As the demonstrations spread from Minneapolis to the White House, New York City, and overseas, federal law enforcement officials insisted that extreme-left groups fueled the violence. Meanwhile, experts who prosecute extremist groups also reported evidence that right-wing extremists are at work.
U.S. officials on Sunday tried to determine whether extremist groups had infiltrated police brutality protests across the country and deliberately steered largely peaceful demonstrations toward violence – and whether foreign opponents were behind a burgeoning disinformation campaign in the social media.
Investigators also followed online interference and investigated whether foreign agents were behind the efforts. Officials saw a flood of social media accounts with fewer than 200 followers last month, a textbook sign of a disinformation campaign.
The pandemic-weary Americans were already angry – about COVID-19 deaths, lockdown orders and tens of millions of unemployed. The pandemic has hit African Americans harder than whites in the United States, and the police killings of blacks have continued over the years, even as the issue has disappeared from the national scene.
The research is an attempt to identify the network of forces behind some of the most widespread outbreaks of civil unrest in the US in decades. In recent days, protests erupted in dozens of cities, sparked by the death of George Floyd, who died after being nailed to the neck by a white Minneapolis police officer.
The reports included graphic depictions of the protests, material about police brutality and material about the coronavirus pandemic, which apparently were intended to fuel tensions across the political divide, three administration officials said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the investigations.
Tim Walz of the Minnesota government said on Sunday that state authorities were hit by a cyber-attack when law enforcement agencies were ready to disperse protests in Minneapolis and St. Paul, the epicenter of the riots.
However, there are signs of people with other different motives, including anarchist graffiti, arrests of some protesters from outside the state, and images circulating in extremist groups that suggest the involvement of outside groups.
“Before our operation began last night, a very sophisticated denial-of-service attack was carried out on all computers,” Walz said. “This is not someone sitting in his basement. That’s pretty sophisticated.”
Walz did not give any details.
President Donald Trump, Attorney General William Bar and others have called the radical left-wing group antifa guilty. Short for antifascist, antifa is an umbrella term for far left militant groups that resist neo-Nazis and white racists at demonstrations.
Barr said Sunday that the FBI will use its regional joint terrorism task forces to “identify criminal organizers,” and Trump again threatened to label antifa as a terrorist group.
Others have seen evidence of right-wing extremists. J.J. MacNab, a fellow of the extremism program at George Washington University, has observed talk of anti-government extremists protesting on social media platforms. She has access to hundreds of private Facebook groups for supporters of the loosely organized “Boogaloo” movement, which uses a film sequel from the 1980s as a codeword for a second civil war.
As a result, Minnesota National Guard soldiers were armed during their deployment at protests across the state on Sunday, officials said. The soldiers are sometimes armed, but they haven’t been since they moved into parts of the state that have been besieged by unrest in recent days. The troops do not have the authority to make arrests and are mainly there to act as additional security forces for the police.
A group of antifa activists sent a message on a telegraph channel on Saturday encouraging people to consider the Minnesota National Guard troops as “easy targets,” two Defense Department officials said. The message encouraged the activists to steal “equipment,” that is, the weapons and body armor used by the soldiers. The officials were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly and spoke under the condition of anonymity.
She also sees signs that the three-percent militia movement seems to have an interest.
“I think that most of the time they do not want to harm these protests. They want to co-opt them to start their war. They see themselves on the side of the protesters and that the protesters themselves are useful in causing anarchy,” MacNab said.
She also looked at pictures of the weekend protests and discovered some “boogaloo bois” in the crowd, armed with high-powered rifles and tactical equipment.
Trump was expected to make a distinction in the coming days between the legitimate anger of peaceful protesters and the unacceptable actions of violent agitators, said a White House official who was not authorized to discuss the plans in advance and who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“It’s very scattered,” she said, “They’re all talking about it, but they don’t seem able to turn these online fantasies about what they’d like to do into real actions, which is good.
Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University who tracks online extremism, saw images of at least four members of the extreme right-wing group “Proud Boys” on the sidelines of a Saturday night protest in Raleigh, North Carolina.
The Trump administration is largely silent on local reports that right-wing extremist protesters were also involved. Meanwhile, Democratic mayors said Trump’s handling of the crisis recalls one of the darkest moments of his presidency – when he said there were “good people on both sides” at the 2017 protests against white supremacists demonstrating in Charlottesville, Virginia.
“This is a real problem, and Americans are justifiably upset about it,” said Ludes, who studies foreign disinformation tactics. “This is one of the hallmarks of these campaigns. They don’t create new issues, they exploit existing issues.”
America’s racial fault lines are a perfect opportunity for foreign opponents to sow discord and portray the United States in a negative light, said James Ludes, director of the Pell Center for International Relations and Public Policy at Salve Regina University in Rhode Island.
There is a history of this. In 2016 another black man, Philando Castile, was killed by police in a Minneapolis suburb, his death was broadcast live on Facebook. The Russians used a fake Black Lives Matter page to confuse the protesters and stir up their anger. There were nearly 700,000 followers, but it’s not clear how many were real.
An exposed example from this week: That Atlanta had deployed a “children’s militia”.
Hundreds have been arrested nationwide and the cities have prepared for further protests. But booking information from the Minneapolis County Jail, for example, showed that of 59 protest arrests, 47 people had a residential address in Minnesota, with the majority coming from twin cities.
At first there were peaceful demonstrations, but soon violence broke out. A police station in Minneapolis was burned down, and protests grew increasingly tense throughout the country. A video showed a police car ramming protesters in New York. Meanwhile, a van with four New York police officers was hit by a Molotov cocktail and set on fire.
Floyd was accused of trying to pass a bad law in a grocery store after he had been fired during the pandemic. A disturbing video showed him lying in the street while a white police officer pressed his knee into Floyd’s neck, even though he was crying that he could not breathe. He later died. The officers were released; Derek Chauvin, the officer who nailed Floyd in the video, was charged with murder.