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If a radical movement is prepared to use violence, that real-world willingness can inspire wild rumors about the group's plans and alliances. We've seen that dynamic play out with movements ranging from the Black Panthers to right-wing militias. So when the militant anti-fascist network known as antifa started attracting new levels of attention during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, it was probably inevitable that it would trigger some bizarre conspiracy theories.
Over the last few years, at least 375 fake antifa social-media accounts have appeared, posting over-the-top comments like "THIS IS WHY THE #SolarEclipse2017 IS BIGOTED AND RACIST." (The statement appeared alongside a picture of an American flag on the Moon.) The "Boston Antifa" feed greeted the news of Jerry Lewis' death with a video denouncing "unsafe humor" and declaring that the comedian "embraced the power of white supremacy." It doesn't take much digging to discover that these aren't actual antifa accounts, but several media outlets have mistaken them for the real thing. When a fake antifa group announced that there was "no room" in its city for "supporters of the US constitution," the Washington Examiner cited the post in an anti-antifa editorial. In Texas, an account convinced reporters that antifa was planning to protest a statue of Sam Houston and to beat up anyone who counterdemonstrated; the news inspired hundreds of people to come to a counterprotest against a rally that was never going to happen.
Coverage of these accounts often presents them as disinformation meant to sow confusion and make the movement look bad. And that's obviously a part of what's going on: During the sometimes violent protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in May, for example, members of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa started tweeting as @ANTIFA_US, promising to "move into the residential areas…the white hoods….and we take what's ours." But many of the accounts are also clearly meant as entertainment. One of the men behind the Boston Antifa account, Brandon Krebs, has claimed the comedian Andy Kaufman as an influence, and he appears to have followers who take his work in that spirit. (As I write, the top comment below the Jerry Lewis video says, "This is one of the best comedy channels on Youtube right now.")
The accounts have fooled some mainstream outlets, such as Reuters and the Houston Chronicle. But the audiences that think the accounts are real, like the audiences that think the accounts are funny, tend to come from the political right. The people who maintain the feeds tend not to be very good at mimicking real antifa groups' rhetoric—they sound more like generic left-wing caricatures—so they're less likely to fool leftists.
Once memesters on the right started spoofing antifa, memesters on the left took to spoofing right-wing fears of antifa. Before long, the leftists found that their jokes were getting mistaken for reality too. In late 2017, for example, one @KrangTNelson tweeted this: "can't wait for November 4th when millions of antifa supersoldiers will behead all white parents and small business owners in the town square." Some rather unhinged stories were already circulating about an alleged antifa plot to launch a civil war on that day—a Maoist front group called Refuse Fascism was indeed planning a November 4 protest, and the rumors had spiraled from there—and the tweet went viral among people who took it literally. @KrangTNelson was soon suspended from Twitter. After another account repeated the joke, the conservative site Gateway Pundit ran an article headlined "ANTIFA Leader: 'November 4th […] millions of antifa supersoldiers will behead all white parents.'" (The site later added a postscript: "UPDATE: Far-left radicals now claiming it was a 'funny joke.'")
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