From 1791 to 1804, the Haitian Revolution took place. Spurred by slave revolts, the revolution led to the founding of an independent state ruled by non-whites, and more importantly, formerly enslaved people. The people of Haiti liberated themselves from their white colonizers, challenging long-held white European beliefs about the agency of Black people and their ability to achieve and maintain their own freedom. The revolts terrified white colonizers and slave owners, so much that rumors ran rampant during the revolution that the uprising had to have been provoked by a higher authority. The idea that slaves and colonized subjects would have the agency to commit a revolt without provocation from an “outside agitator” was unthinkable by white slave owners and colonists. The seeds of white supremacy were present then and are still present in our discourses of ‘outside agitators’ today. More specifically, the ‘Antifa Bus’ rumor is one that is based in racism and anti-Semitism, asserting that George Soros is paying protestors to go to small towns to cause chaos. The moral panic surrounding the ‘Antifa bus’ episode has resulted in many suburban and rural Americans unintentionally spreading misinformation about the threat, with images of white people patrolling their towns with weapons.
Moral panics feed off of fear, and we learn who and what to fear, and why, through socialization. As more social media platforms spread these rumors, the issue is not only to examine its source and intent (as in, it may be a disinformation/propaganda campaign), but also unpacking the reasons why it is so effective in getting suburban and rural Americans to patrol the streets of their towns armed to fight an enemy who never appear. As rumors abound on NextDoor, Facebook, Twitter, and even the Ring app, unpacking their responses requires an examination of the roots of moral panic itself. The rumor of ‘outside agitators’ has a long, racist past; one that is predicated on the superiority of white Europeans, who create rumors and moral panics to maintain their authority.
But what is it about these rumors that make them such effective vehicles for the spread of information? Rumor researchers point to the need for humans to make sense of their world for an explanation as to why rumor persists in communities, particularly during times of uncertainty. Rumors are ways of mitigating anxiety and to increase certainty of chaotic situations, but the kinds of information they contain wildly varies from group-to-group. This is because people are more likely to believe in information that are consistent with stereotypes, aligns with their worldviews, and favors their group identity. The more people expose themselves to similar, corroborating information through rumors, the more likely those rumors become part of their own construction of reality. Fueled by rumors, moral panics have long been embedded in political discourse, and not only do they name and identify the threat, but also mobilize attempts to try and destroy the source of the threat itself. Rumors and moral panics are social phenomena that feed into and cynically inform one another.
The deeper, and more nefarious purpose of spreading the ‘outside agitator’ rumor is not only to mobilize against a threat, but to imply that the protestors have no agency; and that the current protests happening across the world are merely short-term disruptions without legitimacy. The way that these rumors spread and help to not only create, but solidify, moral panic in the white psyche demonstrates the ways in which racism, anti-Semitism, and misogyny continue to form the foundational basis of white identity. Their moral panic cannot be divorced from an underlying fear of the ‘Other’, manifest in racism and anti-Semitism of the ‘Antifa Bus’ rumor. Whether it’s a propaganda campaign meant to create chaos from nefarious actors or just an opportunistic troll; moral panic reveals much about the psyche and constructions of reality of their perpetuators, of which media – both traditional and digital – continue to play a fundamental role.
The “Moral” Media
The role of the media in fanning the flames of this moral panic should not be underplayed, and as we’ve seen, attempts to correct this misinformation is doing little to stop the spread of the ‘Antifa bus’ rumor. The moral panic surrounding the ‘Antifa Bus’ is only being strengthened by reports from local governments, police forces, and the FBI claiming that most of the arrests made at protests were of people who were from outside of New York state. Fox News has even spread this rumor claiming it got its information from an “anonymous government source.” This is not just an issue of framing an issue to support hegemony, but blatantly spreading false information, administering fear, and fanning the flames of white anxiety. The same tactic has been used time and time again, from the Haitian Revolution, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and now in the current Black Lives Matter protests happening across the country.
The Haitian scholar Michel-Rolph Trouillot wrote in Silencing the Past that “ … the unthinkable is that which one cannot conceive within the range of possible alternatives, that which perverts all answers because it defies the terms under which the questions were phrased.” (p. 82, as quoted by Trouillot). The purpose of spreading the ‘outside agitator’ rumor is to imply that the protestors have no agency, rather than accept the unthinkable alternative. How these rumors spread and help to not only create but solidify moral panic in the white psyche demonstrate the ways in which fear of the ‘Other’ has been the foundational epistemological basis for Americans, who cling onto white hegemony in an ever-changing world. Moral panics are effective because they establish targets, turning fear into a productive emotion, and naming the sources of their anxiety. In short, moral panics are not without purpose or illogical; the purpose of a moral panic is to establish moral authority – that is, those who are experiencing the moral panic adhere to it because of the supposed threat to their authority and a subsequent threat to their own power and status.
Clinging to the ‘Antifa bus’ rumor is how these white Americans reject these unthinkable alternatives, and has the potential to result in significant mobilization, and they have already begun to use these moral panics to fuel their movements. Fueling anti-Semitism, the pervasive belief that George Soros is paying protestors to incite a race war is being spread among the far right across the world. Tapping into anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, these rumors and moral panics are attempts to dehumanize and delegitimize the protests. This has reached the highest levels of government in the U.S., with the Trump administration embracing an “Against Antifa” policy agenda and claiming that Antifa will be categorized as a terrorist group. The move by the Trump administration to do so further exacerbates the moral panic being felt by many white Americans. What researchers of the radical right must do is to think long-term about the drivers of historicity and roots of moral panics in the first place. Researchers of the radical right should therefore look for the ghosts of racism and oppression that haunt society and have perpetuated white supremacism and moral panics. This is not a 20th century phenomenon that began with the rise of Nazism and fascism – white supremacy is an international, centuries old project, which has resulted in the violent silencing of BIPOC and non-Black POC from the annals of history. The ‘outside agitators’ rhetoric continues to exacerbate these erasures and silences. Moving forward, high-quality research and reporting should therefore focus on the underlying sources of the moral panic and attempt to uncover the silences that haunt these racialized and anti-Semitic forms of the ‘outside agitators’ discourse going into the future.
Dr Julia R. DeCook is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Assistant Professor at the School of Communication, Loyola University Chicago. See her profile here.
© Julia DeCook. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).