all aboard the antifa bus
i'm at the weaponized right wing conspiracy theory, i'm at the viral urban myth, i'm at the combination weaponized right wing conspiracy theory viral urban myth
I was talking with someone about an older family member who's hesitant about the vaccine - not full anti-vaxxer or Bill-Gates-microchip, but reluctant, scared. I'm not sure what specific things they might believe to be true about taking it - that it will make them sick, that it contains 'chemicals,' or if this is just a variation on a fear of doctors or medical interventions exacerbated by a difficult time. "I just don't get that," the person said, "like I just can't understand it," where "it" here stood I suppose for the broad experience of having a firm unsubstantiated belief or stance that's counter to reality, in addition to the specific suspicion of vaccines. I agreed - I also don't get it! If anything, I find myself getting increasingly frustrated with misinformation or misplaced beliefs when it crops up in my own circles, even though I know it's easier than maybe ever to fall into it. But I would very much like to get it, and am hopeful that more context around this will help me a little with the grace required of all of us right now.
To that end, I was lucky to get to talk to Sarah Gordon, professor of folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland, to get some insight into urban legends and misinformation and how we come to believe things that aren't true (and convince others of them!). There are a full Baskin Robbins 32 flavors of misinformation out there right now. For today's purposes and Sarah's area of expertise, I'm less interested in full-on conspiracy theories (a belief specifically about a covert scheme by powerful figures or groups as an improbable explanation for current events) or even anti-vax beliefs (the belief that vaccines are unsafe, related to a subcategory of conspiracy theory that people are manipulated into taking vaccines for sinister purposes).
I mostly wanted to talk to her about the harder-to-pin-down phenomenon of misinformation that seems rampant right now, especially online: the widely shared and absolutely untrue current event story, the seemingly benign but completely unfounded warning you hear from your aunt in the family group chat. Examples abound: the recent fervor over supposed sex trafficking rings that will kidnap lone women walking to their cars in parking garages, a criminal scheme that makes no sense from the point of view of the traffickers and doesn't track with anything actually known about how that pattern of violence is enacted, yet persists ferociously. Another example, and a particular interest of mine for a few months now: the antifa bus story.
The basics: as protests and uprisings bloomed across the US, so did a rumor that "Antifa" was planning to send large groups of people to relatively small cities and towns in rural America for protests, coordinated attacks, or both. The stories first circulated in Facebook groups and message boards for right-wing militia members before proliferating into the general water supply of mainstream Facebook. I can't pin down a specific post that serves as an originating point, but this one reported by Anne Helen Petersen from a Montana Liberty Coalition group is typical:
“Heads up... Rumor has it that Antifa has scheduled a protest in Great Falls Friday evening at 5 p.m. in front of the Civic Center.” He asked the group if anyone had any more information, or if anyone was available to “protect businesses.” “It has been confirmed through the police department,” one commenter replied. “They have a permit for tomorrow night and are in town now.”
The police department had not confirmed; there was no permit; there was no antifa protest; there is no 'antifa' in the sense of a national organization in lockstep. Nonetheless, the rumor spread and developed startling levels of specificity and drama, frequently claiming that large numbers of antifa protesters were being bussed to specific small cities, like Bellingham, WA or Ada, OK, sometimes with specific targets of local businesses or landmarks to destroy. Although no antifa buses showed up at any of these locations, it didn't stop the rumor from being reiterated in a new town a day later and taken so seriously that grown people were out patrolling Wal-Mart parking lots with their guns. Although the origin point was militia Facebook, it reached people who weren't militia or even necessarily right-wing pretty quickly, and suddenly seeing aunts, high school acquaintances or grandparents sharing panicked warnings about antifa coming to their communities in Nebraska, Montana, or Nevada was common.
