Violent memes and messages surging on far-left social media, a new report finds
The report acknowledges that left-wing political actors, including those who embrace the antifa movement, have been responsible for far less violence than white supremacists and other right-wing ones — a finding consistent with the conclusions of law enforcement and other threat analysts.
But the researchers found the growing use of memes a worrying sign and argue that the spread of dehumanizing rhetoric on the left could set the stage for more serious incidents by what the report called “network-enabled mobs.”
It drew particular attention to the growing use of slogans — many of them profane — such as “ACAB” for “All Cops Are Bastards,” that have spread extensively in online conversations while also increasingly appearing in graffiti on government buildings and statues that have been toppled by protesters.
Some memes that spread on social media depict police officers being shot or their vehicles burned. One post from a left-wing group cited by the report called for the use of laser pointers to obstruct surveillance and the lighting of fires at police barricades. Another post urged people to use 3-D printers to make guns that can’t be traced by authorities.
Comments using anti-police slogans surged nearly 300 percent on Reddit and more than 1,000 percent on Twitter during the unrest triggered by the killing of George Floyd in May, according to the report. It also described the growth of left-wing networks on Facebook, with such groups as Redneck Revolt and the Socialist Rifle Association boasting about 50,000 and 40,000 members, respectively — numbers that still pale in comparison to right-wing communities online.
“We don’t know enough about it to know just how dangerous it is, and we don’t know enough to know how dangerous it can become,” said Joel Finkelstein, a co-author of the report and executive director of the Network Contagion Research Institute, based in New Jersey. Its funders include George Soros’s Open Society Foundations as well as the Charles Koch Foundation.
The report comes at a politically sensitive time, amid an effort by President Trump and Attorney General William P. Barr to blame recent violence in many cities on left-wing “agitators” and conflating peaceful protests with riots — even as evidence has shown that the demonstrations have been mostly peaceful. Last week, a senior Department of Homeland Security official alleged in a whistleblower complaint that the department’s leadership had pressured him to modify language in intelligence reports to “ensure they matched up with the public comments by Trump on the subject of ANTIFA and ‘anarchist’ groups,” a claim a department spokesman denied.
The effort to assign blame for extremist tactics, in the run-up to a bitter presidential contest, is unfolding against the backdrop not just of intensifying polarization but of overlapping health, economic and environmental crises that have magnified tensions and sharpened the debate about what kind of response is appropriate and what is not.
“Most of the violence lately is right-wing extremism, but that doesn’t mean that groups on the left aren’t using social media,” said Heidi Beirich, co-founder of the Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, which studies and seeks to combat far-right movements. “Everybody’s using social media in this way. … Why wouldn’t that exist on the fringes of the left?”
Rita Katz, director of the SITE Intelligence Group, said there are stark differences in the types of direct action promoted online by left- and right-wing extremists.
“It is overwhelmingly the far right — not the far left — that makes direct incitements for terrorist attacks and celebrates mass shooters as heroes to the movement,” she said. “Far-left activity usually doesn’t extend beyond destruction of property — that being arson against police vehicles, sabotaging infrastructure and similar activities.”
After reading the full report, Katz argued that its conclusions remained unsubstantiated by the evidence presented. She objected in particular to the comparison between left-wing extremists and Islamic State militants. She also said the report overstated the level of left-wing coordination and that calls for riots, looting and acts of property damage were “not as systematic as this report suggests.”
The researchers at the NCRI specialize in collecting and analyzing massive troves of social media posts. Co-authoring the report were also academic specialists in psychology at Rutgers University, New York University and the University of Chicago, as well as John Farmer, a former Republican attorney general of New Jersey and senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission; and John K. Donohue, a retired chief of strategic initiatives for the New York Police Department.
Rep. Max Rose (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Homeland Security subcommittee on intelligence and counterterrorism, praised the report for identifying efforts aimed at “targeting our police and looking to cause significant property damage.”
“We must stay vigilant in rooting out violent groups across the ideological spectrum that are organizing, recruiting and radicalizing in efforts to upend society and threaten human lives,” he added.
Rep. Denver Riggleman (R-Va.), a former intelligence officer who has reviewed the NCRI’s findings, said he hopes to initiate a congressional inquiry into how social media contributes to violence on both ends of the political spectrum, an effort that could heighten scrutiny of Silicon Valley and its tolerance of online hate speech and other incendiary content.
