On the United States’ Independence Day, the Gettysburg National Park in Pennsylvania was once again to be the setting of a great battle. According to social media posts, anti-fascist protesters – or antifa – planned to descend on the location to burn American and Confederate flags and desecrate the cemetery. Alerted to the plan, armed right-wing militias and neo-Nazis arrived to counter protest.
The clash of ideologies never materialized, though. As it turned out, the antifa plan was a hoax, spread via social media by far-right bloggers and conspiracy theorists. In fact, hoax stories about alleged antifa activities are frequently spread online, either by right-wing groups stirring up unrest or left-wing groups trolling conservatives.
The confrontation that never happened
As reported in The Washington Post, rumors of a Fourth of July antifa flag burning began with a Facebook post from a now-deleted page, Left Behind USA.
“Let’s get together and burn flags in protest of thugs and animals in blue,” an unidentified user posted on the page in mid-June. The gathering at Gettysburg, the location of one of the most famous American Civil War battles, was also allegedly set to include face painting and small flags for children to throw into the fire.
Far-right groups on social media found the post and spread it. YouTube videos from groups with names like “First State Pathfinders” advocated arriving “battle-ready” for a confrontation. Presumably, they were expecting the type of violent clashes that have occurred between antifa and far-right protesters at events like the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Instead, as documented by Shawn Breen’s photos on Twitter, the far-right militias, pro-Trump protesters and white supremacists who arrived found Gettysburg empty of any far-left agitators. Law enforcement patrolled the area, but, in the words of Breen, “Absolutely nothing of interest” happened.
When the Post investigated Left Behind USA (its Twitter account has also been suspended), the creator of the page claimed to be Alan Jeffs, a 39-year-old man living in Iowa. The man said he was a “lifelong Democrat-turned-anarchist.” Other Twitter accounts allegedly run by the man were supportive of progressive Senator Bernie Sanders.
However, the Post could find no evidence that Alan Jeffs existed. Furthermore, it appears that antifa activists never had any intention of going to Gettysburg on the Fourth of July.
Hoaxes spreading on social media
This was not the first time Gettysburg was the location of an antifa hoax. On July 1, 2017, a strikingly similar non-confrontation played out.
In a June 27, 2017 post, the conservative blog Harrisburg100 alleged “there are unconfirmed reports that anarchists plan to burn Confederate flags during the anniversary of the battle.” The post included an image from a “Harrisburg Antifa” Facebook group claiming they would be at Gettysburg. It went on to say officials were preparing for protests by both far-right and far-left groups.
As with this year, the rumored Gettysburg confrontation was partially in response to multiple Confederate statues being removed from public spaces around the country.
Also mirroring this year, a confrontation never happened. Antifa protesters didn’t show up, though dozens of armed right-wing militia members did. One, according to BuzzFeed, accidentally shot himself in the leg with his own gun.
In both situations, the alleged antifa flag burning was picked up by conservative websites – Harrisburg100 in 2017, the Gateway Pundit in 2020 – and given greater publicity. Also in both cases, it appears the initial posts were created by left-wing activists to troll conservatives.
It is just as possible that the people starting these rumors are far-right, white supremacist groups posing as antifa in order to spread fear of the far-left activists. Facebook and Twitter have recently deleted multiple such accounts dedicated to this practice, though it has been going on for years.
According to an NBC News report, white nationalist groups have been using the recent racial and social discord surrounding the Black Lives Matter protests to stir up suburban anxiety. These groups have spread rumors that busloads of antifa anarchists were coming by bus to towns like Boise, Idaho and Sioux Falls, South Dakota to cause destruction.
In all cases, the rumors have not panned out, with the “busloads of antifa” never materializing. Like the alleged Gettysburg protests, some right-wing militia groups have still shown up to protect against these “antifa invasions.”
What is antifa?
Fear of antifa is a persistent theme in the conservative media, with Fox News regularly reporting on the leaderless movement. Antifa has become a frequent boogeyman on the right, blamed for violence at protests despite little evidence of its involvement. On May 31, President Donald Trump tweeted, “The United States of America will be designating ANTIFA as a Terrorist Organization.”
As journalists have pointed out though, antifa isn’t an organization. It has no central leadership and its membership is anonymous. Those who use the label say they are motivated by an ethos of anti-fascism. They also oppose homophobia, transphobia and racism, all things Trump has been accused of embodying.
A common meme has recently begun circulating among left-wing activists calling the Allied landing at Normandy Beach in World War II the “Biggest antifa rally in history.”
There are disparate antifa groups around the country. The first one with an online presence was the Portland, Oregon-based Rose City Antifa (RCA). That group was founded in 2007 in response to “a neo-Nazi skinhead festival called Hammerfest.” RCA has remained active ever since, though its members are anonymous.
“By staying anonymous,” the group says, “we act as a collective, and represent that we are acting in unity and uninterested in gaining social capital from our work as anti-fascists.”
Have a tip or story? Get in touch with our reporters at [email protected]