In 1955, German former-Nazi SA member Hans Martin Lennings revealed definitively what had been suspected by many (if not most) ever since that fateful February night in 1933—the Reichstag fires were lit by Nazis. The man ultimately blamed and killed in their name, Marinus van der Lubbe, had been framed. He was injured, and with Lennings and other SA members when the fires were started. When the news dropped in 1955, it brought to light the depraved depths the German far-right had resorted to in their push for power. The ensuing purge of communists in Germany, and the left generally, paved the way for the Nazi takeover of the German political system, and ultimately concentration camps, WWII, and so on. To not just perpetrate violence and murder in the name of their cause, but to pin it on their rivals so they could further their ends even more effectively was a brutal stroke of malevolent evil. The far-right has since cultivated a tradition of this around the world, motivated by the work of Goebbels in Germany; the Reichstag fires were just the most well-known example of it. Worse, there’s a new attempt at stoking the fires via manipulation and deception, even if the endgame is (hopefully) more moderate.
A Culture of “Fake News”
These days, while echoing chants of “fake news” against any narrative that doesn’t fit their agenda, many have notoriously been taken in by bloggers, youtube personalities, and far-right media outlets that themselves spread often dangerous misinformation. The goals are fairly transparent—sow a mistrust of the left, minorities, (the weirdly specific) ‘critical race theory,’ Islam, or whatever else they can then piggyback off of to grow their numbers through xenophobic fear. Maybe they’ll even, in many cases, sell a few products that they claim will provide their followers safety from said ‘straw men’—bunkers and all the products to fill them with, "brain strengthening" or testosterone pills, military-grade flashlights and the like—a potpourri of survival goods for when the impending race or civil war kicks off. Their belief that this war is incoming is hardened daily by the terror that these media personalities inspire in them.
It is neither a new phenomenon (Rush Limbaugh, for example, has been at it for decades), nor one that merits yet another think piece. The information is so widely available by now that to call it a willed ignorance for those being grifted is an understatement. It’s a kind of faith group, and their belief is set in stone and cultivated in this media bubble with increasing toxicity.
A particularly frightening aspect of this phenomenon is reaching a second phase now however, and this one, like the Reichstag fires, combines devious subterfuge with manipulative trickery to meld into a dangerous new form of propaganda that seems set to stoke fires all over the country, if not world: manipulated videos, clipped, doctored, and presented to frame things for a specific purpose, usually to present violence as singularly a product of their political opposition.
Video Manipulation 101
The most prominent peddler of doctored video footage is probably still ‘Project Veritas,’ who gained prominence back in 2008 when they first appeared on the scene with ‘damning information’ regarding Planned Parenthood. Project Veritas’s deceptive video editing was unknown at the time, so they got pretty far in convincing a good number of people that there were systemic issues in Planned Parenthood regarding the particularly salacious rumors they planted. They also brought attention to themselves, and more importantly scrutiny; it wouldn’t take long for their manipulative and disingenuous methodology to come to light. Their second project, funded in part by Andrew Breitbart (before the contract fell apart), went after ACORN, a well-known community organizer for lower and middle-income families and social justice.
Project Veritas Founder James O’Keefe selectively edited and distorted recordings, as well as messing with the chronology of events to paint the organization in the most negative light they could. Outed for it, they earned the ire and close scrutiny of the public, all while gaining a more and more widespread audience among the far-right that sought ‘sourced material’ for their more and more fringe ideas—or at least anything that could pass for it. The ACORN video resulted in O’Keefe being sued successfully by an ACORN employee, where he was deemed to have misled the ‘plaintiff’ by posing as a client seeking services from ACORN. Worse yet, in 2010, O’Keefe would end up being arrested, and sentenced for entering federal property under false pretenses with the intent of committing a felony.’ He’d be fined, sentenced to 150 hours of community service, and placed on probation for three years. Undeterred, Project Veritas still peddles misinformation to a smaller and smaller niche, as their reputation for falsifying and doctoring their videos has come to light.
The far-right ‘art’ of manipulated video deception didn’t disappear with Project Veritas’ reputation, and has found a new champion in the way of Portland’s Andy Ngo. He got his chops manipulating videos in college, where at Portland State University, for the Vanguard, he clipped a piece from the speech of a Muslim speaker on campus to paint him as validating violence against ‘apostates.’ (Jacobin/Gupta, 2019) The full clip, unedited, proved the speaker was clearly answering a hypothetical, and the malpractice by Ngo was rewarded with his being fired for a “dangerous oversimplification that violated very clear ethics outlined by the Society of Professional Journalists.”
The Vanguard said Ngo’s actions “placed a PSU student in significant danger.” He wouldn’t go down quietly however—Breitbart picked up tweets of his misleadingly clipped coverage, and The National Review picked him up for an article entitled “Fired for Reporting the Truth.”
