Irina Tsukerman, a New York based human rights lawyer and national security analyst.
TERRORISM OR CIVIL ACTION?
The Violent Riots Are Not Spontaneous
With police cars and privately owned establishments burning across the United States and riots that have reached at least 87 cities and towns, the “American Spring” feels a lot more like “American Summer”. The stated reason for these riots has been a demand for justice in the case of a black man named George Floyd, who died as a result of a white officer kneeling on his neck, for over eight minutes, in Minneapolis. The level of violence continued increasing through the weekend, with windows broken in various places in major cities, police cars torched, Molotov cocktails being thrown at police officers in various locations, historic properties being destroyed, and one officer dying from a gunshot wound in Oakland. Ironically, he was also black.
For anyone, who has been closely involved with the domestic political scene in the United States, there is nothing new about this chain of events. Despite the claim that these incidents are spontaneous outbursts of mass anger at the injustice black people face in the hands of white police officers, it is increasingly clear that these riots have been prepared in advance based on the level of organization, and were waiting for a spark. As in many similar past incidents, there is no clear list of demands or requests. There is nothing for the society to respond to. Political agitation, rather than civic, humanitarian activity, lies at the center of the spread of violence.
Are The Riots A Response To Systematic Racism?
Furthermore, there is no hard evidence that the officer in question was motivated by racism. Prior misconduct complaints may have come from white people, who had faced abuse and rough treatment. Nor is there any data pointing to systematic abuse of completely innocent black targets by white officers, motivated by nothing other than racism. Abuse of white individuals by white officers, black on black police violence, or abuse of whites or blacks by members of other races and ethnicities does not figure into this discussion. Clearly, then, none of these riots are about achieving any systemic reform or fixing any racism at all, but are nothing but a justification for mass chaos and virtue signaling, albeit of the most violent sort.
The history of such activity did not begin last week, nor even any time during the Trump administration, but rather with the “Occupy Wall Street Movement” in 2011. Later, there was the “Black Lives Matter” movement and similar episodes of peaceful demonstrations turning into mass riots that would go on for days during the Obama administration.
Each such wave involved devastation of entire communities, and did not spare black, Hispanic, or other minority business owners and residences from destruction. In each such wave, people have been injured, if not killed. The latest wave has brought dozens of police officers to hospitals due to severe injuries. Other elements over time have added to the dubious nature of these protest.
Who Is Behind The Riots?
First, there have been allegations of extraneous funding by George Soros and other financiers of radical left wing causes, and astroturfing on a local level from the very start of these “grassroots” activities. These charges have only intensified in this latest wave, where there are allegations that in Minneapolis in particular, activists had been bused in from other cities. Second, there is the role of “Antifa”, a radical left movement.
Antifa has been said to be one of the outsider groups involved in these current events. A number of senators had called for designation of Antifa as a terrorist organization; President Trump finally agreed to do so. The role of Antifa in agitating these protests, and whether or not their actions in general or in this particular case could be classified as any kind of terrorism bears a separate examination in a future article.
Third, there is evidence that Mexican cartels, MS-13 (an extremely violent international criminal gang originating in LA), as well as assorted Jew hating extremist groups, have joined the fray, hijacking the “cause” to push their own agendas. To that effect, for example, Jewish owned business and synagogues in LA have been targeted, defaced, looted, and vandalized.
Fourth, there is the role of foreign actors in using these movements, as well as the media, to interfere with the democratic processes in the United States. Russia is known to have been involved with amplifying BLM’s voices, and supporting its activity through social media campaigns targeting black Americans. Taking advantage of a presidential election year to cause mass disruption and chaos fits well with Moscow’s traditional modus operandi, and in fact, in the past happened in 2016, during another hotly contested election year. Iran, Turkey, and other authoritarian regimes known for lawlessness, kangaroo trials, abuses against political prisoners, and other anti-humanitarian positions, likewise have exploited the publicity from the George Floyd death to virtue signal about “US human rights abuses” in an attempt to diminish US moral position on criticizing human rights violations in their countries.
