Mass Protests Turn the Powerful Into Conspiracy Theorists

The "outside agitator" narrative delegitimizes mass anger in a way that's politically convenient.
June 2, 2020, 3:41pm
Protests in Los Angeles

Demonstrators in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles gather in the street as a plume of black smoke from a burning cop car rises behind them. Photo: Tod Seelie

For many people, something has been not quite right—sinister, even—about the nationwide protests against the death of George Floyd and decades of police brutality against Black Americans. Take the empty cop car that sat at an intersection in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles: As demonstrators surrounded it, it was soon graffitied and its windows were broken, and then it was in flames. Then another cop car went up a few hours later a few blocks away. Then another did.


The ease of setting the vehicles alight seemed, to some, off, wrong, and altogether too easy. “THIS WAS STAGED,” a marcher named Jordan St. Pierre tweeted, of the first car. “THIS WAS AN OLD COP CAR THAT WAS RANDOMLY PLACED IN THE ROUTE OF THE PEACEFUL PROTEST IN LA. THIS WAS A STAGED CAR. THEN LIT ON FIRE.” Soon, the sentiment that decommissioned cop cars were being placed as bait—or else set on fire as deliberate acts by agents provocateur—was spreading almost as fast as the flames themselves.

Other demonstrators found themselves gripped with suspicion by pallet of bricks they claimed had mysteriously appeared in the marchers' paths: "THEY ARE LEAVING BRICKS ALL AROUND CITIES SO THE CIVILIANS CAN PICK THEM UP AND USE THEM AS WEAPONS SO THE GOV. CAN GET THE MARTIAL LAW INVOLVED. THIS IS A SET UP !!!!! THE GOVERNMENT IS TRYING TO BE 10 STEP AHEAD OF US‼️‼️" one viral Instagram post read. The suspicious brick narrative soon started bleeding from left to right, with several more viral posts implying the bricks may have been strategically planted to aid those who would riot in creating more chaos. In Minneapolis, a viral video of a demonstrator claiming that loads of bricks had been placed in the path of protests to encourage people to commit property destruction was shared to a YouTube channel; the caption implied that Jews had put them there.

Meanwhile, a woman named Kambree Kawahine Koa, who was affiliated with Women For Trump in 2015 and has contributed to sites like the Daily Caller, tweeted that “pallets of bricks” had begun showing up in her subdivision, “not in an areas where a house is going to be built.” The implication, of course, was that rioters—possibly antifa ones, her followers helpfully suggested—would be arriving there soon, and had sent their weapons ahead, for some reason. “I hope we get to the bottom of this,” Kambree tweeted, before acknowledging, as it turned out, that the bricks did in fact belong to the city.


There’s absolutely no evidence to suggest that cop car was “planted,” or that demonstrators or their supposed Jewish overlords or even the cops were helpfully pre-arranging bricks, but there’s no doubt that suspicion was in the streets, and, more concerningly, in the White House. Donald Trump claimed that the protests were perpetrated by “ANTIFA and the Radical Left,” then announced that the government would be “designating ANTIFA as a terror organization.” There is no domestic terror list that “ANTIFA,” which is not an organization, can magically be placed on through the power of Twitter. The point was nevertheless made.

The discourse around this weekend’s protests was fueled, in other words, by misinformation. Bad, fractured, and partial information has raced through the marches, social media, and the Oval Office. It is being used to cynically frame what has been and will be happening, and in the hands of the powerful, it will serve specific political interests.

These protests have been a kind of politically-inflected Rorschach blot, where the particular motivations you see depend on what you bring to how you view them. While some street marchers have worried about Crown Vic bait and the president has railed against invisible anarchist armies, others have seemed more enlivened by the possibility that George Soros was to blame. Long a reliable boogeyman for the right, Soros has been replaced more recently by Bill Gates, but came out of temporary villain retirement long enough for DeAnna Lorraine, a former California congressional candidate and full-time Twitter user, to claim “George Soros has paid for more chaos than anyone can even imagine.” Meanwhile, right-wing thought leader Candace Owens tweeted, “My guess: As he did with Antifa, Democrat George Soros has these thugs on payroll. He is funding the chaos via his Open Society Foundation.” A similar sentiment spread across the QAnon universe: There was a meme of Soros, for instance, over the words “The pandemic isn’t working. Start the racial wars.” (The Open Society Foundation responded, “We do not pay protesters. Neither does our founder George Soros. Claims that we do serve to delegitimize those who are exercising their Constitutionally-protected right to protest peacefully and petition their government for redress of grievances.”)


