Reason

FROM ANTIFA TO UFOS, ONE JOKE CAN SPAWN A THOUSAND CONSPIRACIES

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.

What might not have been as easy to anticipate was the role that jokes would play in the rumor mill.

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 jokes were getting mistaken for reality too. In late 2017, 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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