This pattern of doctoring videos to conjure up his preferred narrative continued unabated, and he garnered a reputation for it among Portland’s left, who grew accustomed to his video ‘documentation’ tactics. In the summer of 2019, he disseminated video of what he characterized as “Antifa” violently assaulting right-wing protestors with a hammer.
The video made its rounds around the internet, and played a vital role in setting the table for the “Antifa” boogey man that would become an oft-repeated conservative talking point throughout 2020. The problem with the video? As usual, it was clipped—the hammer belonged to the right-wing protestors, who had just previously entered the group labeled “antifa” seeking to injure them with said hammer (The Oregonian/Kavanaugh, 2019). Ngo captured the group throwing the hammer they’d been assaulted with back at the truck of the offenders as they sped off, and a narrative was manipulated into existence.
Ngo would go on to appear on Fox News and various other right-wing outlets, espousing his experience with “left-wing violence.”
The most recent example of this far-right manufactured outrage came this last weekend. The “Million MAGA March” was hailed as a peaceful event all day as it carried out, but it wouldn’t take long for it to descend into chaos. As the sun set, so did the event’s claim to ‘civility,’ with videos surfacing of agitators describing themselves as ‘hunting for Antifa’ and seeking to ‘draw them out’ as they roamed the streets of DC.
They were also shown in a number of video accounts online charging counter-protestors and instigating violence.
In the wake of this, the right seized onto a video of an older man getting punched and knocked out by anti-Trump protestors, again using it to stir up more ‘the left is violent’ rhetoric. Once again, it was a clipped video—the man who was knocked out was a violent aggressor, who had wantonly attacked a number of men and women, many of whom were only bystanders.
The response to his violence may or may not have been merited, but this attempt to paint the violence as one-sided, as if it wasn't instigated by the far-right agitator, clearly meant to serve a purpose. This wasn’t propagated by Andy Ngo, but by an imitator named Kalen D’Almeida, who is apparently seeking to make a name for himself with this new format of right-wing media disinformation.
Is The Left Violent?
Violence isn’t unique to either political side. In truth, violence is so rife in our society that you’d be hard-pressed to find a TV show for children that’s free of it—and it’s not a new phenomenon either; let’s not pretend Wile E. Coyote was trying to blow up the roadrunner with ‘love’ or hugs. It would be foolish to try to suggest either ‘side’ of the political rift is completely free of violence, and a waste of time—there’s a rich history of political violence perpetuated by every side of any political dispute, and neither side should pretend otherwise. So why is the right so invested in painting political violence as a left-wing problem?
In part, one assumes, projection: Far-right extremism has been on a steady rise (BBC/Butcher/Luxen, 2019), and the number of deaths has outpaced all other forms of extremist terrorism in the US by a good margin. It wasn’t long ago that Donald Trump’s rallying cry was getting Obama and others to refer to terrorism in the name of Islam ‘by its name,’ and yet as far-right extremism has become the main source of political violence in the US (Washington Post/Lowery/Kindy/Tran, 2018), such calls have not so mysteriously come to a halt.
Trump even rescinded the special category the FBI used for investigating white supremacist crimes, making it harder for the FBI to pursue them (The Intercept/Lennard, 2019). Is there more to it than just projection? As was alluded to in this article's preamble, the Nazis started the Reichstag fires to turn their political enemies into ‘the people’s enemy,’ ultimately to enable purging them from government (and murdering them). Suggesting the modern right seeks the death of those on the left is an extreme stance. While it’s not hard to find many on the far-right who would openly call for the actual murder of ‘liberals’ online with the anonymity that Facebook or Twitter can provide, it’s more likely the more mainstream examples of this are attempts at winning ‘hearts and minds’ (or at least losing them for the left). So can the left be violent? Naturally. The bigger problem, however, lies in a far-right that is rapidly radicalizing and resorting to violence as they lose grip on the ‘culture war’ and the on-going ‘battle in the marketplace of ideas.’™
While such attempts by Ngo and the like are dangerous and convincingly misinform gullible folks actively looking for misinformation, they also signal desperation. They can’t honestly portray the left as the more violent of the two ‘wings’ and thus have to resort to trickery. The efforts made to deceive an unwitting populace speak to the times we live in; with smart phones and cameras always being on the ready, more advanced efforts have to be made, but therein lies the problem for these provocateurs as well. They can’t control whose cameras are on, and as they make names for themselves as deceivers, more cameras are fixed on them and their activities—it’s harder to spin a narrative by cherry picking the moments you need to advance your claims when the public can have access to the whole picture. It doesn’t help that thanks to social media, the corrective, bigger picture can be attached beneath your doctored version within moments and spread alongside your attempt at misinformation.
Social media is both the weapon these shady, digital orators wield, and the one now wielded against them. In this case, the truth seems to be winning the war, even if their misinformation wins the occasional battle.