CENS Webinar on “Protest, Participation, Fake News: What’s Going On?”
Speakers: Dr Peter Bergen, Dr Colin P. Clarke and Graham Brookie
15 July 2020
Presentation by Peter Bergen, Vice President for Global Studies and Fellows at New America, Professor of Practice, Arizona State University and CNN’s National Security Analyst
The U.S.A is currently facing the biggest test in its civil-military relations since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962. Recent events include President Trump being accused of dividing the already polarised American society, a defining image of his controversial presidency when he held up a Bible at St John’s Church after threatening military action in response to consecutive nights of protesting and rioting following the death of George Floyd. His conflation of large protests with radical Antifa groups has drastically overstated the movement’s influence and his push to designate the movement as a terrorist organisation will be met with legal challenges going forward.
Presentation by Colin Clarke, Senior Research Fellow at The Soufan Center and Assistant Teaching Professor at the Institute for Politics and Strategy (IPS), Carnegie Mellon University
Recent incidents in the U.S.A. and around the world indicates that extremism is more complex than ever. As protests against police violence spread to every state in the U.S., President Trump accused the Antifa movement of exploiting national trauma to sow chaos and disorder, and sought to designate the movement as a terrorist organisation. Security researchers, however, have pointed out that the real threat comes from other domestic groups who have conducted killings in the country. COVID-19-related demonstrations and protests over the death of George Floyd have made visible various streams of anti-state movements with a propensity for violence. The Boogaloo movement, a loosely organised American far-right anti-government extremist movement, has been gathering steam in the course of the turmoil. Conspiracy theorists such as the QAnon movement have also been infiltrating mainstream politics with their baseless theories surrounding shootings and elections. There are significant overlaps between various extremist ideologies, complicated by the role of disinformation (deepfake, bots and fake social media accounts), which makes it more challenging for security practitioners and researchers to comprehend than before.
Presentation by Graham Brookie, Director and Managing Editor of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (DFRLab), Washington D.C.
Online, there is convergence across various topics related to the COVID-19 pandemic and protests for racial justice in the U.S. First, the subject of terrorism was used in disinformation narratives in the context of racial justice protests. Antifa-related content consistently outperforms Black Lives Matter content online, receiving approximately 27 million shares in June 2020. The majority of it originated from right-leaning media outlets. Many of these stories were alarmist in nature, with misrepresentation and fabricated violent incidents designed to maximise their digital traction. Second, old narratives were rehashed. For example, online content claimed that protesters were secretly coordinated by George Soros. This content has found traction in the U.S. and Europe for the past five years. Third, the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has seen a convergence across groups that do not typically interact with one another. This shift amplifies fringe anti-state voices such as the far-left, far-right and vaccine sceptics, reaching broad audiences worldwide and potentially impacting developments on the ground.