Screenshots of two rambling social media posts — one from Facebook, one from Instagram — form the sum total of the evidence police used last summer to justify an aerial surveillance operation in North California, records obtained by the nonprofit transparency group Property of the People and reporting by the Guardian show.
The paper reported Monday on events surrounding the California Highway Patrol’s decision in June 2020 to deploy surveillance aircraft to hunt for an (fake) caravan of left-wing “terrorists,” who were ostensibly on a roundtrip across California, smashing windows and starting fires.
The rumoured invasion, which failed to materialise, but prompted armed displays by right-wing extremists in cities across the Northwest, stemmed from social media posts made viral by an army of accounts claiming “Antifa” was on a travelling rampage.
First, Twitter took action, saying the rumours had been boosted by “hundreds of spammy accounts” as part of a coordinated disinformation campaign. Facebook followed soon after, citing details shared by its competitor. Many of the accounts posed as members of “Antifa” or as official “Antifa” accounts while warning of the caravan’s movements.
None of them were real.
In reality, the campaign was launched by a white hate group, company officials said, one whose notoriety is tied to 2017’s “Unite the Right” rally; a bloody event staged by neo-Nazis and Klansmen defending the Confederacy, which capped off with a murder.
The Guardian’s new details add a chapter an already bizarre saga about a California sheriff who, in the summer of 2020, also insisted, despite all evidence to the contrary, that a band of anti-fascists were roaming the countryside, mayhem and madness in tow.
Documents obtained by Property for the People offer a singular look at how officers in California’s rural, northern counties — mostly “known for weed farms and hiking and [being] overwhelmingly white,” the Guardian notes — got duped into promoting the same false claims themselves, meanwhile throwing taxpayer resources at a phantom threat that even residents said beggared belief.
Despite the volume of journalists and law enforcement officials reporting the rumours were false, Humboldt County’s sheriff, William Honsal, refused to back down on the claims, which he promoted via his weekly “media availability” videos. Lost Coast Outpost, a news site covering California’s northwest, documented Honsal’s insistence he’d seen “substantiated, law enforcement reports” about “buses full of people” hurdling toward the state.
But what his office now tells the Guardian raises questions at the very least about what Honsal thinks “substantiated” looks like:
A CHP spokeswoman told the Guardian that the agency had received no evidence about possible buses beyond the two screenshots, and said its investigative unit reviewed the social media posts “to evaluate potential public safety issues”.
One of the two screenshots was of an Instagram post that claimed far-left “domestic terrorists” were headed for the small city of Redding in Shastha County; an easterly, three-hour drive from Honsal’s turf. The second, from Facebook, claimed the caravan had paused briefly in Klamath Falls, a five hour drive out of state, before continuing its journal. No photo of video evidence was offered, except for “a grainy image of a small van with ‘Black Lives Matter’ written on the back.”
The Associated Press, at the time Honsal received the screenshots, was circulating a fact-check saying photos of buses with text warning about “Antifa” being “bused in” to “incite violence and destruction” were fake. The text painted on the buses was photoshopped.
Honsal, who received the screenshots from the California Highway Patrol, continued, nevertheless, to insist a week later that he’d “confirmed” the caravan was real; this, despite by that time, numerous investigations having determined precisely the opposite.
As his defence of the claims bore on, NBC News reported that Twitter had suspended an “Antifa” account announcing plans to start riots “in residential areas” of Washington; or as the account put it, in “white hoods.” Twitter, however, revealed the account was linked to Identity Evropa, a white nationalist organisation involved in Charlottesville rally, which ended in the murder of Heather Hayer, a 32-year-old paralegal, by a man described as “loving Hitler” from an early age.
At the same time, Twitter was dealing with trending hashtags promoting conspiracy theories about a “cover-up” or news “blackout” about “Antifa” and the devastation wrought by its rioting road-trip. The trending topics resulted from the coordinated efforts of “hundreds of spammy accounts,” Twitter said.
Soon reports surfaced of armed vigilantes gathering on city streets, steeling themselves for a showdown with a threat that no one in 1,287 km could find.
Honsal, still, did not back down.
Property of the People’s executive director, Ryan Shapiro, criticised the highway patrol for engaged in “military-style” surveillance while Honsal and others issued disturbing public announcements based on a threat supported by virtually nothing.
If anything, it suggests, Shapiro told the Guardian, a lack of “basic news and social media information literacy” among officials, on which great responsibility falls for public safety.