It's a political paranoia fantasy, for sure, but the bones of it are something more than that: a good old fashioned urban myth; modern folklore. As Sarah describes it, "An urban legend right now [is] a story that circulates orally and is believed to be true, [and] often spreads quite widely through the oral tradition ...in some cases, they may have some historical kernel of truth somewhere; often they don't, but they spread like wildfire." It has all the hallmarks of urban legend: what Sarah calls the "friend of a friend" or FOAF structure, where a vague but socially-vouched-for source is referenced for the information; a surprising degree of specificity and locality (Sarah notes that with the famous "escaped convict with a hook for a hand" urban legend, "everybody in the world… believed it to be a thing that had happened in their town, even though it was a thing that had never happened anywhere."), and even the invocation of police reports. "[One thing] that we tend to do when we tell those kinds of stories is to appeal to authority sources... like ‘I saw in the news,’ or ‘my friend who's a cop, or the mayor.’”
How did it get so out of control so quickly? There was a sort of discursive incendiary device in the form of doctored social media posts, certainly, and fake news was and is definitely a factor. But it didn't exactly create the panic so much as determine its form - I'm reminded of the scene from 2011's Cabin in the Woods, where our intrepid heroes gaze wonderingly at an array of creepy artifacts before finally touching the one that will spell their specific doom (I imagine Bradley Whitford in front of a whiteboard, circling the cell marked "bus full of disgruntled leftists bent on a Purge scenario). Sarah says that our propensity toward legends like these is heightened by social change, and the greater the tide of change in our culture, the more interest and engagement in the urban myths that let us talk about fear and feelings of imminent threat amongst ourselves. "These stories tend to emerge around these points in of social change, when the world is changing, in really big, scary ways... because it's scary, we share and we modify, we retell, these stories that feel like they contextualize the fear that we're feeling," Sarah says. Whether we feel positively or negatively about that prospective change doesn't actually have much bearing on how much urban myths appeal to us, which may explain why your centrist or liberal uncles and cousins seemed to so readily fall for a story that didn’t neatly align with their ostensible views. "Regardless of how people feel about that change, they're unsettled by it, right? Like, it's scary to be staring into a great unknown. Even if the change is happening is what do you feel good about is one that you think needs to happen, it's still scary."
With the backdrop of uprisings and violent police suppression of them (in the midst of a raging global pandemic), the stage was set for a lot of people to go all in on a new urban legend. They were set up nicely by the already-established conspiracy theory about George Soros “funding buses of paid protesters,” right-wing rhetoric reiterated loudly in public by the president that "antifa" is a cohesive domestic terrorist organization with the broad target of the American way of life, and later photoshopped social media posts that seemed to prove it. But Sarah says there's more to it than that — although objectively our collective critical lens is not at its most honed, there's a deeper cultural layer than just falling for dumb 4chan trolling.
"I would bet you money that stories about people getting bused in for the purpose of causing trouble are a lot older, and that they're probably quite similar," says Sarah. "I wouldn't be surprised [if] we could trace back to the late 1800s versions of those stories." Much like a very dumb version of the universal story of the flood, the antifa bus is the most recent avatar of an older story we've told each other and ourselves for generations about outsiders coming into town to threaten our way of life. Sarah's work has recently concentrated on the brief clown panic (remember that??) of 2016, which she says is a contemporary version of the story of a stranger waiting in the woods to threaten women and children. Although the window dressing on these narratives is politically charged (and has real world consequences, like the bus of tourists targeted by panicked townsfolk), its structure is older than our current political climate, and will outlast it, too. It's part of the social function of narrative; as Sarah says, "...we take these stories that are familiar, and adapt them to fit the concerns that we have at the time." Reporting from one of the ground zeros of the antifa bus panic seems to confirm this:
"A version of this fantasy has long existed, in some form, in militia circles: “An outside, shadowy entity is going to come in,” [Travis McAdam of the Montana Human Rights Network] recounted, “and whether it’s to disarm the community or attack it, these folks are going to mobilize and fight it off. Antifa is just the bogeyman that they’ve stuck in this narrative.”"
It's also key, especially for media obsessives and to some degree #resistance twitter, to try to think outside the box of "fake news" to make sense of these phenomena, even if it clearly plays a role. When you understand rumors like the antifa buses as urban myths rather than fake news, you can see them spreading through social media as spreading by word of mouth, the same way previous generations passed along urban legends over campfires or at sleepovers or on the phone late at night. The medium they work through isn't journalism, even bad journalism; it's social networks. "If we continue to insist on thinking of online communication as writing rather than talking... we're never going to be able to wrap our heads around fake news and conspiracy theories online... because they're always mediated through those [social] networks, they're embedded in relationships." Challenging the veracity of information is totally pointless when the person who believes one of these stories sees themselves as participating in a community experience; we're social creatures, and we'll privilege the connection we've formed with our neighbors and friends over the thing we believe is happening over somebody telling us that it doesn't make sense.