Fifth, extreme Democratic party activists coupled with left-leaning media outlets have characterized these riots as “protests”, with some even banning the word “riots“ even in the instances of clear looting and violence. Despite the country being unified in condemning the murder, this alliance of party apparatchiks and the media acting as political operatives have been using issue as a polarizing wedge to create the impression of righteous indignation against the allegations of the Republicans “dogwhistling” racists, supposedly ignoring white supremacist extremism, or otherwise contributing to the “environment” that inspired this murder. In one instance, a reporter was caught sympathizing with the violent activists, and then had to stop reporting, as Minneapolis businesses were burning in the background.
How The Arab Spring Inspired The American Spring
The rioters then attacked a CNN building in Atlanta, and were only prevented from entering the building by the presence of the police force.
While there has been extensive media coverage of these events, the media had framed all of the events as part of the “protests”, downplaying the use of words “riots” to describe the violent outbreak.
Governor Cuomo in his executive order justifying the Mayor’s curfew on NYC described the events as “mostly peaceful”, without explaining why that would lead to a need for a curfew.
In Democrat-governed Minneapolis and Minnesota, the city and state authorities essentially ordered the police to stand down in the face of widespread looting and burning.
What would motivate the widespread support for riots and silence on the violence by the Democrats and their media? One issue is the self-serving interest in mobilizing the public in favor of a greater turn out in November elections, and perhaps swaying swing states. Another, longer-term project, however, is normalizing riots as a form of undermining the democratic processes and delegitimizing the choices made by their opponents. Hence, the same Antifa groups active in these “race-based” riots have been widely active in the “Resistance” movements and attack in response to President Trump’s election. The weaponization of riots as a political tool has been perfected over time, and is a pattern in the last few years.
If any of this sounds familiar, it is because some of the same people involved in funding these riot-based movements have also been involved in supporting, financing, and covering the events of the Arab Spring not so long ago. The platform of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), for instance, provides broad support for social movements and considers activities by Black Lives Matter and similar US-based grassroots movements within the scope, and comparable to international movements of that type.
While during the Arab Spring the NDI, and the sixteen other humanitarian organizations eventually shut down by the Sissi government, did not necessarily subscribe to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology, they did consider Muslim Brotherhood a democratic grassroots movement, and the leftist and Islamist protesters against the Mubarak government were considered deserving of training and social support just as any other grassroots “democratic” movement would be. These organizations did not necessarily discriminate by ideology, but this approach ended up empowering the Muslim Brotherhood, which briefly seized power. By giving MB legitimacy and treating MB activists as worthy of support, these humanitarian organizations ended up playing a role in fueling the revolution even if the broader objectives of these organizations did not necessarily align with the vision of these groups.
Still, at the time popular discourse in the academia and among human rights activists was actively supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood on ideological grounds as a “democratic” movement that would moderate itself when in power. Human Rights First, for instance, defended the Muslim Brotherhood from the accusations, that ideologically that movement does not match American values and would be a threat to the US if it were to become a part of a formal government structure. This narrative matched Qatar’s and Turkey’s agenda; English language Al Jazeera frequently made similar arguments.
Most people think of the Muslim Brotherhood as an organization invested into an evolutionary and non-violent approach to amassing power, but there is increasing evidence that not only has it funded violent terrorist organizations based in the Muslim Brotherhood ideology, not only have many members of these radical extremist groups emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood circles, but that Muslim Brotherhood has always pursued a divergent path of democratic and violent means. Furthermore, recent incidents illustrate the evidence of the Brotherhood being actively involved in violent subversive activity, lending further support to the inherently violent nature of the movement.
There is a similarity between Arab Spring, Black Lives Matter, and other such movements in that they follow a mixture of social movement grassroots organizing elements and rely on public support and free media coverage to fuel their influence; they also share revolutionary principles and rhetoric, although the level of violence employed at different stages of these movements may vary. Still, it is not accurate to claim that Arab Spring uprisings were entirely peaceful; in fact many of the MB-inspired movements in the Middle East today, strive to learn from the initial uprising but try to steer clear of violent responses to government action, which contributed to the Arab Spring undoing in some cases. While the Arab Spring may have failed in many cases, the success of the rise to power and support of the movements behind these uprising fueled the rise in community organizing and social media-fueled approach to political activism in Western countries, including the United States.
