On February 1, 2017, Milo Yiannopoulos was scheduled to give a talk about free speech at the University of California, Berkeley. But he was prevented from speaking by a group of 150 or so masked, black-clad members of a then-obscure movement calling itself “Antifa.” The protestors caused $100,000 worth of damage to the campus and injured six people as they threw rocks and Molotov cocktails. Nine months later, again at Berkeley, an “anti-Marxist” rally descended into violence as approximately 100 masked Antifa members harassed journalists and beat rally organizers and attendees.
Berkeley was where Antifa rose to national attention, but it hasn’t been the only place where the group has engaged in sustained acts of violence. At a Washington, D.C. Unite the Right rally in August 2018, Antifa members hurled objects at police and assaulted journalists. In Portland, Oregon, violent street clashes involving Antifa have become regular events. Notwithstanding claims that Antifa is a peaceful, “anti-fascist community-defense group,” it has adopted tactics that often are more violent than those of the right-wing movements that the group opposes.
I was sprayed in the face point blank with pepper spray outside the @CiderRiot, where Antifa had amassed. They cheered as I was blinded. Before that, they threatened me & brought up my mother’s name. A woman helped me across the street. Please help me identify person: pic.twitter.com/BUxlk94fz4
— Andy Ngo (@MrAndyNgo) May 2, 2019
And yet, Antifa often receives media coverage that is neutral or even favorable, with its members’ violence either being ignored by reporters or vaguely explained away as a product of right-wing provocation. What’s more, anecdotal evidence has suggested that many of the mainstream reporters who are most active in covering Antifa also tend to enthusiastically amplify Antifa’s claims on social media.
In October 2018, my research partner and I decided to investigate the truth of this impression by using a mix of network mapping and linguistic analysis to see which prominent journalists who covered Antifa also were closely connected to leading Antifa figures on social media. We then inspected the Antifa-related stories these journalists had written.
We created a data set of 58,254 Antifa or Antifa-associated Twitter accounts based on the follows of 16 verified Antifa seed accounts. Using a software tool that analyzed the number and nature of connections associated with each individual account, we winnowed the 58,254 Antifa or Antifa-associated Twitter accounts down to 962 accounts. This represents a core group of Twitter users who are connected in overlapping ways to the most influential and widely followed Antifa figures. Of these 962 accounts, 22 were found to be verified—of which 15 were journalists who work regularly with national-level news outlets.
It should be stressed that a journalist’s close social-media engagement with any particular group should not be seen as incriminating per se. Many journalists follow—and even interact with—all manner of figures online, either out of personal curiosity, professional interest, or even as a means of developing sources. In identifying this group of 15 journalists whose engagement with Antifa is especially intense, our goal was not to accuse them of bias out of hand, but rather to identify them for further study, so as to determine if there was any overall correlation between the level of their online engagement with Antifa and the manner by which these journalists treated Antifa in their published journalism.
That correlation turned out to be quite pronounced: Of all 15 verified national-level journalists in our subset, we couldn’t find a single article, by any of them, that was markedly critical of Antifa in any way. In all cases, their work in this area consisted primarily of downplaying Antifa violence while advancing Antifa talking points, and in some cases quoting Antifa extremists as if they were impartial experts.
These journalists include, for instance, Kit O’Connell, a self-identified “proudly Antifascist” “gonzo journalist,” whose work often reads like an FAQ that one might find on an Antifa web site. In one piece, for instance, he wrote that protestors wear masks so that they may “creat[e] a sense of unity and common purpose [as they] protect other activists from attacks by police and fascists.” Another article is bluntly (and somewhat ominously) titled “Nonviolent Activists Must Never Work With Police.”
Patrick Strickland, another journalist among the group of 15, specializes in reporting on the far-right in Europe, notably Greece. His book Alerta! Alerta! Snapshots of Europe’s Anti-Fascist Struggle has a blurb written by Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, which reads: “As a fascist darkness descends over Europe, Patrick Strickland uncovers the bars, squats, fight clubs, and street corners where resistance burns brightest. Each page of his journey breathes with the tumultuous struggles of brave anti-fascists who risk imprisonment, assault, and even death to take a stand.” Unlike O’Connell, Strickland presents himself as a serious mainstream journalist, and has written for The New Republic and Politico. As of this writing, he is listed on Al Jazeera’s web site as a senior producer for Al Jazeera English.
A more prominent example is Jason Wilson, a Portland-based writer for The Guardian. One of his recent articles focused on a U.S. regional intelligence report whose authors concluded that Antifa and the far right share responsibility for street violence. “Experts say the report mischaracterizes the dynamics of the street violence,” Wilson complained.
