US officials investigate disinformation of protests, possible agent provocateurs
WASHINGTON – U.S. officials sought to determine on Sunday whether extremist groups infiltrated protests of police brutality across the country and deliberately shifted largely peaceful protests to violence – and whether foreign adversaries were behind the a growing social media disinformation campaign.
As protests spread from Minneapolis to the White House, New York and abroad, federal law enforcement officials insisted that far-left groups were fueling the violence. Meanwhile, experts who track down extremist groups have also reported seeing evidence of the far right at work.
Investigators were also tracking interference online and investigating whether foreign agents were behind the effort. Officials have seen an increase in social media accounts with fewer than 200 subscribers created last month, a manual sign of a disinformation effort.
The accounts released graphic images of the protests, material on police brutality and material on the coronavirus pandemic that appeared designed to stoke tensions across political divide, according to three administration officials. Officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the inquiries.
The inquiries are an attempt to identify the web of forces behind some of the most widespread manifestations of civil unrest in the United States in decades. Protests have erupted in dozens of cities in recent days, sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died after being pinned to the neck by a white Minneapolis policeman.
Americans tired by the pandemic were already angry – about deaths from COVID-19, lockdown orders and tens of millions of people out of work. The pandemic has hit African Americans harder than whites in the United States, and police killings of blacks have continued over the years even as the topic fades from the national scene.
But there are signs of people with other disparate motives, including anarchist graffiti, arrests of some out-of-state protesters, and images circulating in extremist groups that suggest the involvement of outside groups.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said on Sunday that state officials were hit by a cyberattack as law enforcement prepared to broadcast protests in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the epicenter of troubles.
“Before our operation started last night, a very sophisticated denial of service attack was performed on all computers,” Walz said. “It’s not someone sitting in his basement. It’s quite sophisticated.
Walz did not provide details.
President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Bar and others have said the left-wing extremist antifa group is to blame. Short for anti-fascists, antifa is an umbrella term for far-left militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists during protests.
Barr said on Sunday that the FBI would use its regional joint terrorism task forces to “identify criminal organizers,” and Trump again threatened to name a terrorist group antifa.
A group of antifa activists on Saturday broadcast a message on a Telegram channel encouraging people to view Minnesota National Guard troops as “easy targets,” two Defense Department officials said. The message encouraged activists to steal the “kit”, that is, the weapons and bulletproof vests used by the soldiers. The officials were not allowed to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.
As a result, Minnesota National Guard soldiers were armed while on assignment during protests across the state on Sunday, officials said. The soldiers are sometimes armed, but have not been since moving to areas of the state besieged by riots in recent days. The troops do not have the power to make arrests and are there primarily to provide additional police security.
Others have seen evidence of right-wing extremists. JJ MacNab, a member of the Extremism Program at George Washington University, monitors discussions of protests among anti-government extremists on social media platforms. She has access to hundreds of private Facebook groups for followers of the loosely organized “Boogaloo” movement, which uses an 80s film sequel as the code word for a Second Civil War.
She also looked at footage from the weekend’s protests and spotted “wood boogaloo” in the crowd, carrying high powered rifles and carrying tactical gear.
“I think most of the time they don’t want to harm these protests. They want to co-opt them to start their war. They see themselves on the side of the protesters and that the protesters themselves are useful in causing lawlessness, ”MacNab said.
She also sees signs that the Three Percent militia movement seems to be interested.
Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who tracks extremism online, saw footage of at least four members of the far-right group Proud Boys on the outskirts of a protest on Saturday night in Raleigh, in North Carolina.
“It’s very dispersed,” she said. “They all talk about it, but they just can’t seem to translate this online fantasy of what they would like to do into real action, which is good.”
Trump was in the next few days to distinguish between the legitimate anger of peaceful protesters and the unacceptable actions of violent agitators, said a White House official who was not authorized to discuss the plans in advance and said. is expressed on condition of anonymity.
The Trump administration has remained largely silent on local reports that far-right protesters were also involved. Meanwhile, Democratic mayors said Trump’s handling of the crisis recalled one of the darkest moments of his presidency – when he said there were “good people on both sides” of the protests. in 2017 against white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville, Virginia.
According to James Ludes, director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island, America’s racial fault lines are a perfect opportunity for foreign adversaries who seek to sow discord and present the United States. United in a negative light.
“It’s a real problem and Americans are legitimately unhappy with it,” said Ludes, who studies foreign disinformation tactics. “This is one of the characteristics of these campaigns. You don’t create new problems, you exploit existing problems.
There is a story of that. In 2016, another black man, Philando Castile, was killed by police in a suburb of Minneapolis, his death broadcast live on Facebook. The Russians used a fake Black Lives Matter page to confuse and anger protesters. There were almost 700,000 subscribers, but it is not known how many were real.
An example debunked from this week: that Atlanta had deployed a “child militia”.
Floyd has been accused of attempting to pass a bad bill at a grocery store after being fired during the pandemic. A disturbing video showed him lying in the street, as a white policeman pressed his knee to Floyd’s neck even as he cried, he couldn’t breathe. He later passed away. The officers were fired; Derek Chauvin, the officer who pinned Floyd in the video, has been charged with murder.
At first there were peaceful protests, but violence quickly erupted. A Minneapolis police station was set on fire and protests took off across the country, becoming increasingly tense. The video showed a police vehicle hitting protesters in New York City. Meanwhile, a van with four New York Police Department officers inside was hit by a Molotov cocktail and set on fire.
Hundreds of people have been arrested across the country and cities braced for more protests. But booking information from the Minneapolis County Jail, for example, showed that of 59 protest-related arrests, 47 people had a home address in Minnesota, with the majority coming from the Twin Cities.
In Washington, where protesters raged outside the White House, most of the 17 people arrested were from the region.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser said the groups appeared, at least, organized to destroy.
“They had tools to break windows and tools or a strategy to distribute material, between them,” she said. “What strikes us is that this was an organized group that seemed more prone to destruction than protest.”