In the days leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election, the disinformation that has been a hallmark of the Trump campaign, then administration, then campaign again reached new heights with political smears, Soviet-style weaponized conspiracy theories, and their inevitable fruits borne out as stochastic acts of terror, often — but not always — targeting specific politicians or protesters.
Agitprop is propaganda meant to inflame or agitate the public at large, hence the portmanteau. It has been a characteristic of the disinformation that has swept social media platforms, but is reaching new levels (including overt calls for violence) in the final days before the November 3 2020 election.
As the corrosive claims propaganda purveyors and well-known sites make continue to be faithfully debunked by increasingly exhausted and slimed fact-checkers, debunkers, and other journalists, a new disinformation narrative has emerged. This is characterized by the discussion of a new civil war not just as a possibility but an inevitability, ascribed to a shadowy and nebulous “global Left” or the pejorative “Democrat Party.” They appear on Facebook and Instagram, WhatsApp and Twitter, Telegram, Gab, MeWe, and other, more esoteric social media sites.
Many are in the forms of commentary, but others are calls to action.
Some are nebulous, without specific individual or geographic targets as they use their propaganda to prey on fear or faith or both:
Others are targeting specific regions that have seen major unrest or disturbances, or swing states whose governors have policies perceived as counter to the Trump administration’s:
There are also warnings of an event set to take place on election night in Washington, DC. Typically, these rumors come in the form of either mischaracterizing planned peaceful protests, or simply making up events to justify calls to action to “defend” the area from a “leftist uprising” or “antifa thugs.” The rumors seem to have emerged out of reports of a planned peaceful protest that have been spun up into rumors of plans to “shut down the country,” as disinformation-heavy far-right site The Federalist put it:
The text of the article (as well as the headline once you click the story) does not match this inflammatory claim, meaning that The Federalist and other sites like it are banking on people sharing it based on the headline:
Riot and protest instigators plan to “make sure Trump leaves the White House” by any means necessary after the Nov. 3 election, according to website posts from the group Shut Down DC and their allies. “We’re making plans to be in the streets before the polls even close, ready to adapt and respond to whatever comes our way,” the group says on its website currently.
“Trump has shown that he will stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power. Trump will not leave office without mass mobilization and direct action,” an Oct. 13 version of the same web page reads, according to Internet Archive records.
The group linked to protests at the homes of Trump administration officials tells its DC-area supporters to “Come to Black Lives Matter Plaza” on election night “to create serious disruption if Trump really tries to steal the election!” Black Lives Matter Plaza is the site of repeated anti-Trump summer rioting and defacement of the historic Saint John’s Church one block away from the White House.
None of these statements — from claims about the governors to rumors of a left-wing uprising — have much basis in objective reality, but as an October 2020 report on militia activities in the United States from MilitiaWatch and the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project explains, reality is not the point:
….[L]ocations that have seen substantial engagement in anti-coronavirus lockdown protests are at heightened risk. This stems from the direct link between state authority and the imposition of such restrictions, which challenges the ideals of many of the groups introduced above. These protests also serve as crucial network-building events for right-wing activists to re-activate for other protests and counter-demonstrations.
Also at risk are places where militias might have perceptions of ‘leftist coup’ activities. While ‘leftist coup’ activities are poorly defined among armed movements, they can be understood as fear of organized left-wing activism against right-wing activity. Protests organized by and around BLM, or places where anti-BLM activists may fear Antifa activity, are also at a heightened risk of militia activity. Leaders of militias often refer to BLM activists as “Marxists” (The Atlantic, November 2020). It is important to note that the ‘leftist coup’ phenomenon is not founded in any real detectable dynamics, and appears to rather be related more to endemic paranoia among many of the armed militias of the US.
The report also identifies what its data shows to be the regions in the United States most at risk of election violence and chaos:
State capitals and ‘periphery’ towns also remain important potential inflection points for violence, as they provide a natural coalescence point, especially in more rural and suburban areas that have been particularly conducive to the foundation and regular activities of militia groups. Medium-population cities and suburban areas with centralized zones — such as parks, main streets, and plazas — also serve as locations of major gravitational pull. These locations are potentially fertile grounds for violence from the groups identified in this report. This is especially true in contexts where groups are able to draw from a large population outside of the primary location, and in places that can be easily accessed from these hinterland and suburban regions.
Barriers to militia activity, meanwhile, can include locations with an overwhelming left-leaning population and/or large populations unsupportive of militias. Within these parameters, a location like Albany, New York would be more likely to see violence related to the right-wing armed movements we have identified, while New York City would remain less likely.
Taking these drivers and barriers into account, capitals and peripheral towns, as well as medium-population cities and suburban areas with centralized zones, in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Oregon are deemed to be at highest risk of increased militia activity in the election and post-election period. Meanwhile, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, California, and New Mexico are found to be at moderate risk.
This agitprop and corrosive rhetoric is also being laundered and herded further into the national discourse from the fringe by the usual mechanisms of mainstream-adjacent media members who support the far right and its activities. In the past seven days, for example, propagandists, grifters, and other trolls have reached a new level of keening about a second civil war or coup d’etat:
But the concept of what war, internecine or otherwise, actually looks like has changed and hybridized in the last few years. Thanks to active measures, it is now horizontal, targeting civilians rather than soldiers and individual minds and hearts rather than groups of people; propaganda and hacking have taken the place of bombs for the most part, and hybrid warfare turns on terror against soft targets rather than battles between trained armies.
