Thurston County Democrats Chair Victor Minjares realized something was very wrong over the weekend when the party’s cellphone started buzzing with abuse and threats.
“I’m going to kill everyone there. Bombs away bitches,” said one text message from a Texas area code. “You scumbag demon rats today are the New Nazi Socialist Party of Hate Everything America may you all f****** drop dead,” said another, with a Florida phone number.
The vitriol poured in after a photo of a hoax flyer, purporting to be from the Thurston Democrats, was shared widely on social media. The fake advertisement offered to pay $200 for any protester who wanted to be trained as “a professional anarchist” — with funding supplied by billionaire George Soros.
As it does after any major news event in our politically polarized era, misinformation and disinformation is flying in the wake of the massive protests sparked by the death of George Floyd, the Black man who was killed last week when a Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes, ignoring his pleas for air.
While protests against police brutality have drawn hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators demanding accountability and systemic change, violent clashes and looting also have erupted across the nation, including in Seattle and Bellevue. Images of looted stores and burning police cars have heightened tensions, and some have sought to blame the chaos on political enemies. Some have even spread false claims that Floyd’s death was faked.
In the case of the Thurston County Democrats, the clumsy fake was quickly disavowed by the group and debunked by fact-checking organization Snopes.com. Images of the flyer are now flagged on Facebook with a warning it has been deemed a fraud by fact checkers. It was nevertheless shared on Facebook by untold numbers of people eager to believe the scenario.
“The idea that a local political organization would put out flyers offering to pay someone to commit criminal acts is ridiculous on its face,” Minjares said. But, he said, “thousands of people must have posted the thing because it fit with their preconceived notions.” He noted it also included “the anti-Semitic George Soros trope,” referring to the imagery frequently deployed against the Hungarian-American Jewish financier, portrayed by some right-wing groups as a worldwide mastermind of leftist movements.
One state lawmaker in Washington recently shared another debunked claim that protests are the result of a paid conspiracy.
State Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, shared a Facebook post about “a for-profit company that provides paid protesters to groups that can’t attract real people.” That referred to a website called Demand Protest, which claims on its website it creates paid, fake grassroots protest movements. But the supposed company has been outed as a hoax by Snopes and acknowledged as such by conservative media, including Fox News host Tucker Carlson.
The effort to stoke fears about antifa groups being responsible for looting and violence also has spread nationally and in the Pacific Northwest, taking cues from President Donald Trump, who has publicly blamed such groups and said he’ll designate antifa a “terror organization.”
Antifa, short for “anti-fascists” is not a single organization, but refers to a set of far-left militant groups known for exposing and clashing with neo-Nazis and white supremacists. One Twitter account widely cited as fomenting threats of political violence associated with the Floyd protests was taken down after it was linked to a white supremacist group.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, at a news conference this week, said it was likely some of the violence carried out in the city under cover of protests is the fault of radical far-left or far-right provocateurs. “It’s a little early to say that definitively,” she said, but it was “consistent with the method of operation of those group members.”
Meanwhile, online rumors have flown about antifa or other radical leftists bringing destructive rampages out of cities like Seattle to suburban and rural areas. Although some of the hearsay has been shot down as false by law enforcement authorities, heavily armed civilians have come out in force to guard storefronts in some smaller communities.
In Idaho, the Payette County Sheriff’s Office refuted false rumors that antifa had sent “a plane load of their people into Boise” along with “three busloads from Seattle” into rural parts of the state. The Idaho Statesman reported the rumors had been promoted by the Real 3 Percenters Idaho, a far right-wing group, which claimed it had “credible information” that antifa and other groups were planning a riot in Boise. No riot happened, but the group said it had “monitored” a small, peaceful protest.
In Snohomish over the weekend, hundreds of armed people showed up Sunday after unsubstantiated online threats that antifa planned to target the small community of 10,000.
State Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, posted a photo of himself and others holding military-style rifles in the town, saying they’d protected it “from rioting and looting by antifa thugs.” Sutherland did not return a message to his office Tuesday.
The Snohomish Police Department posted a statement Sunday saying the department was “aware of the information regarding a potential disturbance in town. At this time it appears to just be a rumor but we have units available in case they are needed.” Police chief Keith Rogers declined to offer details of the threat, referring questions to the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office.
Courtney O’Keefe, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, said the department received multiple tips about “seeing a post on a local antifa Facebook page” that spoke of plans “to bring destructive protests to America’s rural small towns” and said the group would be in a Snohomish park on Sunday. The post was apparently deleted shortly after it was published, and the sheriff’s office did not see it, “but we responded as if it was credible” and coordinated officers to be ready if needed.