"Challenging information, when people's relationship with information is so tied up with their relationship with people, like is a complicated thing, because by challenging their relationship with information, you are challenging their relationship with the people that they care about," says Sarah. "Most of us, under the right circumstances, would be set off by that — [if you] come up to me and you start challenging my mom, I'm going to defend my mom, because she's my mom. Even if I might disagree with her, I'm going to defend her." The pattern of information spread through digital communities seems to support this idea:
"The bad information often first appears in a Twitter or Facebook post, or a YouTube video there. It is then shared on online spaces like local Facebook groups, the neighborhood social networking app Nextdoor and community texting networks. ...“The dynamic is tricky because many times these local groups don’t have much prior awareness of the body of conspiratorial content surrounding some of these topics,” said Renée DiResta, a disinformation researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory. “The first thing they see is a trusted fellow community member giving them a warning.”
Of course, the internet and its Pandora's box of parasocial relationships opens up the context of what a "relationship" is that might be challenged by sharing facts to a harrowing range; especially in the extreme isolation many Americans have been living in over the course of the pandemic, it's not hard to imagine how the stakes of even the "relationship" constituted by a Facebook friendship or a message board would feel incredibly high. Sarah notes that a lot of the volume of sharing of the incredibly incendiary and dangerous theories isn't even necessarily based in fervent belief of it, but out of a desire to deepen the relationships they represent from whatever group you're hearing it from: "It's not so much about the message is it is about amplifying the relationship that you have with that person, making them feel good about their relationship with you and making you feel good about your relationship with them."
So where does that leave us in terms of how we address problems like this in the future? Sarah says that given the relational aspect of the spread of this kind of paranoia, asking folks to start 'fact checking' is a meaningless policy, comparing it to D.A.R.E. programs to combat addiction. "I think we just need to recognize that expecting people to fat check their online communication is just it's an it's not going to work, right until unless we somehow manage on a global scale, to completely shift the paradigm of how internet communication works." Although she acknowledges the logistical and ethical challenges of it, she says deplatforming is what will actually work; "Once these these information networks become entrenched enough, people are going to go to the hills to defend the information that sustains those networks. And so the only way to stop that is, unfortunately, to go in and sever those ties."
Although it can feel hopeful that the emptiness of this threat, obvious in retrospect, would be corrective somehow, longtime regulars of this chapter of history will correctly guess that that won't be the case. Bloody Mary has never appeared in a darkened suburban bathroom; long live Bloody Mary. The new relationships that were formed and the existing ones strengthened feel enough like something happening; the experience of going through something together is still precious one for all of us. In researching, I watched a recorded livestream of the "Patriot's patrol" in Coeur d'Alene back in June, titled "Not in my backyard Antifa!" Although the pandemic was in full swing at that point, maskless "patriots" pack an outdoor shopping plaza, camping out at outdoor cafe tables with automatic weapons and pacing the sidewalks in tactical gear while nonplussed pedestrians pass by. The atmosphere seems jovial, celebratory; a couple smiles for the camera outside an oyster bar. Alongside the video is a chat stream now recorded for posterity; commenters ask "where are the funded bus drop off points?" and beg "PLEASE BE SAFE, VERY PROUD OF YOU." A commenter shares "This is so cool seeing the community coming together." Watching it alone in my apartment in subzero Minneapolis winter, it effectively calls up the ache to be out in the streets with groups of people on a warm summer night; they are, unfortunately, having fun.
Since this interview took place, Sarah has since published her most recent work on the clown panic in the Journal of American Folklore, Volume 134, Number 531, if that’s something you can access and would like to read more about! If you’re interested in reading more about social media as a medium for contemporary folklore, she recommends Trevor Blank and Andrew Peck’s Folklore and Social Media.