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Far-right networks on Twitter are trying to use a hoax spread by an American Conservative news and opinion website a few days ago to blame a mass shooting in El Paso on "antifa" — a loose collective of left-wing activists who focus on combating racism, sexism, xenophobia and other oppressive ideologies.
At least 20 people are dead and 26 injured after a mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, on Saturday afternoon, according to state officials. The suspect is described as a 21-year-old white male, and the FBI is reportedly investigating the incident as a hate crime. Before the rampage, the shooter allegedly posted an anti-immigrant manifesto on an online message board.
Not long after the shooting, social media users started speculating on the motive and ideology of the shooter — and it didn’t take long for some to settle on an unfounded narrative blaming antifa, shorthand for antifascists, for the bloodshed.
Most of these claims stemmed from a Daily Caller article published on July 30, which falsely reported that “antifa” is “planning a terror campaign and siege of El Paso”:
“The far-left Antifa movement is reportedly planning a terror campaign and siege of El Paso, Texas in an attempt to raise awareness of alleged abuses at the U.S.-Mexico border,” the Daily Caller reported. The so-called ‘Border Resistance’ exercise involves a ‘militancy training tour that will converge on a 10-day siege in El Paso, TX.’”
The Daily Caller has been described in one Harvard University study as a key website that "legitimated and normalized the paranoid style that came to typify the right-wing ecosystem in the 2016 election." The website has also employed an editor who wrote for a white supremacist website using a pseudonym — who left the publication after this information was revealed.
In its July 30 story, the Daily Caller cited Andy Ngo as its source for the claim. Ngo is editor of the controversial digital libertarian publication, Quillette, and a frequent critic of the antifa movement.
The day before, Ngo had posted a tweet alleging that antifa is “leading” a “militancy training tour that will converge on a 10-day siege in El Paso, TX.” Ngo's tweet was referring to an event meant to highlight the ongoing mistreatment of immigrants at the southern border. The event, the Border Resistance Tour, is being organized by immigration advocacy groups.
"Not long after the shooting, social media users started speculating on the motive and ideology of the shooter — and it didn’t take long for some to settle on an unfounded narrative..." writes @RVAwonk #ElPasoShooting
Ngo’s tweet included two images from a Facebook page associated with the Border Resistance Tour as evidence of his claims, but neither image mentioned “militancy training” or any sort of “siege.” Notably, the word “antifa” was also absent from both promotional images. But for Ngo — who made a name for himself by shaping entire news cycles based on distortions of reality — the narrative is what matters most. And as one of the most prominent foot soldiers in the right-wing's war on antifa, Ngo never misses a chance to manufacture fear-mongering propaganda targeting his foes.
Despite the lack of evidence for Ngo’s hyperbolic claims, several conservative outlets, including the Daily Caller, Red State, and the Conservative Firing Line, along with conspiracy theory website Natural News, cited Ngo’s tweet as proof that “antifa” is planning a “border siege” involving violence in El Paso.
The Daily Caller later added a correction to its article stating that although “various antifa-related groups have promoted and encouraged this event, there is insufficient evidence to say antifa is ‘planning’ the event.” The correction also said the misleading language was “removed and clarified.”
But that didn’t stop social media users from linking to the report and using it as the basis for a disinformation campaign blaming antifa for Saturday’s shooting.
National Observer spoke with an organizer involved in planning the Border Resistance Tour, who said the event will feature a series of nonviolent demonstrations and activities aimed at raising awareness of the human rights crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border. The organizer, who asked to remain anonymous due to threats, said those involved in planning the tour have never even used the word "antifa" in reference the event.
"Nowhere do we say that we're antifa or part of antifa," she said. "We never even said anything about fascism. They [right wing media] are the ones who brought it up."
The far-right often misuses the term antifa as part of a broader disinformation campaign aimed at deligitimizing, demonizing and ultimately criminalizing dissent. Over the past several years, far-right activists have tried to falsely link antifa to multiple mass shootings and other violent events and threats, often succeeding in confusing the mainstream media and always succeeding in flooding the right-wing media ecosystem with a false narrative portraying antifa as the real threat, even as far-right extremism and violence are on the rise.
"A decentralized, leaderless activist group with no record of lethal violence in this country, antifa has been skillfully transmogrified by the conservative media into one of the gravest threats facing Americans in 2019 — the rampant id of an already irrational left," Buzzfeed's Joe Bernstein described in an article about Ngo's role in the cycle of outrage and deception.
This disinformation campaign took on more sinister tones when two senators recently introduced a bill seeking to classify antifa as a terrorist organization (antifa describes a style of politics, not an organization), in part based on unfounded claims of antifa violence.
There’s no indication that the groups involved in the Border Resistance Tour ever had any plans to engage in violence. The graphic featured in Ngo's tweet says activists will share "stories and firsthand accounts of the last year of autonomous organizing on the border.”
"We're just trying to raise awareness," the organizer told National Observer.
Specifically, the groups want to focus attention on what the government calls “detention camps,” which are being used to house undocumented immigrants detained at the border, many of whom are fleeing violence back home. Immigrants detained in the camps have been held without trial, while others have been forced to sleep on concrete and in cages. The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said she was “appalled by the conditions” she saw at the detention centers, and one doctor described the detention centers as “torture facilities.”
In addition to the inhumane conditions, the Trump administration has also enforced a family separation policy that has resulted in thousands of children being forcibly separated from their parents. Several of these children have died, prompting doctors to call for an investigation into their care.
Over the past few years, many different groups, including Catholic and Jewish organizations, as well as civil rights and child welfare organizations, have protested the treatment of immigrants at the border.
The organizer associated with the Border Resistance Tour told National Observer she found it revealing that people were invoking antifascism when the event itself hadn't.
"The ones calling us antifa are kind of calling themselves out," she said. By labeling everyone opposed to the administration's border policies as antifascist, "they're admitting that the border policies are fascist."
Editor's note: this story was updated on August 4, 2019 at 12:09 p.m. EST with additional information about what the Daily Caller is.