extremists and militia extremists allegedly planned to storm and burn the Minnesota State Capitol.”
And NBC News reported this month that Twitter had identified a group posing as an “antifa” organisation calling for violence in the protests as actually being linked to the white supremacist group Identity Evropa.
Twitter suspended the account, @ANTIFA_US, after it posted a tweet that incited violence. A company spokesperson also told NBC News that the account violated Twitter’s rules against platform manipulation and spam.
Law enforcement veterans said Trump and Republicans’ silence on far-right or white supremacist groups seeking to weaponize the protests could be seen as tacit approval for their actions.
“That is clearly troublesome,” Chandler said, especially given warnings from the FBI and DHS that these groups pose “credible threats” to safety surrounding the rallies.
Cramer echoed that view and added that the Justice Department needs to offer “a level of consistency” as to what constitutes a terrorist organisation.
Otherwise, he said, “the term and related legal weapons to battle such extreme forces becomes moot.”