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Butterfly Attack: Fake Antifa Social Media Accounts of 2017

Butterfly Attack: The Origins of Fake Antifa Social Media Accounts

By
Erin Gallagher

Overview

Throughout 2017, pranksters and extremists utilized parody accounts to discredit the antifascist movement in the US, taking advantage of available and official-sounding Twitter handles and public confusion about antifascists to spread narratives about antifa violence and drive wedges between antifascists, Black Lives Matter activists, and liberals. These butterfly attacks used keyword squatting to capture attention during breaking news events, and tactically adjusted over the course of the year. This case study outlines the origin of butterfly attacks that continue to the present day, with news events like #AntifaFires being a prime recent example of a disinformation campaign made possible by the media manipulation campaign outlined here. 

STAGE 1: Manipulation Campaign Planning and Origins

On February 21, 2017 a Facebook page called “God Emperor Trump” swarmed a Facebook page run by genuine antifa activists called “Boston Antifa.” This mass reporting campaign resulted in Facebook suspending the antifa page. The same day, dual imposter Boston Antifa Facebook pages sprang up, created by different groups of right-wing trolls: one that posted pro-Trump memes that got little attention, and another by two alt-right trolls from Eugene, Oregon whose postings mimicked and parodied antifacist media. That parody page looked convincingly real — real enough to dupe some users on 4chan.1

In the next week, posters on 4chan’s /pol/ board launched a two pronged attack on antifa: they called on people to troll the Boston Antifa Facebook page (that they didn’t realize was fake),2 and to submit fake blogs to the legitimately anarchist and antifascist It’s Going Down website, using its submission form.3 

On March 3, a poster in /pol/ pointed out that the parody Boston Antifa Facebook page was actually created by Trump supporters to troll the left, and asked users to stop attacking it.4  

This revelation led to a tactical readjustment. Inspired by the fake Boston Antifa page, /pol/ users began emulating it, making more parody antifa accounts — on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube — to dupe the left, while at times also tricking people in the very forums where the campaign was being planned.5 This quick growth of activity escalated, turning isolated acts of trolling into the beginnings of an ongoing meme war.

One March 6 comment on /pol/, for example, read: “Create a bunch of fake twitters that are so divisive to either draw antifa away from each other, or just frighten normies.”6 At least 26 fake antifa parody Twitter accounts were created that month, including the viral Beverly Hills Antifa, and popular Mar-A-Lago Antifa. On March 25, a Facebook post from the fake Boston Antifa page created by the Eugene trolls was shared to a /pol/ thread,7 goading users to make more fake antifa accounts. A cluster of comments on /pol/ followed, suggesting users make fake antifa accounts: "time to ramp up impersonating Antifa,"8 “Start making fake Antifa chapters,”9 “There should be fake Antifa pages made daily,”10 “Make fake Antifa Chapters on Facebook.”11 A /pol/ comment on March 28 even suggested, "we should organize a Conservative vs Antifa brawl" and make a fake Antifa “call to action” poster to go to a field with weapons.12

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These are screenshots of fake antifa social media posts. Credit: Erin Gallagher.

STAGE 2: Seeding Campaign Across Social Platforms and Web

By the end of March, public figures like James Woods1 and Dinesh D’Souza2 recognized the joke and boosted fake antifa tweets. On March 31, conservative Twitter aggregator website Twitchy posted a blog titled “These parody antifa Twitter accounts mocking anti-Trump protesters are the FUNNIEST things going right now” and embedded tweets from several of the early parody accounts.3 

New fake antifa accounts were created steadily throughout April and May. When news coverage about “Antifa” spiked in August of 2017 because of reporting about the Unite the Right rally, a second wave of accounts were created. 

The two Eugene trolls behind the fake Boston Antifa Facebook page made Boston Antifa accounts across multiple platforms, including Twitter, Instagram, Gab, YouTube, Minds, MySpace, and BitChute.4 They have since set up Discord Servers, a Patreon account for donations,5 and a Telegram Channel.6

All total, we have found evidence of 66 fake Facebook antifa pages created between 2017 to 2020 (21 are still online as of October 2020), 486 Twitter accounts (218 remain online as of October 2020), 12 Gab accounts (most of which are dormant, privated, or deactivated as of October 2020), eight YouTube channels (dormant as of October 2020, at least three Instagram accounts and at least five accounts on Minds (deleted or dormant as of October 2020).

