The antifa myth has gotten amazing traction in neighborhoods across the country—and, notably, in the Trump administration. Misinformation about antifa circulates in closed Facebook groups, but it doesn’t stay online: When some people get scared antifa is coming to their own town, they start girding themselves for battle.
NBC News reporter Brandy Zadrozny saw it unfold in the small town of Klamath Falls, Oregon. A bunch of locals decided to plan a Black Lives Matter protest—but unbeknownst to them, other people in the region were gearing up for an antifa invasion. “Two hundred people came armed, ready to fight this antifa rumor that they had heard on Facebook,” Zadrozny says. But antifa never showed up. A white nationalist group posing as antifa had sent a message out claiming it was going to target white communities, that it was going there to “take what’s ours.”
On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Zadrozny about what happened next, why misinformation spreads so quickly online, and what can be done to rein it in. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: What was going on in these Facebook groups to get people interested, concerned, and scared?
Brandy Zadrozny: It started with this Facebook post saying: I’m not one to spread fake news, but there are two buses heading this way from Portland full of antifa members. They’re loaded with guns and bricks, and they’re going to destroy Klamath Falls. They’re going to murder police officers and they’re going to go to residential areas and they’re going to mess up the white neighborhoods.
Now, a lot of people initially were like, What? No, that’s not happening. But then, a couple of hours later at most, someone else posted what they said was a screenshot from this Col. Jeff Edwards, and he’s the commander of the Oregon Air National Guard’s 173rd Fighter Wing in Klamath Falls. It said, Hey, team, please avoid downtown. We’ve received intel that there could be two busloads of antifa protesters coming to Klamath Falls. They’re coming at 8:30. This guy, he’s a hero in this small town, and everybody believed that and immediately was like, OK, mount up. And then you saw all the responses were like, This must be true. Who’s saying this? And then it was attributed to law enforcement officials. So suddenly we’re just playing this game of very small telephone.
Very quickly, it turned to people going out and looking for these buses. They go to the Walmart and they go to vantage points where they can see the highway and just start looking and posting what they see. Someone said that they saw somebody in black at the grocery store. It became this sort of scavenger hunt for the people of Klamath Falls, and offline they started meeting in real spaces. They met at a space that’s dedicated to military folks, and they started hatching a plan to come armed, and they gave out blue armbands so everyone would know who the people were that were there to protect the businesses and fight antifa if they had to. And then a few hours later, they were on the street. They came out looking for antifa, and they never found it because antifa never came, of course.
So instead of fending off foreign invaders, this group of would-be Paul Reveres found themselves in a good old-fashioned counterprotest. Their side had guns. The other side had signs. And the Black Lives Matter supporters were flummoxed.
They weren’t in the private spaces where people were getting the blue armbands and planning to be armed. So they didn’t know what they were walking into. And they were very afraid, as you might imagine, when you see a group of 200 mostly white men all holding guns and shotguns, and somebody had an AK and ARs. And the other prevailing emotion there was pride. They were so proud of their little town. They’ve been there now eight days in a row. People who are on the margins of these communities have come out and made their voices heard, and that’s been really powerful.
I want to highlight a couple of things from your story that I think are important and worth picking apart more. First off, there’s the fact that Facebook is really important to signal-boosting these rumors about antifa. And the second thing is that members of the military, like this National Guard person, are bolstering rumors that are later found to be untrue. I’m wondering if there are other examples where you’re seeing these antifa rumors trickle into more official channels.
We’ve seen local police departments and law enforcement agencies having to either come out and say, “There’s nothing here, calm down,” or “OK, we are responding to rumors that antifa is coming on a bus.” It’s happening everywhere. You could give me a town, and I can find you a Facebook group there, a local, closed Facebook group with community news, and I would be willing to bet you that there is some talk about antifa right now in those groups.
Were you able to speak to Facebook about its role here?
No, we did not speak to Facebook on this story. Facebook groups are where [Facebook is] growing its audience. It’s pivoted to privacy, since it’s lost the trust of a bunch of people by mishandling their data and doing other things to breach the public trust. And so it moved to these private spaces, and we just have no idea about what’s going on there. So all of the problems that Facebook used to have, from white supremacy to medical misinformation to political disinformation—that’s all happening. You just can’t see it anymore.
You reported on these Facebook groups where the antifa rumors were spreading, and especially these videos where local people livestreamed themselves talking about their concerns about antifa coming to them and just how popular those were—and then you also talked about one black resident of Klamath Falls [Black Lives Matter protester Frederick Brigham] who was also livestreaming himself, but only 14 people were watching. And so there’s this huge disparity in whose voice is being amplified.
Yes. The truth is sometimes boring. I watched both livestreams, and I can tell you that a protest where people are quietly saying the names of black men and women who’ve been killed in police custody and talking politely to one another for four hours is a lot less gripping than one in which a man travels around with a rifle on his chest and tons of bulletproof vests all around and men with pipes over their shoulders, chanting and talking about this threat that’s coming to kill everyone. That’s gripping, whether it’s true or not.
I think people who work in this disinformation space have basically given up on expecting the platforms to do anything about this. They’ve signaled that they won’t and they don’t care. I think that the new tactic is almost like a polluted actual ecosystem, a polluted environment: You want the large industrial waste-makers to clean up their plants, but you also have to depend on each one of us to recycle, to take care of our own streets. I’ve gotten a lot of good feedback from people in Klamath Falls that have said, OK, maybe next time I won’t share something so quickly, or Maybe next time I’ll be more careful with what I believe online. And I think that’s where it starts, and that’s the hope.