The Media Should Focus on the Need for Genuine Political Reform, Not Just the Violence

| Intel Brief
The Soufan Center

 

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Lost within the countless stories about looting, arson, and vandalism, there is a genuine political movement gathering momentum, one which has the potential to affect desperately needed political change in the United States.
  • Extremists have arrived at protests throughout the United States to wreak havoc and sow chaos, distracting from the focus on police brutality against the African-American community.
  • Disinformation campaigns on social media, including those waged by U.S. adversaries like Russia, will exacerbate fissures in American society, a trend likely to increase as the November 2020 election approaches.
  • Responsible journalism should focus less on ratings and more on the prospects for grass-roots political change, driven by a generation of Americans who refuse to live in society that undervalues and marginalizes individuals based on the color of their skin.

Over the weekend, protests against police brutality against African Americans, sparked by the murder of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, by a white Minneapolis police officer, erupted in cities and towns across the United States. The protests have been predominantly peaceful, primarily led by the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and members of African-American communities in cities from New York to Los Angeles. There have been numerous instances of police officers coming together with protesters, and in some cases even joining the protests themselves as a symbolic gesture meant to convey solidarity and empathy. While there have been some cases where police have excessively used force against the protestors, this narrative has dominated the media, and images of police officers shaking hands with and hugging protesters are rarely captured. In Flint Township, Michigan, Genessee County Sheriff Chris Swanson put down his baton and marched alongside protesters, stopping along the way to talk with local residents and express his commitment to help. And while it is crucial to continue highlighting the injustices that take place in the United States, it is just as crucial to highlight that lost within the countless stories about looting, arson, and vandalism, there seems to be a genuine political movement gathering momentum, one which has the potential to affect desperately needed policy changes in this country.

Attorney General William Barr blamed the violence on ‘far-left extremist groups,’ while on Twitter, President Trump railed against ‘ANTIFA and the radical left,’ before announcing on Sunday afternoon that ‘The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a terrorist organization.’ ANTIFA, or anti-fascists, is a loose collection of individuals and groups that engage in aggressive mobilization against far-right extremist movements. Within ANTIFA there are also anarchists, a portion of whom descend on protests to engage in vandalism and violence, with the overall goal of destruction and destabilization. There is also a significant presence of so-called ‘Boogaloo Bois’ arriving at the protests, many of whom are heavily armed and recognizable by their trademark Hawaiian shirts and tactical gear. The ‘boogaloo’ is a code word for civil war, and the members of this movement share a hatred for law enforcement and believe in a violent overthrow of the existing system. The movement is far from a monolith, however. Some adherents of the boogaloo movement are white supremacists, but others, especially the younger generation, see themselves as allies of the current BLM protests and want to join the demonstrations against police brutality. The neo-Nazi component of accelerationists, who believe in hastening the collapse of society, has urged like-minded individuals to descend on protests in order to attack black people, sparking a race war that will bring about the downfall of modern society. The COVID-19 pandemic provides the perfect backdrop for the collapse of society that many boogaloo adherents and accelerationists desire.

Over the course of 2019 and 2020, protests around the world, from Sudan to Mexico to Egypt and now the United States, have demonstrated deep social grievances of communities, including disappointment at the current political leadership. Events like the protests unfolding in Minneapolis and other major U.S. cities are ripe for conspiracy theorists from across the spectrum to exploit online. Prominent right-wing figures have blamed George Soros for paying ‘professional protesters’ to engage in widespread rioting. Conspiracy theorists across the country will also benefit from the chaos, as they seek to explain unfolding events through the lens of their existing worldviews, offering their followers ‘proof’ of government overreach, so-called ‘Deep State’ connivance, or suggesting that National Guard deployments are the beginning of martial law. One thing is certain, the last week provides U.S. adversaries like Russia, China, Iran, and others with an opening to further exploit widening seams in American society. As they have done in the past, adversarial disinformation campaigns will focus on the many issues dividing Americans, especially race. Fake stories and manufactured or drastically altered videos and photos are likely to proliferate in the coming days and weeks, designed to elicit anger and drive division. Disinformation campaigns on social media will exacerbate intensifying fissures in the body politic, a trend likely to increase in the lead up to the November 2020 election.

While the United States depends on a free and fair press to inform its citizens and protect the First Amendment right to free speech, it is important that media organizations are responsible in their reporting. Too often, both mainstream media organizations and smaller, niche outlets, are amplifying the messages of the United States’ enemies—focusing on violence and division while glossing over messages of hope and progress. Journalists are putting their lives on the line to report from protests and demonstrations, and some have been shot with rubber bullets and fired upon with tear gas by the police. Others have been arbitrarily detained, arrested, and assaulted. Contrary to what President Trump has said, the media is not the enemy of the people, and his repeated vitriol for the media has emboldened his supporters to harass, threaten, and intimidate journalists. Responsible and objective journalism should focus less on ratings, which are driven by amplifying the fringes of society, including self-serving domestic politicians who benefit from hyper-partisanship, and more about the prospects for grass-roots political change being demanded by a generation of Americans who refuse to live in a corrupt and racist society that undervalues individuals based on the color of their skin. According to the report of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Russian active measures during the 2016 Presidential campaign, ’96 percent of the Internet Research Agency’s YouTube content was targeted at racial issues and police brutality.’ To avoid a repeat of this phenomenon in 2020, media organizations and journalists should find a better balance of covering not just the protests, but the goals and objectives that the protests hope to achieve.

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