But there is a certain populist appeal to mobilizing the public in a revolutionary wave to achieve political goals quickly and decisively rather than through the lengthy, bureaucratic process of voter recruitment, campaigning, and election. Furthermore, at a higher level, it is much lower in cost, leveling the playing field for activists, and thus creating an appearance of being more “democratic”. It is no wonder that the groups who have seen some level of success in the Arab Spring model, decided to apply the most successful elements to the reality in the United States.
THE ROLE OF SOCIAL MEDIA IN FACILITATING VIOLENT REVOLUTIONS
The Goals Of The Leftist-Islamist Alliance In The US
In the United States, left-wing activists behind these riots are not yet looking to overturn the entire system of governance, but they do find it legitimate to use revolutionary means to get to power in the instances where they lack the support to get there through traditional election campaigning, as it happened in 2016. And once again they are joining forces with Qatari media — this time, it’s “light” AJ+ version — to reach the likeminded and the confused, disseminating leftist talking points in support of Antifa in the US, even as such movements are repressed domestically in the conservative country.
The leftist-Islamist alliance is once again joining forces to mobilize activists and to circumvent and to supersede liberal values and democratic norms in running fair and effective elections. One potential explanation for the timing is that the questionable lockdowns, which have done great damage to the booming and deregulated “Trump” economy, have outlived their usefulness; the worst of the pandemic has passed and governors and mayors, not all of them Republicans, are beginning to open up states and cities across the country. Therefore, the next diversion from the political process for radical left organizers opposed to Trump has been to find a cause for mass unrest that would spread fear across the country and undermine faith in the government structures and institutions, which was of course was one of the central results of the Arab Spring uprisings.
On the one hand, following the Arab Spring, a number of governments had implemented a series of reforms that in theory should have restored the people’s faith in the authorities, but on the other hand having seen some level of success of the model, it was since used again and again by activists to increase skepticism of those reforms themselves and to push for outside intervention in those countries.
In other words, concessions to the crowd only incited further demands. Rather than putting to rest the complaints about lack of government responsiveness to social, political and economic needs, the success of the rioting model in forcing these initial reforms was used to justify future attempts to organize other uprisings and to portray the reforms that had been won as insufficient and in themselves undemocratic.
How Social Media Fuels Polarization And Populist Movements
Important as the mass media is, it was not enough on its own to move hearts and minds. In addition, the activists have embraced social media giants and their inconsistent, incoherent, virtue signaling policies to engage fellow travelers, and to shut down critics and dissenters. Social media, then, is being used as a vehicle of information warfare to get around social and political norms, as a source of polarization and destabilization. Tristan Harris, formerly of Facebook, has gone on record to uncover how Twitter and Facebook use algorithms to encourage divisions, echo chambers, and to turn people against one another.
This, overall, leads to a dehumanizing effect, which increases negative emotions, and creates social bubbles that become difficult to break through. Instead of breaking down walls in communication, the overall effect of social media has been to erect them, because anger and fear lead to more engagement and increased profit. Unlike traditional media, which has an increasingly shrinking audience, each of the social media giants boasts of millions of users who are active participants, compared to the static act of observing what the traditional media regurgitates. It is far better suited for civic engagement and mobilization to action.
While the initial spark for the Arab Spring in Tunisia happened by the traditional means — with an incident on the street — Twitter amplified the expression of popular dissatisfaction, and also spread the idea of a “social revolution” to neighboring countries. Furthermore, mobilizing activists online was easier and safer both for the outsiders and insiders involved in building the movement.
Physical gatherings are easily infiltrated and disrupted or prevented by governments; spreading support on Twitter does not require extensive logistical coordination and planning. Would the Arab Spring have enjoyed any level of popular success without social media’s role? The evidence to a significantly greater difficulty of social protests without this factor can be gleaned from the example of Iran, where in more recent years, the government has taken to blocking social media applications, and even shutting down the Internet in some extreme cases, in order to disrupt organized physical protests.
Twitter was used to manipulate information flow, not only of truthful allegations of government corruption, but also, to some extent to focus the discussion on the immediacy of action, downplaying the consequences of a revolt, as well as the need for planning and providing effective and sustainable alternatives. This process appealed to the mindset at the time, but at the same time, distracted from the possibility of developing any other potential approaches and solutions.
