A few days ago, a troop of vigilantes carrying assault weapons showed up at a small, peaceful, Black Lives Matter march in Snohomish convinced they were going to be heading off a violent invasion of antifa-led looters. As it turned out, it was the vigilantes themselves who allegedly committed violent acts when some of them roughed up a few local high school kids in unprovoked attacks.
These gun-toting characters came to town with Confederate flags flying because they believed bogus posts on conservative social media that claimed antifa, a tiny, loosely-organized anti-fascist group, was plotting to bring chaos to rural towns across the state and around the West. Federal authorities have evidence that the messages were actually created as a fear-inducing prank by a white-supremacist, right wing organization.
It wasn’t just a few conspiracy-crazed people in Snohomish who fell for the hoax. Another freaked out bunch in Forks dangerously harassed a mixed-race family that was merely passing through town, not to riot, but to go camping. Other paranoid patriots fell for the antifa fantasy in Yakima, in Idaho, in Utah and in small towns across the country.
There is nothing new about this. In 2016, a self-professed God-fearing conservative from North Carolina was so upset by right-wing media reports that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex ring in the basement of a pizza joint in Washington, D.C., that he grabbed his AR-15 assault rifle, drove to the restaurant and started shooting. Of course, the sex-ring story was a ridiculous lie that any person with an ounce of sense would never have taken seriously, but, apparently, a lot of folks lack that capacity for critical thinking.
Take, for instance, the local Republican Party officials in Texas who have been using social media to pass on crazy theories about the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis cop. Three of them are convinced the brutal incident was faked. Another is sure the thousands of protesters in the streets decrying Floyd’s murder are on the payroll of billionaire George Soros, a favorite target of right-wing fantasists.
It is a relief to know leading Republicans in the Lone Star State Sen. Ted Cruz and Gov. Greg Abbott have called for these party officials to resign; apparently not all members of the GOP have lost their powers of reasoning. Nevertheless, it is worrisome that so many Americans have mentally barricaded themselves in a social-media silo stocked with dangerous extremism and preposterous conspiracy theories, and that some of them, with guns ready, are eager to act on their delusions.
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