While Facebook, Twitter, and Congress continue dealing with the fallout from revelations surrounding Russian actors running accounts, creating pages, and planning events from Texas to Florida, a pair of right-wing trolls seem to have taken advantage of the latest rounds of revelations — all while wading into the controversies surrounding recent NFL protests.
Earlier this week, the “Boston Antifa” account tweeted out a pair of photos juxtaposing “NFL fans” circa 2015, pictured as a group of tailgating Bills fans, and 2017, pictured as a gaggle of young men and women posing in front of a mirror. The tweet pointed to a “New NFL,” offering “gender inclusivity” and “gluten free options at stadiums.” Looking to bandwagon on Sunday’s protests, the tweet also included the #TakeAKnee hashtag.
On its face, the tweet appeared to be another anodyne, tongue-in-cheek comment on the recent, resounding protests against systemic racism in the United States. It probably would have flown under the radar, drowned out by more clever takes, if not for one detail: The tweet included a geotag that placed the account in Vladivostok, Russia.
— Naveed Jamali (@NaveedAJamali) September 27, 2017
That awkward moment when the Russian government forgets to turn off location services on their disinformation network Twitter accounts. pic.twitter.com/SqV2eArN7g
— Vets Against Trump (@commondefense) September 27, 2017
The tweet, of course, ensnared a few different threads: reactions from the NFL protests, escalating interest in — and concerns with — antifa protesters, and unfurling revelations about how Russian actors misled and co-opted Americans both during and after the election, especially via Twitter. As The Mary Sue wrote about the tweet, “Russia’s Internet propaganda war on the U.S. is continuing apace.”
A quick Google search, however, may have helped prevent those self-professed analysts from pushing the tweet to their followers.
The “Boston Antifa” group is, in reality, anything but. It’s been known for some time that the account is run by a pair of Oregon-based right-wing trolls who have taken months of glee in tricking analysts and critics alike. As BuzzFeed reported, the group “tagged nine other antifa Twitter accounts in the original photo” that are all also troll accounts. (Some media critics highlighted the fact that the account is fake, but appeared not to realize the account isn’t actually Russian.)
A round of pieces in mid-August highlighted the fact that the group was a sham operation, with outlets like New York Magazine and Gizmodo pointing out that the “Boston Antifa” account didn’t actually have anything to do with antifa. Earlier this month, when the “Boston Antifa” crew claimed credit for an anti-racism banner draping the Green Monster at Fenway Park — a claim highlighted by outlets like Sports Illustrated — MassLive pointed out that the group was clearly a fraud.
“[T]hey are a pair of anti-leftist pranksters from Oregon who started Boston Antifa as a parody of actual anti-fascist groups,” the paper wrote. “Brandon and Alexis, whose Antifa characters ‘Dustin’ and ‘Quinn’ opine on subjects like how fidget spinners can trigger PTSD in hurricane victims, said as much last April in an interview with right-wing media personality Gavin McInnes. … One influence on Boston Antifa was alternative comedian Andy Kaufman, said Brandon, who described the project as ‘pranks and parodies.’”
Of course, that didn’t stop certain right-wing outlets from claiming that the group was representative of all things antifa. As noted plagiarist Benny Johnson wrote in the Independent Journal Review, “Boston Antifa” — the “alleged official Twitter account of the Boston antifa group” — helped “set the record pretty straight” about “what antifa stands for and what the group condones.” When others called out Johnson for failing to recognize that it was a parody account, IJR appended a milquetoast editor’s note, saying only that the outlet “reached out for verification of the authenticity of the group. In an automated response, the group said: ‘Thank you for contacting the official page for the Antifa organization in the Boston area.’ We will update this article as needed.” The article doesn’t appear to have been updated since.
It’s technically possible the pair behind “Boston Antifa” — which has since seen its Twitter and Facebook accounts suspended — are actually in Vladivostok. (Brandon and Alexis mentioned earlier in the year they were considering moving from Oregon, although they didn’t specify where.) More likely, though, the “Boston Antifa” group simply changed the geotag location of their Tweets – a quick enough operation that allows users to pretend to be from wherever they’d like.
You know Twitter lets you pick any location you want for your tweet, right? (I'm in Moscow right now) pic.twitter.com/sys8vuxv6Y
— Alexey Kovalev (@Alexey__Kovalev) September 28, 2017
Twitter has made no pronouncement that they’ll limit geotag locations in the future, preferring to focus instead on expanding character limits and allowing Trump to skirt its policies. But until Twitter higher-ups decide to inject a bit more accuracy into their product, expect more trolls to take advantage, duping “analysts,” and many of the rest of Twitter’s users, along the way.