Ultimately, Twitter was used to turn passive observance of the event to active engagement and a call for action. However, in future instances of social movements, the ease of a call for action and the polarizing nature of the medium which can use easy reach to mass numbers to generate emotional upheaval, had the effect of shutting down any information that got in the way of organizing an immediate response, perpetuating tunnel vision towards more evolutionary approaches and less drastic responses.
These social media tools were also available to all revolutionary forces, not only the “good” ones. In the early days of Twitter, it arguably facilitated the rise of ISIS, one of the most tech-savvy terrorist organizations, which rose to prominence due to its effective appeal to potential supporters through great visuals, effective dissemination of information, and emotional and bombastic appeals. Only when ISIS started beheading Americans in front of the cameras in 2014 did Twitter and others finally start taking steps towards limiting the platform to terrorists and ideological extremists.
Even this process turned out to be complicated, however. The arbitration mechanisms for Twitter and other platforms were easily exploited to shut down the voices of opposition to ISIS and other extremist groups and regimes. There are certainly ideological tendencies among social media moderators, and all suffer the same weaknesses of ego-driven human nature, but incompetence and poor working conditions for such staff seem to be the bulk of the explanation, which ultimately led to mass lawsuits.
The same social media that “democratized” outreach and helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, held the same appeal for more violent populist movements. It helped break down barriers in communication between candidates or movement leaders and the public, simplified speech, grounded lofty ideas and grievances in a way that anyone of any background could identify with.
Do Social Media Giants Deliberately Facilitate The Rise Of Some Movements Through Targeted Discrimination?
In terms of the ideological tendency of the social media giants, it cannot be ignored that the heads of these corporations share in a near-uniform values system, and the notion that they are imposing this system on their platforms has become more credible over time, with the seeming arbitrary targeting of various groups and the equally unjustified empowerment of others. Conservatives, Israel-supporters, Saudis, free speech advocates, and others were among the many who have complained bitterly over being de-platformed without any sort of due process, while their adversaries suffer no consequences for extreme and harassing actions and for the spread of radical and threatening content.
Various hearings in Congress over whether Facebook and Twitter are content publishers or platforms (in other words, whether they are required by law to abstain from moderating speech by content except when there is a clear violation of existing laws or whether they are merely an intermediary service and facilitator, in which case they have every right to create and enforce their own rules, and apply them with whatever level of consistency they choose) did not ultimately change anything.
Does Social Media Take Part In The Political Process?
Indeed, major platforms appeared happy to play it both ways, with Twitter even banning political ads, and thus, arguably, intervening in the election process on behalf of those parties who would most benefit from limiting exposure by their opponents. The concern about foreign influence and interference, abuse of personal data, and privacy were also addressed in hearings but did not lead to any conclusive policy decisions. Congress hinted at regulating social media giants and creating federal taskforce to enforce respect for the marketplace of ideas and protections for controversial content, while also ensuring appropriately strong action against the spread of extremism. To this day, however, this issue remains unresolved. Meanwhile, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the social media giants are using this legal limbo to play a subtle but influential political role in becoming arbiters of “community standards” in mass conversation.
Facebook, for instance, took measures to acquire once-private WhatsApp chat groups, and has been rumored to censor private conversations, to backdoor these chats, and to spam users with politicized corona virus tips courtesy of China-influenced WHO. In countries like Vietnam, Facebook, Whatsapp, and others, caving to government pressure slowed down and censored dissenting content. More recently, Facebook has created a largely left-leaning “Supreme Court” of content reviewers and community standard advisers, which also includes the Arab Spring activist Tawwakol Karman, known to be funded by Qatar, sympathetic to Turkey, and antagonistic to Egypt’s President Sissi and to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. An appointment of such a polarizing and controversial figure speaks to Facebook’s change of course to appease and to engage radical leftist activists, revolutionaries, and their Islamist allies at home and abroad — even at the cost to their other users.
The last blow to any appearance of objectivity, however, has been Twitter’s decision to “fact-check” individual tweets (without implementing any clear standards or criteria for such decisions), and “fact-checking” President Trump’s tweet, without doing the same to Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei, Javad Zarif, Turkey’s President Erdogan, or any of the millions of various regime propagandists, apologists, supporters, and mouthpieces.
