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Wi Spa Weaponized Disinformation Campaign

In late June and early July 2021, far-right activists attempted to launch a new disinformation campaign in the wake of a viral video of a woman harassing staff at a traditional public bathhouse in the historic Los Angeles neighborhood of Koreatown.

The video, which was taken at Wi Spa in Los Angeles’ famous Koreatown neighborhood, showed a woman (identified only as “CubanaAngel“) haranguing the spa staff about transgender clientele and claiming without proof that she saw “a penis” (and later in the video, “a dick”) on the women’s side of the spa:

Despite the lack of any proof whatsoever that anything like this ever happened, the video went viral as far-right activists did their best to inauthentically push the story into the mainstream discourse with escalating claims about “men” (transgender women) trying to get into the woman’s side of a Korean jjimjilbang — a traditional public bathhouse, much like a Russian banya or a Turkish hammam — in the historic Los Angeles, California neighborhood of Koreatown.

The stunt took place against a backdrop of similarly inauthentically organized disinformation campaigns and events supporting far right causes all over the country, such as the “critical race theory” flap that is an attempt to get QAnon-type candidates into school boards and other positions of power all over the country and which is also — like every other such campaign — characterized by videos of emotional claims without any proof, quickly followed by astroturfed “protests.”

A few days after that, on July 3 2021, openly white supremacist and eugenicist “protesters,” who have been organizing via “White Boy Summer”-themed Facebook groups and other established disinformation networks, showed up to harass spa employees, where they were met by anti-fascist counter-protesters:

Visuals from the ensuing brawl, during which at least one right-wing protester stabbed another right-wing protester, was quickly turned into a secondary propaganda campaign by the usual discredited purveyors:

A subsequent press advisory makes it extremely clear that the goal was to whip up controversy around transgender women in order to challenge and re-write California laws to remove existing protections for transgender people:

Despite the bloodied protests, CubanaAngel calls on anyone outraged by the unjust laws passed in the state of California that fail to protect women and girls in public spaces to join her. Our goal is to repeal the laws and to vote against legislators who do not believe the rights of women and little girls should be protected.

“California’s Civil Code, Section 51, is an unjust law masquerading as an anti-discrimination law that disregards grandmothers, mothers, wives and little girls,” CubanaAngel said. “This is not right. We are sacrificing the safety of women and children and I am not afraid to speak.”

The name listed on that press release as “CubanaAngel’s” spokesman, one Marc T. Little of CURE America Action, is a familiar one to anybody covering propaganda networks during the Trump administration. Little is a clergyman, an entertainment lawyer, and a right-wing activist who goes by “The Prodigal Republican.” Little is also a known political gadfly who ran for mayor of Inglewood, receiving a mere 18 percent of the vote, in 2018.

It should come as no surprise that Little has also written extensively about “critical race theory” (and invokes the antisemitic “cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory, a favorite of the alt-right, to do so), although his interpretation of what critical race theory actually entails is naturally also riddled with disinformation:

Cultural Marxism became critical of Western thought (“critical theory”) in the 1920s and expanded thinking to race, class and gender. As repackaged liberation theology from the 1960s, CRT is simply the culturally acceptable Trojan Horse for Marxism that redefines the social construct of “racism.” It is only about power; the theory and movement have nothing to do with race. (Incidentally, that focus on power and not race can also be said of the Black Lives Matter Global Network Foundation.)

Attempting to confront power structures, CRT divides America into two categories: oppressor and the oppressed. This is known as “Intersectionality” and was introduced by Kimberly Crenshaw in 1989. The oppressor is defined as White, male, heterosexual, cis gendered, (naturally born male), able-bodied and native born. The oppressed are ranked by degrees of “oppression.” If you are Black, you are oppressed. If you are Black and gay, you are more oppressed. If you are Black, gay and female, you have an even greater degree of oppression.  And so on.

A quick look at his website, TheProdigalRepublican.com, makes his affiliations clear:

The Heritage Foundation, the Council for National Policy, and their assorted networks have already been identified as one of the main drivers of the artificially mobilized anti-CRT campaign intended to get far right candidates onto school boards (and into other positions of power) all over the country, using — as mentioned — exactly the same tactics on display here: Viral videos heavy on the emotions and harassment but light on the proof, followed by instant attention and coverage from the far right disinformation purveyor networks, all pivoting in unison to push a narrative toward a specifically stated goal, using messaging and algorithms to create the illusion of consensus or popularity for actions or ideas where none truly exist (and bolstered by relentless “both-sides” reporting by mainstream news agencies, which are apparently incapable of separating aggressors from defenders):

“We have successfully frozen their brand—’critical race theory’—into the public conversation and are steadily driving up negative perceptions. We will eventually turn it toxic, as we put all of the various cultural insanities under that brand category,” [Heritage Foundation-affiliated right-wing activist Christopher] Rufo wrote. “The goal is to have the public read something crazy in the newspaper and immediately think ‘critical race theory.’ We have decodified the term and will recodify it to annex the entire range of cultural constructions that are unpopular with Americans.”

Rufo said in an interview that he understands why his opponents often point to this tweet, but said that the approach described is “so obvious.”

If you want to see public policy outcomes you have to run a public persuasion campaign,” he said. Rufo says his own role has been to translate research into programs about race into the political arena.

“I basically took that body of criticism, I paired it with breaking news stories that were shocking and explicit and horrifying, and made it political,” he said. “Turned it into a salient political issue with a clear villain.”

As if that wasn’t enough, Heritage’s news and opinion blog, The Daily Signal, published a post by the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins (yet another far right disinformation purveyor) on July 7 2021, using the incident to attack the Biden administration and managing to work in a QAnon reference (“Save Our Children“) and managed to shoehorn in a “school boards” besides:

And yet, what started out as a peaceful protest over the store’s refusal to protect its customers turned ugly when counterprotesters, carrying rainbow flags and transgender signs, decided to get in the faces of concerned men and women. Suddenly, the chants of “save our children” were drowned out by a crazed mob that started setting fire to dumpsters and chasing opponents down the streets.

[…]

Unfortunately, Americans are living under an administration that agrees with him. And look at where that’s gotten us. Six months into Biden’s “unity” agenda, fights are breaking out from spas to school boards. If the president doesn’t step back and reconsider where his policies are taking this nation, these next three and a half years will test the endurance of the very fiber of our nation.

The people behind this escalating campaign, then, are known disinformation purveyors allied with open white supremacists who — as they have done for several years now — created optics-heavy, broadcast news-friendly chaos in order to push a specific agenda.

Despite this, the incident has been reported in local and national news storys as a furor over “a biological male” in the woman’s section of a Los Angeles-area Korean day spa, despite the fact that there is no evidence that “CubanaAngel” (who has still not been publicly identified, unlike the many innocent parties dragged into the national gaze and facing harassment and death threats over this stunt) ever saw what she claims, and plenty of evidence that this is nothing but an inauthentically organized, heavily astroturfed campaign aimed at overturning existing California law — with the help of the Heritage Foundation and all its associated networks.