Antifa Is Clickbait for Conspiracy Theorists

Why fact-challenged YouTubers are obsessed with an imaginary coup on Nov. 4.

Screenshots from four videos are seen. On the top left is someone about to strike another person with a stick. Bottom left, a person donning sunglasses, a scarf, and a hood. Bottom right, Alex Jones is on Infowars hawking "Brain Force." Top right, a woman speaks to a person and points behind her.
Photo illustration by Slate. Screenshots: YouTube.

According to conspiracy-theory YouTube, on Saturday, Nov. 4, antifa—the masked, decentralized group best known for organized Nazi-punching at white-supremacist rallies—will “take down America in one eventful night.” Or just create some mayhem in the streets. Or distract from a Department of Defense drill that will “affect cell phones, landlines, telephone, [and] internet connectivity.”Or nothing, which is what antifa spokespeople claim. Regardless, you should buy some survivalist rations, since “at any given time, we are 72 hours away from chaos.” You can wash down those military-surplus MREs with some Brain Juice, which Infowars host Owen Shroyer boasts is the miracle elixir that helps conservatives like him “destroy liberals with our brains tied behind our back.”

If you’ve read or heard something about antifa’s supposed uprising, you might head to YouTube, where nearly one-fifth of Americans get news. What you’ll find—especially from the, er, non–evidence-based right, which thrives on the video platform—is a lot of panic tinged with derision but even more incoherence and opportunism. Several hours’ worth of videos about Nov. 4 suggest that few conspiracy theorists actually believe antifa will oust Donald Trump from power. Nonsense-peddling Infowars can’t even coordinate its messaging among the “journalists” within the network. “On November 4th the Antifa Insurgency Against Donald Trump and His Supporters Will Begin,” screams a headline on the Infowars site. But in a video on its YouTube channel, Shroyer claims that the anarchist activists are “all bark, no bite” and proposes that the wannabe rabble-rousers be returned to their rooms in their parents’ basements to be disciplined by “Mommy.”

Ask 10 conspiracy theorists what antifa is, and you’ll likely get 10 different answers. The movement has been affiliated by conspiracy-peddlers with George Soros, ISIS, Black Lives Matter, pedophiles, and/or Las Vegas shooter Stephen Paddock; its members have been accused of being under mind control and on meth. Epistemological chaos is a precondition for the conspiracy community. Add a dose of sneering superiority, the emotional register and quite possibly the attitudinal appeal of so many right-wing YouTubers, and it’s not surprising that conservatives with traditional values and wild imaginations can’t make up their minds about whether antifa activists are unmanly nuisances or a super-powered army ready to mow down everything decent about America.

One of the most popular YouTube videos about Nov. 4 is built around just that need to have antifa be both a punching bag and a near-apocalyptic horror. Evidently inspired by James O’Keefe’s hidden-camera “gotcha” propaganda, alt-righter Steven Crowder’s “Undercover in Antifa: Their Tactics and Media Support Exposed!” dismissively calls one local leader a “tranny and/or genderqueer,” while playing up the federal government’s description of the group as “domestic terrorism.”

Seen more than 2 million times and excerpted by many other videos about Nov. 4, “Undercover” finds Crowder’s sidekick, “Not Gay” Jared, posing as an eager antifa recruit in a shoulder-length wig and a beanie. Referring to his new look, Jared jokes, “I want to kick my own ass.” An antifa member who meets Jared in the park discusses guns and knives that might come useful in a fight, adding that with a particular model, “You really have to stab them.” (Like O’Keefe, Crowder has been accused of misleadingly editing videos.)

But there’s no action-hero glory in merely turning in a confession of violent intent to the authorities. At one point, Crowder is seen in front of this parody poster of Cobra with his own face and ideals Photoshopped into it. (In the movie, Sylvester Stallone’s titular rebel cop battles a group called the “New Order.”) The self-described late-night comedian ends “Undercover” with his version of the “I have a particular set of skills” speech from Taken. Crowder sets up antifa to knock them down. Like in an action movie, there’s only one predetermined winner.

At least Crowder seems sincere in his fear of what antifa is capable of. So does the seeming originator of the Nov. 4 rumor, bounty hunter Jordan Peltz, who gets dressed in law-enforcement drag to lament the “complete and total breakdown of society“ in a video seen millions of times. There are certainly many conspiracy consumers who really do believe that antifa is planning something big and unholy for tomorrow.

But Nov. 4 also seems to be viral magic for a lot of right-wing YouTube: a desultory but inevitable product of the site’s conspiracy-industrial complex. Tracing a conspiracy from theorist to theorist is already something of a game of telephone. But the fractured and/or barely relevant narratives that individual YouTubers proffer about Nov. 4 indicate that many creators are responding more to the video platform’s economic or attention-getting incentives than a concrete fear of violent leftists running amok. Antifa might be masked thugs going after cops or “Luciferians“ or “fools in the streets acting like, well, fools“ or a super-secret hit squad that may consist of your former friends, lovers, or employees carrying out personal vendettas. But for a lot of conspiracy theorists looking for a few extra views and subscribers—and a side hustle if YouTube hasn’t de-monetized them yet—Nov. 4 is mostly just clickbait.