The accounts regularly followed, interacted with, and amplified each other.7 They tweeted profusely throughout alt-right protests and breaking news events, utilizing hashtags to insert their commentary into trends and mention alt-right and far-right accounts in their tweets.8 They often tweeted exaggerated threats of violence during breaking news, such as when @ScarsdaleAntifa tweeted,Ending White Privilege starts with ending White People #resist #berkeley” during Berkeley protests in April 2017,9 or when @LagBeachAntifa tweeted, “We will burn the city down if that's what it takes to run the Nazis out of #Charlottesville #UniteTheRight” during the Unite the Right rally in August 2017. 

Many of their tweets went viral. For example @BevHillsAntifa tweeted a video on June 10, 2017 with the text “White Antifa Tranny Punches Black Man & Then Loses Fight. ✊”10 When the now deleted tweet was archived on July 4, 2017 it had 2.6K replies, 5.8K retweets and 11K likes. 

A March 30 troll tweet from LagBeachAntifa11 got hundreds of likes and RTs and was shared in the Anticom planning discord server for Unite The Right.12 On April 5, lawyer Ron Coleman tweeted a screenshot of the account with the text, “@LagBeachAntifa The #resistance is growing!”13 On April 7, Proud Boys founder14 Gavin McInnes hosted the Eugene Trolls from the fake Boston Antifa on Rebel Media and The Gavin McInnes Show.15

Timeline of 2017 fake antifa asset creation.

Timeline of 2017 fake antifa asset creation. Credit: Erin Gallagher.

STAGE 3: Responses by Industry, Activists, Politicians, and Journalists

Many of these fake antifa accounts created media spectacles and baited journalists into covering them.  

A Facebook post from May 18 by a fake “Harrisburg Antifa” page spiraled into a real-world event in July.1 Using a screenshot of that fake post, a blog called Harrisburg100 published a story on June 14 claiming antifa was headed to Gettysburg National Battlefield on July 1 to burn confederate flags, desecrate graves, and bring guns.2 On June 18,  YouTube channel TheDelawarePatriot uploaded a video titled “Make a stand against Antifa,” which received over 5,000 views and linked to the Harrisburg100 blog.3 The Harrisburg100 blog was posted in /pol/ on June 21 along with an avatar of an antifascist logo and the phrase “Gettysburg is OURS July 1st!!”4 On June 22, Jack Posobiec tweeted,5 “Report that Antifa plans to attack Gettysburg on July 1.” June 23, right-wing group Overpasses for America6 published an article with the headline:  “ANTIFA TO BURN FLAGS & DESECRATE GRAVES AT GETTYSBURG BATTLE SITE PARK ON JULY 1ST.”7

Gateway Pundit,8 Breitbart News,9 and HeatSt reported the hoax as though it were real,10 and it was upvoted almost 4,000 times on the /r/The_Donald subreddit.11 A facebook event called Support America and Her History, Rally! If You Hate US, Leave!12 registered 168 people as attended and 336 interested.

On June 30, the BBC published a debunk and a real Central PA chapter of antifascists told multiple news outlets that the event was a hoax.13

Still, on July 1, several hundred people showed up to counter-protest the fake antifa event, including 3 percenters, Sons of Confederate Veterans,14 Billy Snuffer, who, per Huffington Post “identified himself as the Imperial Wizard for the Rebel Brigade of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan,”15 armed militia members, and bikers.16 Former Trump delegate and 2018 Senate candidate Andrew Shecktor gave a speech.17 Self-described “patriot” Benjamin Hornberger shot himself in the leg and had to be taken to a local hospital for treatment.18

Harrisburg100 published a write-up on July 4 with interviews from attendees of the counter-protest and on July 4 posted on Facebook that “AntiFA was stopped in Gettysburg. They can also be stopped in Portland.”19 This hoax inspired others in the following months.20