Further afield, the claims got even stranger. One pseudonymous Twitter account going by Blake’s Mustache claimed that George Floyd’s death was nothing less than part of a “Russian military intelligence operation” aimed at heightening racial tensions in the United States ahead of the elections, presumably because we aren’t perfectly capable of doing that on our own. Barb McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan, tweeted “Intel reports say Russia is trying to stoke chaos in US before election. Mission accomplished.”

The underlying commonality here is the false claim that a centralized authority is directing the protests from afar for nefarious ends. Bernard Kerik, the former New York City police commissioner and felon several times over, who was recently pardoned by the president, put this in pure form. After calling for a federal investigation of "paid left wing radical groups like Antifa, Black Lives Matter and others" and claiming that such groups have “military grade communication systems” without elaborating just what that might mean, he asked a series of questions: “Who is funding them? Who pays for their bail and fines when arrested? Who transports them? Who else are they communicating with around the country? Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Houston, New York city, and more. Who is responsible?” (Wait until someone tells him about bail funds.)

Whether the purported culprit is antifa, Soros, or Russian murderbots, the narratives here—all of which went wildly, worryingly viral—converge on a trope common among conspiracy theorists of all stripes: What is happening was caused, more or less, by the crisis actor participating in a false-flag operation. What you think you see is not what there is to see, and it is not caused by what you think it is caused by. Really, something else is happening, and someone else is to blame.


These claims are profoundly dehumanizing, because they distort the reality of how people live and die: The crisis actor claim first arose after Sandy Hook, and falsely turned dead children and their grieving parents into puppets, foot soldiers of a sinister gun control agenda. To paint George Floyd as the victim of a Russian psyop is a perversion of the truth: Individual cops, working within a racist law-enforcement structure, killed him.

They are also not new. Following the violent death in custody of Freddie Gray, the protests in his hometown of Baltimore were, at first, blamed on outside agitators, particularly by Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. And it happened in Ferguson too, in 2014, after the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson ignited protests there and the Black Lives Matter movement. (A Missouri Highway Patrol captain angrily vowed,"I am not going to let the criminals who have come out here from across this country or live in this community define this neighborhood and define what we are going to do to make it right.") Before that, as countless people have pointed out, the claim that protests are fomented by paid protesters or “outside agitators” was a major part of how Southern states responded to the civil rights movement. Before that, it was how slaveholders responded to the uprisings of enslaved people. The line there was the same: Abolitionist activists must have been stirring up trouble among the enslaved, who were surely incapable of revolting on their own, and would have had no desire to do so.


This time, though, the predictably hollow outside-agitator claim was complicated by actual evidence, albeit not of sinister Russian spymasters pursuing nefarious ends or anti-fascist activists providing medical care on Soros' behalf: There were legitimately violent organized groups who attended these protests with the intention to use them as cover to do harm. As VICE News’ Tess Owen reported, there are white supremacists who hope this moment might turn into the racist civil war of their dreams. There is also, as Motherboard's Ben Makuch reported, evidence that neo-Nazi groups see this moment, where police are stretched thin and everyone’s attention is elsewhere, as the ideal time to plot and carry out terror attacks. The feds accused an Illinois man of traveling to Minneapolis with bombs and encouraging protesters to throw them at the cops. The man arrested for setting fire to a historic Nashville courthouse was white; his brother-in-law denies he's part of any hate groups and said their intention was to protest peacefully, but, "Everything kind of just unraveled the way it did."

