Antifa, QAnon, and News from Another Perspective

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Reading that he is a professor of journalism at the University of Memphis made me instantly skeptical of an essay by Joseph Hayden appearing in today’s Newport Daily News.  Just a few days ago, I observed on Twitter that the people most vehemently demanding that we believe anonymous sources about something that President Trump said two years ago were journalists, former journalists, and journalism professors.

But Hayden’s essay denying that a group called “Antifa”actually exists is worth a read, nonetheless, because anybody who can muster even a semblance of objectivity is bound to notice more evidence of our mirror-image reality:

Antifa, as a code word used to rile up fear and paranoia, has been lobbed especially at Black Lives Matter activists. Trump and Attorney General William Barr have repeatedly said that demonstrators leading the protests for racial justice are antifa, even though independent analyses of federal arrests of protesters by National Public Radio and The New York Times don’t actually show anyone with these connections. …

Indeed, Fox News might as well change its name to the Antifa Network, because over the past few years, according to a Lexis-Nexis search conducted in early August, it’s broadcast the word 520 times, versus just 24 for CBS, 37 for ABC and 66 for MSNBC. In one July 2019 episode of Laura Ingraham’s program alone, she or her guests said the word 59 times.

At least in broadcast, CBS and ABC produce shows, but aren’t 24-hour news networks, so one would have to break the numbers down by, say, number of Antifa mentions per hour on air.  The importance of such adjustments is made obvious by the fact that it took just one on-air Fox personality to have a show about Antifa to rack up 59 mentions.  As for MSNBC, that’s a far-left network, so the disparity with Fox could be more an observation about bias than evidence that the topic isn’t worth discussing.

But it’s Hayden’s suggestion that Antifa is a bogeyman “used to rile up fear and paranoia” that caught my attention, because that’s exactly the impression I’ve been getting about QAnon.  As I pointed out a couple weeks ago, the Providence Journal went out of its way to shoehorn QAnon into an article about the Trump boat parade in Rhode Island.

New York Times explainer by Kevin Roose pretty much creates a conspiracy about the existence of a conspiracy group:

QAnon was once a fringe phenomenon — the kind most people could safely ignore. But in recent months, it’s gone mainstream. Twitter, Facebook and other social networks have been flooded with QAnon-related false information about Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter protests and the 2020 election. QAnon supporters have also been trying to attach themselves to other activist causes, such as the anti-vaccine and anti-child-trafficking movements, in an effort to expand their ranks.

We’ve seen this play out before, with suggestions about the “Alt-Right.”  As the new term spread, people understood it to mean different things — some of them us taking it to be “non-Stockholm-syndrome conservative” — until the mainstream media happened upon it as a way to connect mild-mannered conservative pundits with the worst racists they could find, using the fear-riling “code word” to connect them.

Just so, Roose defines “QAnon” as “the umbrella term for a sprawling set of internet conspiracy theories,” which is exactly how the Providence Journal’s Laura Damon manages to bring them up in her article, saying that a couple of somewhat ambiguous statements she heard during the RI Trump event “are tied to QAnon.”

That’s a very convenient tool for creating accusations and tarring disfavored people with them.

Personally, even as somebody who pays more attention than the average, particularly to conservative media, I had to research what QAnon is supposed to be after hearing about it from mainstream journalists.  As far as I can tell, to the extent it’s actually anything other than progressive wish fulfillment or a few independent online writers, it could be a spontaneous meme-and-Internet joke that most people are in on, with some taking it too seriously as truth and some taking it too seriously as a threat.

Observing the partisan parallels between Antifa and QAnon, however, isn’t the end of the inquiry.  Even if they are precisely mirror images in their public handling on each side of the aisle, we have to ask what the reality is.  If QAnon is an MSM myth, that doesn’t automatically mean Antifa is a Trumpkin myth, or vice versa.  One of them could even been a construct deliberately designed to throw the public off the scent of the other.

How can we possibly figure this stuff out in a polarized environment with no recognized objective authorities?  It’s nearly an epistemological paradox.  Of course, one could always review the work of conservative journalists like James O’Keefe, but that brings us back to distrust of disagreeing sources.  Or one could observe that there are social media accounts under the Antifa brand explicitly soliciting action even here in Rhode Island.

One place to start is with Joseph Hayden’s insinuation that Antifa could actually be a “false flag operation” by “white nationalists.”  Imagine the world as Hayden presents it:  Organized racist groups are orchestrating a secret campaign to make it appear as if left-wing riots are actually being conducted by their non-existent radical counterparts.  Even if you believe that to be plausible in the abstract, can we believe that such a broad network would exist without generating overt and open support from some prominent politicians?

Meanwhile, Portland rioters (among whom was the guy who murdered a Trump supporter and asserted that he is “100% Antifa”) write phone numbers of sources of bail money on their arms, and celebrities proudly donate money toward the cause of protester bail nationwide.  That isn’t to say that the celebrities are knowingly part of an Antifa organization, but it does illustrate a level of tolerance and general support of activities overlapping with Antifa that simply doesn’t exist for “white nationalists.”

That an organization like Antifa could exist to take advantage of that tolerance and general support makes sense.  Meanwhile, to imagine a broad conspiracy of actual white supremacists requires one also to imagine secret support among a broad swath of the public.

Of course, many academics, activists, and journalists do believe that this global cult of whiteness exists, and those true-believing leftists make good livings coming up with ways to explain to the world why their faith should spread.  But that is why more and more of us are skeptical of their op-eds when they self-identify.