As unrest continues in scores of cities across the United States, the power of anonymity gives rise to dizzying levels of discord, disinformation, conspiracies, and anarchy-peddling, across social media and the world wide web.
Antifa, short for anti-fascist or Anti-Fascism Action, is viewed as a radical far-left-leaning political movement, made up of mostly autonomous cells and local leaders but without a particular figurehead or formal hierarchy. Some local chapters go by location, such as "Antifa Sacramento" or "NYC Antifa," while others have more murky names such as "Torch" or "By Any Means."
Their presence is allegedly driving the ongoing violent turmoil – which occur at night and are distinct from the peaceful protests happening in Floyd's name and in the eponym of justice – is marked by black clothing and black coverings.
For many driven by the extreme left ideology, it isn't about being a "member" of Antifa, but instead falls under an ideological umbrella of "digital activism." The use of violence is typically viewed as being a last resort, but George Floyd's death in police custody last week was seemingly the last straw.
So how do they get their message out?
Ben Bergquam, an investigative reporter at America's Voice News who has been in multiple confrontations with Antifa and other violent groups, stressed that "social media is driving the riots right now."
"They [Antifa] do a lot through apps, and they use paper flyers and leaflets as well," he claimed. "A lot of it is off of social media, phone to phone, or email. They use all forms of communication to spread a violent message."
Moreover, the anonymity online only deepens the divisions and distrust millions of Americans already have over the media and what actors are pulling what political strings behind the scenes, said Richard Mack, president of the Constitutional Sheriffs & Peace Officers Association.
"Confusion is the most damaging result of all this, and the media are the most prolific purveyors. The general public then gets the feeling that the country is falling apart, that civil war is imminent, and thus, the people will accept, and even invite, martial law and total government control of society," Mack said. "Violent anarcho-communist groups with their well-funded and organized 'protest' activities incite protesters to riot, and spread law enforcement resources so thin that they cannot contain the violence."
According to Ian Bradbury, the president of Terra Nova Strategic Management, a Canadian advisory and strategy firm that has enabled the counter-violent-extremism sector to better resolve complex challenges, the flurry of social media activity is nothing short of "insanity."
"Everyone from all groups is extremely busy trying to make their opponents look bad in one way or another. Fake accounts are being set up, or accounts are being ousted as 'fake' – which includes flagging accounts that aren't fake," he explained.
Antifa and other extremist outfits, he said, are warning everyone to wipe their history, switch devices and profiles, and move to secure messaging services.
"This is being exacerbated by badly worded 'expert opinions.' The [instigators] are watching the news and building off false attributions and expert commentary," Bradbury continued. "It feels eerily like a true fog of war."
Multiple experts monitoring the matter highlighted that the left-wing radical pockets linked to Antifa typically turn to gamer chat rooms and encrypted apps such as WhatsApp and Telegram to set their meeting points and agendas for riots.
"But communications are their downfall," one U.S. defense source, who was not authorized to speak on the record, noted. "Because they want to reach hundreds of people in one group or channel, it means it can be easily infiltrated."
Like other criminal activities from drug dealing to identity theft to the selling of child pornography, the untraceable Internet lurking beneath the metaphorical waterline has long been a meeting point for planning, connecting, and the overall discussion around a violent activity.
Another former U.S. intelligence official underscored that the only way to really get to the bottom of the group's roots and revenue stream is if President Trump makes good on his vow earlier this week to designate Antifa a "terrorist organization."
"That would give the FBI the leeway it needs to probe it deeply," noted the former official. "To go into the dark web and the more underground operations, and understand it from there."
However, the online cacophony is far from limited to Antifa-type factions.
For one, Twitter busted an "Antifa_US" account this week for urging rioters to move into "white hoods" and loot, revealing that white supremacist outfit Identity Evropa were the ones behind the keyboard.
Odd hybrid groups and accounts are also cropping up to further fuel the flames – ones that combine both far-left and far-right dogmas such as "ultra-left gun clubs" – urging action against tyranny.
A report released Wednesday by TRAC, a terrorism tracking service, underscored that it had "identified several groups across the left/right ideological spectrum infiltrating and exploiting protests across the U.S."
Analyst Bethany Rudibaugh analyzed crowds in Columbus, Ohio, and observed "a mix of ideologies from the Proud Boys to AntiFa."
"Other TRAC analysts monitoring online sources documented infiltrating groups in other cities including those who espouse the racist 'Boogaloo' and an anarchist's personal account being present at the destruction of the 3rd police precinct building in Minneapolis," the report continued. "In addition, eco-fascists on Telegram are advocating taking advantage of law enforcement's attention on the protests to get serious about attacking critical infrastructure in the U.S., including power stations and railway lines."
Karim Hijazi, CEO of Prevailion, a cyber intelligence company that specializes in infiltrating hacker networks and monitoring their global activities, conjectured that "right now it's a total free-for-all online, both from the left and right, as there are many activists, groups and special interests that all have a stake in what is going on.
"Social issues are transferred into the cyber realm, that is where you can have a wide range of bad actors getting involved in an effort to distort and disrupt. These are bad actors who want to hijack or distort the message of the peaceful protesters, or disseminate disinformation about what is really going on," he said. "You will see all angles being played here, from online efforts to discredit the protesters to attempts by other bad actors to incite anger toward law enforcement officers."
He emphasized that the problem with social media and messaging apps is that they make it easy for a person to lose perspective, to wind up in an echo-chamber that magnifies certain sentiments and disinformation campaigns.
Other analysts in the digital space aren't convinced that Antifa has the potency that many officials within the Trump administration indicate that it does.
"It is a movement, not an organization. If people want to self-organize, they will," asserted Will Semmes, President of Bellwether Partners, a Los Angeles-based security and management consulting firm. "Mostly this (rioting) is just opportunists who are already criminals who are already organized as robbers/burglars/re-sellers who are taking advantage of the chaos to loot/steal en masse and without fear of consequence. They are taking advantage of the mask-wearing, the overwhelmed police, the people quarantined at home, the people staying at home out of fear of the mob."
In his view, much of the social media mayhem is being exacerbated by agitators, foreign and domestic.
"Social media is the perfect platform for influence and manipulation because it works on the non-conscious brain, the biased brain that sees patterns in 1/5 of a second, precisely because it is not deep, it is wide and shallow," Semmes stressed. "Marketers know that 8 out of 10 people will read a headline, but only 2 out of 10 people will read the article. Same with imagery."
Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, said, "America's authoritarian adversaries are the chief beneficiaries of any misinformation/disinformation campaign against the U.S. in the wake of recent protests.
"This is regardless of the origin of any such campaign. They can only look strong when America is made to look weak," he said. "One example was the false online rumor that there was a blackout during recent protests outside the White House. While countless journalists disproved this, a BBC Persian reporter astutely noted on Twitter that pro-Tehran or Iran-linked voices had been echoing this falsehood while remaining silent in late 2019 when Iran shut the internet down during nationwide protests where over 1,500 were killed."