“Social media has exacerbated this,” Riggleman said. “This is really frightening, and it allows for mass organization that we’ve never seen before.”
Finkelstein and the other researchers examined unrest that unfolded in a handful of cities on July 25 to assess how social media might have helped fuel the simultaneous conflict. They found that avowedly anarchist groups posted about the planned protests, organized in solidarity with ongoing demonstrations in Portland, Ore., using such hashtags as #J25, short for July 25. A frequency analysis performed by the researchers found the hashtag in only a small number of tweets, but several of the posts proved influential and had hundreds or thousands of likes, retweets and comments.
Some of the left-wing youth collectives that sought to build support for the actions enlisted some of the profane slogans, such as “ACAB,” in their posts on social media. The same groups also helped map out routes and provided real-time alerts about police activity.
In Eugene, Ore., one of the cities where violence erupted, protesters threw rocks at officers, according to law enforcement, while others smashed store windows.
But police said they had no evidence that the unrest grew out of online planning.
“We monitor as much open-source information as is possible, but there was nothing to indicate any criminal coordination prior to the riotous actions on July 25,” said Melinda McLaughlin, a spokeswoman for the police department.
In Portland, police spokesman Sgt. Kevin Allen said: “Political and activist groups use social media extensively to communicate and coordinate. It’s not unusual for us to learn about coming events through those postings. This is not exclusive to left-wing groups. Social media is used for coordination for groups of all political perspectives."
In addition to online posts focusing on specific protest activity, the researchers also drew attention to large forums devoted to left-wing self-defense and other more militant approaches to the country’s escalating social disorder. Among these are the message boards associated with the Socialist Rifle Association, which is organized as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit. Its communications director, Lucas Hubbard, said the group is devoted to “self-defense and community defense,” which includes lawfully owning firearms but also mutual aid and other citizen-to-citizen support systems.
Hubbard said the organization is not on offense, noting, “We don’t even allow our members to protest armed in our name.” Of efforts to resist the “police state” sometimes invoked by socialist activists, he said, “Self-defense against the police is a death sentence, so I try not to think about it.”
The group has about 40,000 followers on Facebook, and its thread on Reddit has about 60,000 — numbers that have exploded in the past six months, according to the report. The Reddit thread has hosted instructions on how to fabricate firearms, paired with images of rifles and the words “seize the means of production.”
Hubbard said left-wing activists — who have been targeted repeatedly, including by the president — are preparing themselves lest they become “victims of terrorism.”
While he renounced violence, he echoed right-wing actors in predicting it: “When the election happens, there’s going to be a surge of violence no matter who wins,” Hubbard said.
Reddit spokeswoman Anna Soellner, who reviewed an advance copy of the report, said in a statement: “Reddit’s site-wide policies prohibit content that promotes hate, or encourages, glorifies, incites, or calls for violence against groups of people or individuals. In accordance with this, we have been proactively banning extremist groups devoted to violence across the political spectrum.”
Twitter spokesman Trenton Kennedy said, “We welcome the chance to collaborate with external stakeholders on identifying and taking action on attempts to manipulate the conversation on Twitter.”
Facebook spokeswoman Sarah Pollack said, "We’ve taken action against a number of the entities identified in this report through updated policies we announced this summer. We continuously study new trends in terminology, symbols, and memes for connections to offline violence and review organizations to determine whether they should be banned from our platform.”
Although violent rhetoric and imagery flourish on both extremes of the political spectrum, an asymmetry exists between the way elected leaders and other public officials have oriented themselves toward this material on the left and the right. Liberal members of Congress have won praise from activists, and received criticism from others, for endorsing calls to defund police departments. But none have been tied to the type of imagery that promotes violence against officers or the violent destruction of their equipment.
Meanwhile, Marjorie Taylor Greene, who is poised to enter Congress after winning her Republican primary in a deep-red district in Georgia, ran an ad this year that showed her racking the slide of a semiautomatic rifle while warning antifa to “stay the hell out of northwest Georgia.” This month, Greene, an adherent of the QAnon conspiracy theory whom Trump has labeled a “future Republican star,” posted an edited image of herself holding a rifle next to Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and two other congresswomen of color. She vowed to “go on the offense.”
Gregory Scruggs contributed to this report.