These would-be vigilante groups seem to have fallen for a far-right hoax on social media, which warns that busloads of anti-fascist agitators are being sent to small towns to destroy their white-owned farms and businesses. There is currently no evidence to support that claim, according to media reports and statements by multiple police departments across the United States.
Nevertheless, groups of right-wing gun-lovers have been standing on guard against a made-up invasion in recent weeks, amid unproven claims from the White House that protest-related looting is the work of Antifa, rather than opportunistic protesters. U.S. President Donald Trump has even attempted to label Antifa as a terrorist organization — although it’s much closer to an unorganized movement of far-left individuals.
One group of a few hundred vigilantes showed up in Klamath Falls, Ore., on May 31, where they brandished their weapons across the street from a Black Lives Matter protest but remained peaceful, NBC News reports.
Smaller groups have done the same thing in Coeur D’Alene and a few other Idaho towns in recent days, according to the Spokesman-Review newspaper.
“We are not counter-protesters, we’re just going to make sure Coeur d’Alene is safe,” gun-toting vigilante Conrad Nelson told the Associated Press last week.
In Forks, Wash., dozens of would-be vigilantes accused a multi-racial family of being Antifa agents because they were camping in a school bus, according to the Clallam County Sheriff’s Office. The group allegedly confronted the family in a parking lot, then knocked down trees in the woods to block their path later that same night, in a case that is now under criminal investigation.
Sheriff’s departments in Curry County, Ore., and Payette County, Id., have also received a flurry of calls about “Antifa buses” coming into their areas, but have not found any evidence to back those claims up.
The latest version of the hoax appears to claim that Sparta, Ill., is next. “Antifa terrorists to be bused to Sparta, Illinois with orders to burn farm houses and kill livestock in rural ‘white’ areas,” several false Facebook posts say.
“We have no evidence leading us to believe this threat is at all credible,” the Randolph County Sheriff’s Department told an ABC affiliate. “It would appear that the author’s goal is to place fear in our community members, thereby creating fear and discontent.”
Some often-repeated posts about the “invasions” feature a doctored photo showing two buses with the words “Soros Riot Dance Squad” edited onto them, the Associated Press reported in a fact-check last week.
That Soros is George Soros, a Jewish Hungarian-American billionaire and Democratic donor who is often portrayed — without evidence — as the boogeyman and puppet-master behind various far-right conspiracy theories over the years.
“He’s the number one enemy of folks on the radical right,” Heidi Beirich, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, told the AP in 2018. She added that Soros is “like the Jew behind the curtain, from their perspective, not just in the U.S., but all over the world.”
Soros-related conspiracy theories have spread rapidly over social media with the outbreak of anti-racist protests across the U.S., according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Several far-right pundits have also alleged — without evidence — that Soros is paying protesters and anti-fascists to go on destructive looting sprees.
Candace Owens, a Black far-right commentator who has often opposed the Black Lives Matter movement, claimed in late May that Soros is paying looters to “burn down” Minneapolis. Actor James Woods also suggested on May 31 that Soros was behind the protests.
The White House also added fuel to the Antifa claims last week, with a now-debunked video that claimed to show Antifa violence during the protests while using footage from other incidents. The video has since been deleted.
A recent AP analysis found that about 85 per cent of those arrested at protests in Minneapolis and in Washington, D.C., were residents of those states, despite conspiracy theories to the contrary.
Facebook and Twitter have been doing their best to crack down on the false conspiracy theories, the AP reports. Twitter said last week that it removed an account that claimed to be Antifa after discovering that it was actually run by Identity Evropa, a white supremacist group. The account suggested that Antifa would “move into residential areas” and “white” neighbourhoods. That tweet was shared hundreds of times and cited in online articles before it was removed, Twitter said.
In the case of the fake Antifa buses, Golden Limousine International owner Sean Duval told the AP that the vehicles are his, and that he doesn’t appreciate whoever photoshopped Soros’ name onto them for a social media hoax.
“It’s frustrating when people outside start instigating and try to turn American against American,” he said.
Evidence shows those “outside” people are the ones spreading misinformation on social media — not a made-up army of Antifa agents on buses.
— With files from The Associated Press