A theory known as the “Three Block War,” first predicted by United States Marine Corps Gen. Charles C. Krulak in the 1990s, explains some of these changes:
The rapid diffusion of technology, the growth of a multitude of transnational factors, and the consequences of increasing globalization and economic interdependence, have coalesced to create national security challenges remarkable for their complexity. By 2020, eighty-five percent of the world’s inhabitants will be crowded into coastal cities — cities generally lacking the infrastructure required to support their burgeoning populations. Under these conditions, long simmering ethnic, nationalist, and economic tensions will explode and increase the potential of crises requiring U.S. intervention. Compounding the challenges posed by this growing global instability will be the emergence of an increasingly complex and lethal battlefield. The widespread availability of sophisticated weapons and equipment will “level the playing field” and negate our traditional technological superiority. The lines separating the levels of war, and distinguishing combatant from “non-combatant,” will blur, and adversaries, confounded by our “conventional” superiority, will resort to asymmetrical means to redress the imbalance. Further complicating the situation will be the ubiquitous media whose presence will mean that all future conflicts will be acted out before an international audience.
Kulak’s predictions did not take social media and livestreaming into account as a possibility, which has offered the opportunity for still more coverage from areas of unrest and acts of extreme violence — which in turn naturally play into further fearmongering and disinformation, which can now appear in real time and at a global scale, thanks to social media algorithms and the work of bots, trolls, and overenthusiastic useful idiots.
In 2005, two senior U.S. military officials, retired Marine Lt. Col. Frank Hoffman and then-Lt. Gen. James Mattis (who went on to serve as U.S. Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration before resigning in protest of its policies in December 2018) accurately predicted the toxicity of social media and its role in such influence campaigns, updating this theory to what they called a Four Block War, acknowledging the heavy disinformation and agitprop component in such skirmishes and advising ways to counter it through information operations:
[The Three Block War] is a pretty simple construct. You are fighting like the dickens on one block, you’re handing our humanitarian supplies in the next block, and the next one over you’re trying to keep warring factions apart. This environment should sound pretty familiar to anyone watching CNN these days. It is not an environment for specialists, who may find themselves in the middle of a firefight that they were not prepared for.
The Four Block War adds a new but very relevant dimension to situations like the counterinsurgency in Iraq. Insurgencies are wars of ideas, and our ideas need to compete with those of the enemy. Our actions in the three other blocks are important to building up our credibility and establishing relationships with the population and their leadership. Thus, there is an information operations aspect within each block. In each of the traditional three blocks our Marines are both “sensors” that collect intelligence, as well as “transmitters.” Everything they do or fail to do sends a message. They need to be trained for that, and informed by commander’s intent.
The information ops component is how we extend our reach and how we can influence populations to reject the misshaped ideology and hatred they are offered by the insurgents. Successful information ops help the civilian population understand and accept the better future we seek to help build with them.
Seen through that lens, the tensions and violence between protesters, white supremacists and their supporters, and local and federal law enforcement that has been ongoing for months in Portland, Oregon takes on a new dimension, because by this metric, that war is already here as its combatants battle for control of a major port city in the western United States — complete with exhaustive traditional and social media coverage:
A group of Feds rush after someone to arrest them, for almost two blocks. The Federal Agents get outrun. #PortlandProtests #portland #AbolishICE #ICE #BlackLivesMatter #antifa pic.twitter.com/jHrPH9xr2F
— Garrison Davis (@hungrybowtie) October 29, 2020
As Portland-area far-right researcher and journalist Robert Evans points out, the unrest there is a reliable bellwether for what can be expected throughout the country on election day and beyond if the American public does not take a stand against it, meaning much of the country might soon expect small but fierce battle zones, all with that same violence relayed to the rest of the world in real time:
If November 4 brings mass protests across the country, staying home won’t necessarily protect you. A single can of tear gas can spread a full quarter mile. Portlanders are regularly tear-gassed by police in their own homes. One man who fled his home to escape a choking cloud of gas was beaten so badly by a Portland police officer that he received a concussion. One of the most haunting recordings of the entire year is this mother begging to the police, “Our babies sleep here, they don’t have masks.”
Given the instability of the American political situation (largely due to weaponized disinformation and rhetoric and the politicians who encourage it to further their own aims), large-scale stochastic violence, a full-blown civil war, or even a number of Portland, Oregon scenarios should be anticipated — but they are not assured outcomes. Awareness that such rhetoric and mobilization has been taking place is key in keeping the situation on the ground from devolving into further violence.
As we have written about extensively in the past, we maintain that curbing the flow of disinformation into the public discourse from all fronts, whether through academia, journalism, activism, or simply moderating misleading and corrosive content, remains the most reliable and nonviolent way of countering such activities. The good news is that in this brave new world of social media and internet organization, anyone who wishes can participate to counter agitprop and lies. The bad news is that in this brave new world of social media and internet organization, without sustained public efforts to fight propaganda and disinformation, no one will be untouched by its corrosive effects for the foreseeable future.