A breakout moment of fame for fake antifa accounts came later that month, in mid-July, when Fox News host Jesse Watters interviewed alt-right troll BG Kumbi, who claimed to be an antifa member, on air.21 Kumbi said an attack against a police horse in Philadelphia was justified because the horse was racist. The interview was promoted on Fox News Insider,22 The Blaze,23 Sarah Palin’s website,24 right wing message board Free Republic,25 white supremacist website Stormfront.26 D’Souza also tweeted it,27 and shared it on Facebook28 as did Diamond and Silk29 and Joe Arapaio,30 and Cassandra Fairbanks wrote about it on Big League Politics.31 It received 1.7 million views on Fox News’s verified Facebook page alone.32 

In a 2019 video, one of the Eugene, OR trolls took credit for conning the Fox producer into having BG Kumbi on the show.33  BG Kumbi republished the hoax interview on his own YouTube channel and was celebrated by many other content creators for his successful prank on Fox News.34

Throughout the summer, piggybacking off attention to various breaking news events, active crises, and the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottsville and murder of activist Heather Heyer, fake antifa accounts spread several different hoaxes,35 including a campaign to paint antifa as proponents of domestic violence.36 Some of these hoaxes duped media37 before being outed as fake.

On September 13 a banner was dropped at Fenway park that said “Racism is as American as baseball.”38 Fake Boston Antifa took credit on Twitter,39 and news outlets across the world and the political spectrum reported the parody account’s statement as fact, including Breitbart News,40 Reuters,41 The Los Angeles Times,42 Yahoo Sports,43 NBC Boston,44 News Hub (New Zealand),45 and WEEI sports,46 among many others. 

A few news organizations spoke with the actual activists who dropped the banner, but still embedded the Boston Antifa tweet, including boston.com and Mashable.47 NBC Sports initially reported Boston Antifa dropped the banner but later updated their article to correct that the account was a right wing troll.48

Now, the fake Boston Antifa account had momentum. On September 26 it tweeted about the NFL/Take a Knee protests and geotagged the tweet to Vladivostok, Russia.49 The text of the troll tweet read: “More gender inclusivity with NFL fans and gluten free options at stadiums. We're liking the New NFL. #NewNFL #TakeAKnee #TakeTheKnee."

The geotagged tweet set off a viral cascade of responses from liberal accounts, including several experts in Russian propaganda and verified journalists, who tweeted that the Russian troll farm forgot to turn off their location. 

BuzzFeed News debunked the “Russian troll tweet” on September 27,50 but by then it had been spread widely by people such as Business Insider editor Josh Barro (who later deleted his tweet), former FBI agent and author of “How to Catch a Russian Spy,” Naveed Jamali, who tweeted a screenshot of the tweet, (Jamali’s tweet is still online),51 New York Times reporter Shane Goldmacher (tweet now deleted), AP reporter Nick Riccardi, (tweet is still online),52 and journalist Dan Murphy (tweet is still online).53

In a Senate hearing on “Threats to the Homeland” that same day, September 27, that included the heads of the FBI,54 Department of Homeland Security, and the National Counterterrorism Center, Sen. James Lankford (R-OK) referenced the fake Boston Antifa tweet while talking about election security, as proof that “the Russians and their troll farms” were “hashtagging out ‘Take a knee’ and also hashtagging out ‘Boycott National Football League.’”55

The mainstream media reported on Senator Lankford’s testimony widely, including NBC News,56 Reuters,57 CBS,58 Fox News,59 The Hill,60 Fortune,61 Talking Points Memo,62 and Breitbart News.63 The Washington Post published an article titled “Russian trolls trying to sow discord in NFL kneeling debate.”64 On September 29, the troll tweet was featured on All In With Chris Hayes.65

On September 30, 2017, MassLive published an article titled “Did a U.S. Senator get trolled into blaming fake Boston Antifa account on Russia?”66

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Screenshots of fake antifa account. Credit: Erin Gallagher.

Screenshots of fake antifa social media posts. Credit: Erin Gallagher.

