The organizers of Friday night’s “solidarity march” in northwest Oklahoma City were clear from the beginning about the event’s purpose: to honor the lives of those affected by racial injustice.
The 300 people who showed up to march from the Tower Theatre to the Oklahoma State Capitol included families and children of all ages. They carried signs honoring lives lost.
“This was a solidarity march,” event co-organizer Jabee Williams said. “Nowhere did we call it a protest or a riot, or anything like that. It was a peaceful gathering of people who were honoring Dr. King and others from the beginning.”
And that’s how it ended. Peacefully. But it didn’t come without tension for its organizers. Prior to the event, social media channels buzzed with rumors of Antifa groups headed to Oklahoma City from other states. Following these rumors, a group of about 20 armed men showed up at the Capitol ahead of Friday night’s solidarity march.
Antifa is a protest movement of autonomous, sometimes militant groups opposed to fascism.
President Donald Trump has called it a “terrorist organization” and, indeed, people claiming to be Antifa have been involved in violent clashes in Portland and Minneapolis.
But the group’s existence has also become central to online hoaxes attempting to stoke fear and anxiety about otherwise peaceful gatherings, such as the one last week in Oklahoma City. The tension is heightened in light of recent events in Kenosha, Wisconsin where a 17-year-old who said he came to that city to protect property against protestors shot three people, killing two.
“People started tweeting about Antifa, and then I started getting calls about it from people I know worried about violence,” Williams said. “It’s so stressful and frustrating.”
A digital game of Telephone
It’s hard to pin down exactly where the rumors start. In this case, a Twitter account identifying itself as a Colorado Springs Antifa group retweeted the announcement of a planned Oklahoma City Revolutionary Abolitionists march scheduled for the same night as Williams’ solidarity effort. That event featured the tagline, “No cops. No prisons. Total abolition!” But the group ultimately announced it was canceling its gathering and joining forces with Williams’ solidarity effort, but not before word of its original post had spread on social media.
It’s possible that the tweet and retweet (shown above) drew the attention of armed militia and Blue Lives Matter groups who perceived it as a threat and portrayed Williams’ event as one to like-minded followers.
It’s not unlike a digital game of Telephone, in which a person whispers a word or phrase into their neighbor’s ear, who repeats it to the next person, and so on. By the end, what the last person hears is often wildly different from the original.
And as additional social media messages about Antifa in Oklahoma popped up, that’s sort of how this event unfolded.
“I started hearing about these property protectors who will start fake accounts and say there are van loads of people coming from Portland and Colorado,” Williams said.
A person Williams knows personally saw the Twitter chatter and become so concerned they called him, wondering if they should attend the march. Others sounded the alarm to elected officials.
@davidfholt I’ve heard that there are 6 busses of Antifa headed to Oklahoma and possibly OKC, what is going to happen to keep not only our people safe but to keep the Back The Blue Rally safe. I’ve heard that their ultimate goal is to attack the rally
— Coral D (@ShirleyCripple) August 28, 2020
“In some cases their profile picture is a dog, or an egg, and they have zero followers and haven’t had an account for very long, but a lot of the time people don’t bother to actually click on the profile,” Williams said. “I mean, you don’t know who is retweeting and tweeting this shit. And what happens is it all gets amplified.”
A worrying trend
Often, these social media hoaxes aim at stirring vitriol between groups fighting for racial justice or police reform and right-wing militia groups and Blue Lives Matter, a loosely organized pro-police movement.
Such hoaxes are so pervasive that virtually no corner of the internet is free from them. This week, the Oklahoma State Parks account on Facebook was forced to snuff out a social media rumor that Antifa groups had booked all of the campground reservations at Lake Thunderbird State Park.
Similar hoaxes stoked fear in Pennsylvania in July. In that case, fake Twitter accounts were set up by white nationalist groups posing as Antifa groups. Pictures were posted showing bricks loaded into shopping carts with claims the bricks were to be used as ammunition, according to a report from the Pittsburgh Post Gazette.
On July 4, militia groups came to Gettysburg to foil an alleged Antifa plot.
The hoaxes aren’t limited to urban areas with high populations. In Sioux Falls, South Dakota, police had to quash rumors that Antifa groups were headed to that city on buses.
A Milan, Michigan, a limousine and bus company owner was forced to clarify that pictures of buses he owned were not actually emblazoned with Antifa imagery. The alerted images were the result of another social media hoax that claimed billionaire George Soros had hired the company to transport Antifa members to that city.
And in Payette County, Idaho, a simple post to a personal social media account of a resident saying the sheriff had seen “Antifa rioters” in the area prompted dozens of phone calls to the law enforcement agency from concerned residents.
Those rumors can be amplified by regular people, foreign social media bots and even those in public office. Trump claimed in an interview with Fox News personality Laura Ingraham that “thugs” wearing “dark uniforms” were sent by plane to disrupt the Republican National Convention.
OKC police often monitor rumors
The Oklahoma City Police Department keeps tabs on social media channels they deem worthy of monitoring but also rely on information from the public. In the case of Friday’s situation, police were aware of rumors of potential Antifa involvement.
“We saw a lot of stuff about them coming last Friday, but it didn’t pan out,” Oklahoma City Police Master Sgt. Gary Knight said.
Knight said the department’s Criminal Intelligence Unit is tasked with assessing the veracity of online hoaxes and threats.
“That unit keeps their finger on the pulse of what’s going on,” Knight said. “And a lot of it is tips from the public. We get tons of tips from the public. A lot of our techniques I can’t get into. We don’t want to tip our hand on a lot of that stuff. But often it comes from people who see something and take a screenshot and send it over to us.”
Meant to intimidate and harass
In most cases, Williams said he believes the goal of the hoaxes is to intimidate people who want to organize and participate in events meant to honor victims of racial injustice.
“They create this fake scary narrative that we’re going around destroying stuff,” Williams said. “There’s never been anyone who has marched or been at a protest in Oklahoma that has shot someone. We don’t have a history of that. But what this is about is there are a lot of people who don’t want us to do what we’re doing. They don’t want us to stand up and speak out for our lives.”
Organizers of Friday’s solidarity march sent several people ahead to the Capitol to see if any armed groups had showed up. An unidentified group of men carrying rifles was present. Organizers decided to conclude their march on the other side of the building to avoid conflict.
“I saw people with AR’s,” Williams said. “Grown men out there. We had babies and families.”
Williams expects online hoaxes to continue as the nation closes in on the November election. But he said groups like Black Lives Matter, and those who helped organize Friday’s march, won’t be deterred.
“As long as it takes,” Williams said when asked how long he’ll continue to advocate for racial justice. “The world is changing. Those old ways, when they wanted you to be Black and shut up are over. We’re going to continue to march for justice and liberation. If we stop now, my 4-year-old nephew will be dealing with the same things when he’s my age.”