Twitter is taking down spam accounts run by white nationalists as the platform grapples with attempts to disrupt protesters organizing over the killing of George Floyd.
“Tonight’s the night, Comrades. Tonight we say ‘F— The City’ and we move into the residential areas… the white hoods…. and we take what’s ours …” reads a tweet punctuated with a brown raised-fist emoji that was posted Sunday afternoon by the account ANTIFA_US. The tweet was taken offline for inciting violence.
But something else was wrong with this account. Twitter discovered the account was not run by a purported supporter of anti-fascism, but rather a white nationalist group called Identity Evropa (which has since rebranded as the American Identity Movement). The group and its founder, Nathan Damigo, are perhaps best known for helping to plan the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina, which lead to the death of counter-protester Heather Heyer. Twitter says it has now taken down hundreds of accounts related to Identity Evropa.
Spam antifa accounts have at times been flagrant in their fakery. On Monday, @OCAntifa, an account falsely posing as an anti-fascism advocate, announced that it had been running an intentionally deceptive account. “Attention antifa ‘comrades’: today marks the end of our almost three year operation. Our infiltration of your movement was a success, and the faces and identities of everyone who has attended or financially supported Marxist and seditious activities has been recorded,” the tweet read. The account has since been removed. It is against Twitter’s terms of service to use the platform to manipulate users. Another account, @AntifaAmerica, was also taken down.
Antifa is a left-wing ideology that is against fascism, extreme right-wing views, and racism. It is not an actual organization. Antifa has no leadership or official presence, which makes it an easy target for infiltration and misrepresentation. The group has been blamed for violence and looting at protests seeking justice for the death of George Floyd and an end to police violence. However, it is unclear who is behind rioting at protests and whether it is organized or random. Antifa is also a frequent target of President Trump, who recently promised to designate the group a terrorist organization (a move that is not legally possible).
The nonprofit research center Data & Society first highlighted how white nationalists use fake antifa accounts to damage the movement in a 2017 paper called Source Hacking. “Various white supremacist groups have consistently tried to damage Antifa’s reputation in the media by ‘doxing’ protesters (releasing their personal information) or impersonating them online,” the report notes. “Throughout 2017, right-wing manipulators utilized parody to discredit Antifa, taking advantage of available Twitter handles and public confusion about the organization and their motives.”
Researchers compared the tactic to the way marketers use hashtags to bring attention to brands. Fake antifa accounts can flood hashtags to dilute the conversation, make it more difficult for authentic messages to rise to the top, and generally confuse participants. When their tweets go viral, it can stoke unwarranted fear in the general public.
Hello and welcome to the official and 100% real and definitely not a parody account of the Antifa group in America. This account was made to stand Up to Cheeto Hitler aka @realDonaldTrump again this is 100% real and why are you laughing? Dammit, I demand you take me seriously!
— Antifa US (@AntifaUS) July 17, 2018
“There’s a long history in the United States that goes back to at least the 1960s and the infiltrators were federal agents who infiltrated both student organizations, the Black Panthers, and also the Klu Klux Klan,” says David Meyer, a professor at the University of California Irvine who studies social movements. He notes that before the internet, it was harder to pretend to be part of a movement, because it required showing up in person to planning meetings for protests. But on the internet, anonymous account creators can more easily pose as a member of any group.
Twitter has aggressively tried to weed out fake accounts following the wave of 2016 election disinformation campaigns. In 2018, the company ejected millions of suspicious accounts, according to data received by The Washington Post. More spam accounts have arisen in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak. A report from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University said that a significant portion of tweets about “reopening America” were either sent by bot accounts or accounts with bot assistance.
Combating online account fraud is difficult: New accounts crop up all the time and can amplify their messaging quickly. Fraudsters can also move their activity from online to offline. Online social networks have empowered social movements to amass a lot of participants very quickly. However, there is no way to control who shows up. Some people may seek to undermine a protest.
“In the 1960s, plotting a demonstration would take a long time, you’d go to all these meetings and you see people going to the meetings. Now when things are organized online—it’s just whoever shows up is there. You don’t know the objectives of the people who are out there,” says Meyer.