The unsurprising fact that a few racist groups might seek to wreak chaos and disorder under the cover of—or adjacent to—legitimate protest was, though, taken by state authorities and twisted into an entirely new shape: The suggestion that every protest was guided by outsiders, others, people who weren’t legitimately aggrieved. Governor Tim Walz of Minnesota declared that the Twin Cities were “under assault” by what he called “an organized attempt to destabilize civil society,” and claimed that 80 percent of the demonstrators were from out of state, while St. Paul mayor Melvin Carter—in a statement that was, tellingly, retweeted by the White House—said, “"Every single person we arrested last night, I'm told, was from out of state. What we're seeing right now is a group of people who are not from here." Los Angeles Sheriff Alex Villanueva made dark references to outside groups in a live interview with local news station KTLA: “They thrive and they live on these moments of anarchy,” he told the outlet. John Miller, an NYPD commissioner in charge of counter-terrorism, claimed in a call with reporters that anarchist groups had “planned to start mayhem in the city even before the protests started,” as the New York Times dutifully reported, “using encrypted communication to raise bail money and to recruit medics.” Attorney General Bill Barr, meanwhile, suggested that “far left extremist” and “anarchic” groups were to blame. “Groups of outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate and violent agenda," he said.

The idea that every violent agitator was from elsewhere, of course, doesn’t make sense. Well-established civil rights groups participated in the protests. Much of the looting that took place in cities like Los Angeles and Philadelphia has seemed, according to people on the scene, to involve small groups acting opportunistically, not in a coordinated way. More basically, if they were in dozens of cities nationwide, it's not clear why traveling agitators would be traveling at all: Why would a Soros-backed antifa super-soldier head from one place to another to subvert protests when there were almost certainly protests happening where they were?


None of this is to say that there aren't anarchist groups that support property damage. Some very much do; anonymous, decentralized anarchist collectives like Crimethinc have argued that vandalism is an effective protest tactic. Whatever the merits of this position, it doesn't seem to have been effectively communicated to everyone protesting, and so some people not in positions of power view the chaos and destruction in the street as an attempt to discredit what they're doing. “This does not feel right at all,” tweeted an account called Free Your Mind Kid, in a wildly viral thread that used screenshots from around the country to try to show that young white protesters were engaged in deliberate provocations of the police.

This was a different, and in some ways more reasonable, conspiracy theory, one that clearly recognized that any violence, any looting, any property damage would likely be attributed to Black protesters and used to discredit and delegitimize their anti-police brutality message. It also clearly referred to the history of COINTELPRO, a vicious and effective effort by the FBI to divide social justice movements by creating division and disruption between them, often through the use of actual paid provocateurs who were instructed to infiltrate these groups and try to incite them to violence.

Taken together, this all feels like a frightening escalation in how we talk about protests, peaceful and otherwise. One of the main projects of authoritarian regimes all over the world is to paint popular uprisings as illegitimate. It’s a roadmap we’ve seen many times: A claim that a revolt is led by the CIA, perhaps, as Russia claimed of the 2014 Ukranian revolution, a baseless accusation aided by the fact that the CIA has backed many coups, primarily in South and Central America. Or maybe the unrest or discontent is a product of media manipulation, as Rodrigo Duterte claimed before the midterm elections that could have ended his regime. (That didn’t happen: amid accusations of voting machine “irregularities” and accusations of vote-buying, Duterte swept to a resounding victory that also saw three of his children elected to public office.)

And the accusations of paid carpetbagging agitators, old as they are, look different on social media. The claims about antifa armies, Soros “rent-a-riots”—another phrase that made the rounds—and Russian contract killers don’t just smear the protesters. They seek to make every social justice campaign, every effort at peaceful regime change, and every call to conscience look unreal. They turn hashtags into disinformation breeding grounds, activists’ Facebook groups into halls of mirrors, and every ally into a potential cop, informant, or agent provocateur. They could sap power and momentum from what looks, at this moment, to be a turning point in a long and shameful history of racist, violent policing.

But maybe it’s fair, too, to turn to conspiracy theories, when we already know exactly how this moment will be used. Trump and Barr are already using the protests as an excuse for future crackdowns on supposed “far left extremists,” to paint antifa as a sinister shadow army who need to be reckoned with using the full force and might of the state, and to delegitimize the claims of those who are protesting a long history of violence. The notion that the protests might set off a second wave of COVID-19 is sure to be weaponized before too long, used to excuse the public health and policy failings of the current administration. In the end, even as everyone in the street is acting, for better and worse, of their own free will, and displaying their own legitimate anger, this moment can and perhaps will be used to make dupes and crisis actors of us all.

Follow Anna Merlan on Twitter.