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May 31, 2020, 6:42 p.m. EDT

U.S. officials investigate protest disinformation, possible agents provocateur

Law enforcement officials see signs of far-right extremists stoking violence

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By Associated Press


AFP/Getty Images
A member of the far-right militia, Boogaloo Bois, walks next to protestors demonstrating outside Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department Metro Division 2 just outside of downtown Charlotte, North Carolina, on Friday.

WASHINGTON — U.S. officials sought to determine Sunday whether extremist groups had infiltrated police brutality protests across the country and deliberately tipped largely peaceful demonstrations toward violence — and if foreign adversaries were behind a burgeoning disinformation campaign on social media.

As demonstrations spread from Minneapolis to the White House, New York City and overseas, federal law enforcement officials insisted far-left groups were stoking violence. Meanwhile, experts who track extremist groups also reported seeing evidence of the far-right at work.

Investigators were also tracking online interference and looking into whether foreign agents were behind the effort. Officials have seen a surge of social media accounts with fewer than 200 followers created in the last month, a textbook sign of a disinformation effort.

The accounts have posted graphic images of the protests, material on police brutality and material on the coronavirus pandemic that appeared designed to inflame tensions across the political divide, according to three administration officials. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss investigations.

The investigations are an attempt to identify the network of forces behind some of the most widespread outbreak of civil unrest in the U.S. in decades. Protests erupted in dozens of cities in recent days, triggered by the death of George Floyd, who died after he was pinned at the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer.

Pandemic-weary Americans were already angry — about COVID-19 deaths, lockdown orders and tens of millions of people out of work. The pandemic has hit African Americans harder than whites in the U.S., and the killings of black people by police have continued over the years even as the topic faded from the national stage.

But there are signs of people with other disparate motives, including anarchist graffiti, arrests of some out-of-state protesters, and images circulating in extremist groups that suggest the involvement of outside groups.

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz said Sunday that state authorities were hit with a cyber attack as law enforcement prepared to diffuse protests in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the epicenter of the unrest.

“Before our operation kicked off last night, a very sophisticated denial of service attack on all computers was executed,” Walz said. “That’s not somebody sitting in their basement. That’s pretty sophisticated.”

Walz did not offer details.

President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Bar and others have said the left-wing extremist group antifa is to blame. Short for anti-fascists, antifa is an umbrella term for far-left-leaning militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white supremacists at demonstrations.

Barr on Sunday said the FBI would use its regional joint terrorism task forces to “identify criminal organizers,” and Trump threatened again to name antifa a terrorist group.

An antifa activist group disseminated a message in a Telegram channel on Saturday that encouraged people to consider Minnesota National Guard troops “easy targets,” two Defense Department officials said. The message encouraged activists to steal “kit,” meaning the weapons and body armor used by the soldiers. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity.

As a result, soldiers with the Minnesota National Guard were armed during their mission at protests across the state Sunday, the officials said. The soldiers are sometimes armed but had not been since they moved into parts of the state that had been besieged by riots in the last few days. The troops do not have the authority to make arrests, and are there to act mostly as extra security for police.

Others have seen evidence of right-wing extremists. J.J. MacNab, a fellow at George Washington University’s Program on Extremism, has been monitoring chatter about the protests among anti-government extremists on social media platforms. She has access to hundreds of private Facebook groups for followers of the loosely organized “Boogaloo” movement, which uses an ‘80s movie sequel as a code word for a second civil war.

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