Fake news blues
By Nat Stein @_natstein_
‘To all those thugs out there doing this: We’re going to catch you and you’re going to pay.”
That was Colorado Springs City Councilor Andy Pico’s warning to the vandals responsible for over $80,000 in damage to the snazzy new John Venezia Community Park in Briargate before Council voted, near unanimously, to spend $450,000 on added security, including cameras, at the park.
As of press time, the Colorado Springs Police Department hasn’t identified any suspect in connection with the criminal activity that plagued the park all summer. But the tags themselves — “Antifa” with the anarchist “A,” “left solida” and the communist hammer and sickle — make for an obtuse clue linking the crime to a small group of local political activists.
And yet, the Colorado Springs Anti-Fascists, or Antifa as they’re sometimes abbreviated, are adamant about their innocence. It’s not that they don’t tag (they do and they’ll readily admit it), but they say these tags aren’t theirs. In fact, they think it’s a frame-up — one of several in recent weeks that suggests a mounting propaganda campaign to villainize left-wing social movements has touched down in Colorado Springs.
“Jack,” a spokesperson who requested a pseudonym for security purposes, says anti-fascists don’t care a whole lot about PR, but acknowledges that, these days, public opinion isn’t on their side. Though many in the wider resistance movement accept Antifa’s apparent strategy of community self-defense, others think it’s associated with violence.
Jack says the debate about tactics is understandable, but he’s concerned that misinformation is changing the popular understanding of the “alt-left” — a phrase, coined by conservative operatives, peddled by Fox News personalities and parroted by President Donald Trump, that refers to the younger, radical contingent on the left. Jack notes the “alt-right,” a white nationalist movement, has demonized the far left through fake news.
An online petition to label anti-fascists as terrorists has garnered over 316,000 signatures. But Jack says anti-fascism isn’t a fringe ideology with a clear membership and a history of murder or destruction. Rather, it’s a moral principle that most Americans would ascribe to.
“The goal [of the alt-right] is to turn the law so any political dissidence can get crushed,” he says. “And I think everyone has a stake in that.”
Here’s the rundown of local happenings:
Exhibit A: Damage to Venezia Park
Construction is still underway at the park, but that hasn’t stopped vandals and thieves from relentlessly hitting the $13 million city asset. Copper wires have been stripped, equipment stolen and surfaces tagged at an unrelenting pace, according to Karen Palus, director of the city’s parks department. Abuse of city facilities and public space is common, but this is “excessive,” she said while urging City Council to approve the appropriation via an emergency ordinance — a type of legislating usually reserved for emergencies that imminently affect “public health, peace and property.”
Councilor Yolanda Avila provided the sole dissenting vote on the appropriation. Her chief concern, was that it would appear unfair for Council to pay so much so quickly for a park in a wealthy part of town while routinely ignoring similar issues in other city parks. Plus, she questioned, is graffiti really an “emergency?”
Palus explained that the supposed special treatment here comes down to the financial fine print: Money for the new cameras comes from the Public Space and Development Fund (PLDO), which developers pay into when they choose to forgo building parks and open space in new subdivisions. New parks, like Venezia, are eligible for these funds, but existing ones aren’t. Old parks have to pull from the general fund, TOPS revenue or special grants.
click to enlarge
Authentic Antifa graffiti – COURTESY ANTIFA
Authentic Antifa graffiti
Others on Council were less concerned with equity or expense, and more interested in sending a stern message to perpetrators and would-be imitators, though there was no explicit discussion of the political connotations of the tags.
Local anti-fascists believe the graffiti is a forgery. First of all, explained Jack, there are several stylistic tells: The anarchist “A” should be the first “A” in “antifa,” not the last; the three downward facing arrows signifying anti-fascism are nowhere to be found; and the scrawl was done freehand, not with a stencil. Plus, Jack continued, if it were truly anti-fascist graffiti, comrades would be in the know since the collective organization routinely communicates about what to tag, where to tag it and who will do the tagging so there’s consensus about the message. Venezia Park never ran by the group as a target, he says.
Beyond that, Jack added, public property that’s designed for people to use and enjoy — like a park — just isn’t their kind of target. “That’s tax money going back to actually provide for people and communities, whereas we’re more likely to go after symbols of capitalism like a bank or something,” he said. “If we were going to hit anything in Briargate, it would be the shops up there. Actually, I think we did put up a “Defend J20” sticker on the business district sign.”
Exhibit B: A fake Antifa Facebook page with over-the-top posts
Jack notes that it looks similar to the Colorado Springs Anti-Fascists’ Facebook page, but with some slight differences: the “Colorado Springs Antifa” page was started on Aug. 20; it’s not linked to events the real page hosts; and it’s chock full of ironic, inflammatory rhetoric. “Capitalist, racist pigs need to be slaughtered!” one post declares.
This is not nearly the first fake of its type. Allegedly fake “Antifa” accounts have sprouted up in most major cities, including Phoenix, where “Antifascist Action Phoenix” posted a meme of a battered woman’s face — an image taken from an anti-domestic violence campaign — with the text, “53% of white women voted for Trump; 53% of white women should look like this.” The meme went viral, raking in the outraged comments.
Eliot Higgins, a contributor to bellingcat.com, a website specializing in social media investigations, found evidence that the family of memes apparently calling for violence against women who voted for Trump originated and were disseminated on the forum 4chan (a known bastion for the most extreme racists, anti-Semites and misogynists on the internet).
Many of the accounts tweeting out these images were created just days prior, Higgins found.
For what it’s worth, since the racially charged violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a transatlantic initiative that researches efforts to undermine democratic governments housed in the diplomatic think tank, the German Marshall Fund, found a spike in anti-Antifa propaganda pushed by Twitter accounts known to participate in pro-Russia disinformation campaigns and the automated bots that parrot their messaging. Hashtags like #AltLeft, #Antifa and #MAGA were among the most popular tagged by these accounts, as was the link to the online petition calling for Antifa to be labeled a “terrorist organization.”
Exhibit C: A letter calling for UCCS to bar veterans from campus
The letter posted to a bulletin board at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs’s student center last week created a controversy, though it may have been a parody. Likening the military to a white supremacist organization, the letter argues veterans “frighten” other students by “openly [mocking] the ideas of diversity and safe spaces for vulnerable members of society.” In particular, the letter says “LGBTQQI2SAA” students are “known to be the butt of insensitive jokes by veterans” on campus.
UCCS Chancellor Venkat Reddy issued a serious response, on the one hand defending the poster’s right to their opinion, but on the other condemning the content as out-of-line with the university’s values. (The Student Veteran Organization is also hosting a panel discussion at 12:30 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 30 at the University Center.)
By phone, UCCS spokesperson Tom Hutton confirmed that the letter’s author, “Terry Steinawitz,” a decidedly Jewish-sounding name, is absent from the university’s records of current and former students, faculty or staff. The group that “Steinawitz” allegedly writes for, the Social Justice Collective Weekly, is not recognized on campus. “As a university we’re taking this very seriously,” Hutton emphasized, but “there’s a chance it’s satire meant to slander several groups.”
Nonetheless, several news outlets reported on the letter straightforwardly, provoking heated debate — likely the intent of such a stunt.