STAGE 4: Mitigation 

Left-wing activists began tracking and flagging the fake Antifa accounts almost immediately. 

A Twitter account called “AntifaChecker” was created on April 1, 2017 to track and denounce the fake Antifa accounts,1 and a Tumblr page was created with a submission form to submit tips on potential or suspected fake Antifa accounts.2 A block list was also created for Twitter users to block fake Antifa accounts (blocklist is now a 502 gateway error).3 An Antifa Checker Facebook page was created on September 29 to track fake Antifa Facebook pages.4 A Facebook post made by this page on August 28, 2018 listed 56 fake Antifa Facebook pages, many of which are still online at the time of writing.5

The website It’s Going Down, which was targeted by campaign operators at the very beginning, published two blogs denouncing the fake Antifa accounts, one on March 1,6 denouncing the fake accounts and a second blog on March 30,7 revealing the identities of the two Eugene trolls who were behind the original Boston Antifa troll accounts.8 Media also began reporting on the fake Antifa trend. BuzzFeed News published an article on May 30, titled “Fake Antifa Twitter Accounts Are Trolling People And Spreading Misinformation.”9 The writer of this case study exposed the network of fake antifa accounts in July.10

By late summer, a preponderance of high-profile critical press published debunkings,11 among them a New York Magazine guide on “How to Spot a Fake Antifa Account” from August 21,12 and an August 27 GQ  article headlined, “Right Wing Publications Can't Stop Getting Duped By Fake Antifa Accounts.”13

It’s hard to gauge how many fake antifa accounts were suspended in the first year. According to @AntifaChecker, the fake @detroit_antifa was the first account suspended in mid-August 2017, followed by @LagBeachAntifa.14 Twenty other fake antifa Twitter accounts were suspended between August and October 2017. It is unclear if these accounts were suspended for violating terms of service or if they were mass-reported and despite these suspensions many fake antifa accounts remained online and continued to be created.

STAGE 5: Adjustments by Manipulators to New Environment

The original Boston Antifa Twitter parody appeared to be suspended sometime around the end of September 2017,1 and many of the most popular ones from 2017 were also removed. As far as we can find, Twitter never made any public statements in 2017 about suspending the accounts.  

New parody accounts continue to be created across multiple platforms, primarily Facebook and Twitter. Often when one fake antifa account would get suspended, a new iteration of the same username would re-spawn shortly after.2 

The accounts that were created in 2017 spawned an ecosystem of fake antifa accounts and disinformation manipulation campaigns that successfully duped journalists throughout 2018, 2019, and continuing to the present day. The Eugene trolls who created Boston Antifa launched two websites: antifaarmy.com and twitterantifa.com, which now redirect to the new website npcdaily.com (archived 9/9/20).  A snapshot of antifaarmy.com via the Internet Archive shows this website previously listed links to many of the original fake Antifa twitter accounts, some of which are still online at the time of writing. The website previously advertised itself as “Fighting the #FakeAntifa smear campaign from #FakeTifs's like @GeoMovments and @AntifaChecker” (both of which were efforts by activists to track the fake Antifa accounts). Those campaigns will be outlined in future reports.

  • 1. Antifa Checker (@AntifaChecker), “Good Night, Sweet Prince @antifaboston,” Twitter, September 27, 2017, https://twitter.com/AntifaChecker/status/913152226176258049.
  • 2. For example I found traces of at least seven iterations of Beverly Hills Antifa: BevHillsAntifa, BevHillsAntifa2, BevHillsAntifa5, BevHillsAntifa7, BevHillsAntifa8 and BevHillsAntifa9, 6 iterations of Laguna Beach Antifa, 10 iterations of @AntifaJackson and 3 versions of Wall Street Antifa: walstreetAntifa, wallstretantifa and WallStreetAntfa. And they would sometimes joke when one account was suspended and respawned as captured in 3 tweets above.

Cite this case study

Erin Gallagher, "Butterfly Attack: The Origins of Fake Antifa Social Media Accounts," The Media Manipulation Case Book, October 22, 2020, https://mediamanipulation.org/case-studies/butterfly-attack-origins-fake-antifa-social-media-accounts.