One of Wilson’s main “experts” in the piece, it turned out, was none other than Antifa handbook author Mark Bray, who, predictably, denounced the report’s contents as “ludicrous.” In fact, Bray makes regular appearances in Wilson’s articles. So does fellow Portland resident and eco-extremist Alexander Reid Ross, who regularly writes for Antifa publications such as the It’s Going Down anarchist news site. (Ross also contributed to a 30-year-anniversary edition publication for Earth First!, an extremist environmentalist collective that advocates what activists euphemistically call “direct action.”)
In another column for The Guardian, this one about the 2018 “Occupy ICE” protest in Portland, Wilson quoted “local activist” Luis Marquez to the effect that “I think this occupation is a beautiful thing, a wonderful thing. Every single person here is a hero.” Marquez is in fact a prominent Antifa leader in Portland, and has been arrested on numerous occasions due to his militant behavior—including alleged theft and assault.
Interestingly, while other Portland journalists such as Genevieve Reaume of KATU News, Maggie Vespa of KGW News and Quillette’s own Andy Ngo (who has voiced concerns about Antifa’s actions) have been harassed and assaulted by Antifa activists, Wilson seems welcome to mingle freely among Antifa, and has even been photographed standing close to Marquez. In one piece, titled “How the world has fought back against the violent far-right and started winning,” Wilson effectively drops the pretense that he is a neutral reporter, and approvingly outlines the Antifa tactics set out in Bray’s book. He also defends such tactics as doxing, stalking, deplatforming and shaming as valuable means to attack individuals whose views he dislikes. In doing so, he cites both Bray and Emily Gorcenski, who runs a doxing site called First Vigil, and an associated Twitter account, which shame individuals she deems to be fascists before they have received due process.
Make no mistake: The original professed goal of Antifa—to oppose fascism—is laudable. And there are no doubt many Antifa activists who still reject violent methods. Moreover, there is nothing inherently wrong with being a journalist who has strong personal views about Antifa (or about any other radical group). But Wilson is not simply a pro-Antifa activist who also happens to write for the Guardian: He actively leverages his role as a regular Guardian writer to promote Antifa, whitewash its violence, and signal-boost its leaders (whom he presents as “experts”)—often under the guise of neutral news reporting.
Christopher Mathias, a senior reporter for the Huffington Post, applies the same cynical approach. Like Wilson, Mathias’ byline seems to pop up whenever Antifa stages violent protests—and he always can be counted on to deliver a play-by-play that favors Antifa. But he goes even further than his Guardian counterpart. Unlike Wilson, Mathias actually doxes individuals whom he suspects of being right-wing extremists. His doxing sources for an article about suspected extremists in the U.S. military included Unicorn Riot, an anarchic Antifa journalist collective, and other shady sites that exist as a sort of in-house 4chan for the Antifa movement. (Mathias cited similar sources when he published identifying details of a Texas schoolteacher, and of a Virginia police officer.)
Mathias’ apparent modus operandi is to gather doxes of individuals whom Antifa or Antifa-friendly groups suspect of being right-wing extremists. He (or a colleague) at Huffington Post then reach out to the target’s employer asking for comment, leveraging the media outlet’s name to ensure the individual is called out. Then Mathias posts the doxes in his column while investigations are ongoing. As with Emily Gorcenski’s First Vigil site, Mathias broadcasts detailed personal information whose release seems designed to destroy the reputation of the accused, no matter the results of any subsequent investigation. It’s unclear how this behavior differs from ordinary, everyday Antifa-style online activism.
Of course, all investigative journalists rely on tips from the general public. But collecting tips isn’t what Wilson and Mathias appear to be doing. Like other prominent writers whose names appear among the 15 journalists most closely engaged with Antifa, they seem to function not at professional arm’s length from their sources, but rather as cogs in an activist enterprise that churns out both pro-Antifa propaganda and doxing information about real or imagined ideological enemies. Their allies in this mission include trolls such as AntiFashGordon, the pseudonym of a Twitter user who declares that “I expose fascists, get them fired, de-homed, kicked out of school etc,” and brags that he passes “dossiers” of doxes to national-level journalists, whom he refers to as “our contacts.” His entire online mission is to ruin other people’s lives, and it is a mission being supported by “contacts” like Mathias and Wilson. In providing such support, they are discrediting their publications and misinforming their readers.
There is no doubt in my mind that many of the individuals targeted by Antifa trolls and protestors do indeed harbor noxious, hateful, bigoted and even fascistic opinions. But the intellectual dishonesty and disreputable methods being used to target these individuals is an example of the cure being as bad as the disease.
Eoin Lenihan is a Stuttgart-based analyst whose work is focused on online extremism. Follow him on Twitter at @EoinLenihan.
Feature photo by Andy Ngo.