Will Political Intervention Help Resolve The Appearance Of Abuse Of Power By The Social Media?
Incensed by the decision, President Trump signed an executive order which would strip social media giants of some of the legal protections which allow them to carry on as they do. This EO has had a divisive effect on his supporters. Arguably, the EO is vaguely written, and challengeable in Court.
Also problematic is that it has not gone through the legislative process in Congress, and therefore can be easily renounced by any future President, including Trump himself, which raises more questions than it answers. Moreover, the statute distinguishing publishers from platform providers is more legally complex than meets the eye, so the grounds for implementing any significant regulatory decisions against social media companies on that basis may be shaky and, again, vulnerable in court. A more effective way of holding social media platforms accountable for empowering dictators and giving platform to anti-American radicals are the steps proposed by Senator Cruz, who is pushing for a criminal investigation into Twitter allowing Khamenei and Zarif to retain their accounts in circumvention of US sanctions. This continues despite previous official warnings by Senator Cruz. While that battle is in its early stages, Twitter and Facebook reacted differently to President Trump’s commentary. Twitter has been vocal in what it presents as fighting “disinformation” related to election procedures such as the mail-in votes, in general, and not just with respect to the President; Facebook has left his posts alone. Many view Twitter’s position overall as nothing short of election meddling and taking a political position by a social media giant with a great deal of sway.
Mark Zuckerberg, who, in the past, had donated both to Republican and Democratic candidates, has been overall more conciliatory with the government’s position and less openly supportive of limitations on political speech, allowing political ads. At the same time, however, Facebook, just as much as Twitter, and other social media platforms and apps, has given room to the neo-revolutionaries to organize and to share information (although, reportedly, some of the most radical activity in the current riots now takes place in TikTok), thus continuing to give an opening for the extremist activists to reach the public and funding support alike. The platforms, for instance, have been an effective clarion call for various left-wing celebrities who had committed to paying for legal counsel and to finance bail for the rioters placed under arrest. Arguably, knowing that someone will provide financial assistance for legal repercussions, and will even help make you famous, will only encourage activists to join up with the rioters.
While the US government experiments with various approaches to get social media platform to be more fair and less accommodating to extremists and elections interference, social media remains a major vehicle for social engineering and mobilization, if not change. The manipulation of algorithms to create particular social effects is without a question a type of such engineering; punishing and shadowbanning some parties to a discussion while allowing or boosting others, likewise speaks to interference in social norms and conversations, rather than merely watching out for clearly outlined abuses. So long as revolutionaries find powerful enablers and allies, they will have incentive and means to continue inciting social unrest to the point of violence.
What To Expect
But will this ultimately change the outcome in elections? Will these riots create more fellow travelers, or, will they, on the other hand, alienate potential sympathizers affected negatively by the violence? It remains to be seen, but unlike the grievances of extreme corruption and injustice brought to the surface around the time of the Arab Spring and ultimately hijacked by radicals, the US legal system overall has been effective, consistent, and open to change through normal, democratic means not requiring violent overthrow of existing government bodies to lead to equitable results and reexamination. Still, the trends are disturbing.
In Arab states facing organized social movements by the opposition, with the threat of mass uprisings and revolutions, the governments ultimately learned how to balance the implementation of important reforms, while cracking down on radicalism and security threats. Ironically, in the United States, a country with a far longer history of democratic means to address grievances, the authorities have been struggling to communicate with the population in a way that is unifying and undoes the damaging polarizing effect of these activists and their fellow travelers in the NGOs, the media, and educational systems over the generation.
The US government and major institutions are also struggling with finding the political will and legal and effective means to stave off the rise and increasingly frequent elections of radical ideologues across the country. While these trends may ultimately do more harm than good to the revolutionaries, who have overreached and devastated many potential supporters, in the future, if these movements continue, they have a potential to inflict a great deal more damage and to have a drastic political effect.
European Eye on Radicalization aims to publish a diversity of perspectives and as such does not endorse the opinions expressed by contributors. The views expressed in this article represent the author alone.