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Right-wing websites are demonizing ‘antifa.’ Here’s how they portray the threat.

My research found that 27 right-wing websites were strikingly in sync in creating the impression of a menacing, indistinct threat

- June 24, 2020

Antifa has been in the news lately. Donald Trump recently tweeted out his intention to declare “ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization,” while Attorney General William P. Barr blamed the group for inciting violence and sowing discord. Right-wing media websites are suddenly using the term much more. These discussions appear to have had real-world consequences, as armed right-wing militants have taken to U.S. streets to counter the antifa threat. But no substantial evidence suggests that dangerous antifa terrorists are threatening public safety, or even that any antifa “organization” exists.

Because antifa is a loose ideology that lacks any formal or centralized structure, others can easily use it to demonize individuals who may have little in common except their opposition to far-right actions. To better understand how this works, my research has examined a broad right-wing news ecology that’s been inflaming fears of this ill-defined threat and then applying the term to its opponents on the political left.

How I did my research

I collected material from 29 U.S. right-wing or far-right websites, ranging from Fox News and Breitbart to lesser-known outfits like Liberty Nation or the Western Journal that present themselves as alternative news sources. I collected a total of 437 articles posted between May 25 and June 4 featuring the term “antifa” via the Media Cloud database and scraped them with the Python package Newspaper3k. Aided by text analysis software, I applied a coding scheme aimed at understanding how this media network was characterizing antifa.

How does the right wing describe antifa?

These right-wing websites use a variety of terms to characterize antifa, even some we might consider mutually exclusive, using “organization” or “movement” interchangeably — and using the vague term “group” most often. Out of 430 articles, I found only 18 mentions of an actual person or institution, and almost no direct quotes by anyone identifying themselves as antifa.

About 20 percent of the articles identified antifa as a “terrorist” entity. Breitbart, GatewayPundit and several other sites used this word for antifa before Trump’s tweet. After that, all these websites either directly described antifa as a terrorist entity or explicitly agreed with Trump’s tweet.

What do they say antifa does?

Most often, these right-wing websites mention antifa’s “violence” — usually accusing antifa of violently destroying property, rioting or looting — or less often, attacking “police” or “journalists.”

Often, when mentioning antifa’s “violence,” these sites accused antifa of “hijacking” or exploiting protests after travelling across state lines. These claims often come when antifa’s being classified as an “organization,” and imply strategic maneuvering by an ideologically extreme group. In contrast, when describing antifa as a loose movement, the websites didn’t often mention specific acts of violence.

Often, the articles described antifa as rioters, criminals, terrorists, and the like — implying that if antifa members are rioters, then acts of rioting might also make you antifa.

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What people or groups do right-wing websites identify as associated with or like antifa?

While these articles rarely stated who or what antifa is supposed to be, they often associated other individuals or organizations with it. In 16 percent of the articles, the Black Lives Matter movement was mentioned alongside antifa or presented as also involved in violent actions.

The term antifa was also used to characterize specific individuals like Keith Ellison, Minnesota’s attorney general who criminally charged the four police officers involved in George Floyd’s killing; George Soros, the financier and philanthropist often demonized by the right wing; left-leaning Democratic politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Rep. Ilhan Omar (Minn.); as well as actors and media personalities or Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, whose company recently began flagging some of the president’s tweets as false or inciting violence.

Where does the right wing say antifa has been active?

Only 18 percent of these articles named specific locations for antifa activities, while 10 percent wrote about antifa being in “our cities,” an imprecise phrase implying a general threat — a non-location often used when accusing antifa of “crossing state borders” and “instigating.” This combination portrays antifa as coming into areas in which they’re not part of the community to cause conflict.

The sites particularly paint antifa as active in cities governed by Democrats. If we assume most of these websites’ readers aren’t located in those areas, that creates the impression that antifa is active, dangerous and creating chaos somewhere else.

It also makes it less likely readers will have personally seen the protests being depicted as overrun by antifa. As scholarship on news on foreign events has found, when audiences are physically distant from the events they’re learning about, average citizens can’t check those reports against their own experiences — leaving media and political elites a considerable amount of leeway in how they frame and interpret events.

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Confusing at best, deliberate disinformation at worst

Few Americans are familiar with antifa, short for antifascists, a fringe ideology and loosely connected movement of far-left individuals who believe in personally confronting and even attacking fascists and white supremacists. If Americans rely primarily on right-wing news sites like those we’ve analyzed, they are not likely to understand that movement any better.

Some right-wing activists have been creating “false flag” websites in which they claim to represent antifa, or tweeting as antifa calling for protest violence, seeking to vilify left-leaning political activism. It’s possible the right-wing media ecosystem is conducting a coordinated and deliberate disinformation campaign. Although the 27 websites ranged broadly across the spectrum from far-right to mainstream conservative, they were strikingly in sync in creating the impression of a menacing, indistinct threat tied to the same targeted individuals and groups.

Right-wing websites are creating a “floating signifier” around antifa, which might serve as convenient catchall scapegoat for those intent on criminalizing dissent.

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Curd Knüpfer (@QrdKnpfr) is an assistant professor of political science at the Freie Universität Berlin where his research focuses on digital and right-wing media and U.S. politics.