GETTYSBURG NATIONAL MILITARY PARK, PA. - For weeks, a mysterious figure on social media talked up plans for antifa protesters to converge on this historical site on Independence Day to burn American flags, an event that seemed at times to border on the farcical.
"Let's get together and burn flags in protest of thugs and animals in blue," the anonymous person behind a Facebook page called Left Behind USA wrote in mid-June. There would be antifa face paint, the person wrote, and organizers would "be giving away free small flags to children to safely throw into the fire."
As word spread, self-proclaimed militias, bikers, skinheads and far-right groups from outside the state issued a call to action, pledging in online videos and posts to come to Gettysburg to protect the Civil War monuments and the nation's flag from desecration. Some said they would bring firearms and use force if necessary.
On Saturday afternoon, in the hours before the flag burning was to start, they flooded in by the hundreds - heavily armed and unaware, it seemed, that the mysterious Internet poster was not who the person claimed to be.
Biographical details - some from the person's Facebook page and others provided to The Washington Post in a series of messages - did not match official records. An image the person once posted on a profile page was a picture of a man taken by a German photographer for a stock photo service.
The episode at Gettysburg is a stark illustration of how shadowy figures on social media have stoked fears about the protests against racial injustice and excessive police force that have swept across the nation since the death of George Floyd in police custody on May 25.
Armed vigilantes lined the streets of small Idaho towns last month after false claims circulated online about antifa, a loose collection of activists who oppose fascism and have sometimes embraced property damage and violent protest in recent years. Similar hoaxes have befallen towns in New Jersey, South Dakota and Michigan in recent weeks.
It is not always clear who has made these false claims and why, whether they seek to advance a political agenda, antagonize people with whom they disagree or achieve some other goal.
Social media companies have in recent weeks shut down a handful of fake accounts created by white supremacist groups posing as antifa operatives in a bid to undermine peaceful protests.
In response to messages from The Post, the person managing the Left Behind USA account identified himself as 39-year-old Alan Jeffs, a lifelong Democrat-turned-anarchist from Pittsburgh who now lives in Des Moines.
The Post examined real estate, court and voter records, as well as other public documents, but could find no such person.
Officials at Facebook and Twitter shut down the Left Behind USA pages last week after The Post inquired about the accounts, saying the person behind them had manipulated the platform by creating multiple accounts with overlapping content in an effort to amplify their messaging. The officials declined to identify the other accounts.
An official at Facebook said the person appeared to be operating the accounts from inside the United States. After the accounts were shut down, The Post was no longer able to contact the person who was claiming to be Jeffs.
But fears of the antifa-sponsored protest had already taken root.
Macky Marker, a member of a Delaware militia called First State Pathfinders, posted a YouTube video calling on militiamen to go to Gettysburg. "If you plan on coming, I would plan on coming full battle-rattle . . . to be fully, 100 percent prepared to defend yourself and whoever you come with," Marker said in the video.
Left Behind USA popped up on Twitter in February, advancing far-left ideas in a torrent of crude memes and graphics that decried capitalism, called for an end to police and advocated a moratorium on rent. The account attacked Democratic presidential candidate Joseph Biden as a "rapist" and accused him of supporting racist criminal justice laws.
The anonymous person controlling the account described himself in various posts as a laid-off graphic designer, a former Uber driver and a disc jockey. He wrote that he was living off food stamps and sleeping on a friend's couch.
In May, the person sent out an urgent request for gas money on Left Behind USA's Twitter account. He was stranded, the person wrote, with his roommate's car while returning from a trip to Ohio to attend his grandfather's funeral. He said his grandfather, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers who had worked in Youngstown, died on May 28 at age 96.
Jim Burgham, the business manager of the IBEW Local 64 of Youngstown, told The Post that the union, which tracks deaths of current and former members, knew of no such person.
"That member you described doesn't exist," Burgham said.
In early April, a person using the name Alan Jeffs created a petition on the website Change.org. It included a video first posted on a twitter account controlled by the Alan Jeffs persona who runs Left Behind USA. The petition called for the governor of Wisconsin to postpone the Democratic primary because of the health risks of the novel coronavirus.
It included a photo of a smiling, bearded man, purportedly Jeffs, and said he was in Beaver Falls, Pa. Using a reverse image search, The Post found that the photo came from the stock photo website depositphotos.com.
The Left Behind USA Facebook page was created June 2. When The Post initially sought an interview in mid-June, the person controlling the Facebook page responded in a message: "I don't prefer to talk to conservative media sources."
The person later identified himself as 39-year-old Jeffs and provided several details about his background. "I have been politically active since I was old enough to vote and have voted Democratic in every presidential and midterm election that I've been able to," the person wrote in a private Facebook message to The Post.
Election officials in Iowa's Polk County told The Post that no one by the name Alan Jeffs has ever been registered to vote in the state, according to a database search. Officials in Pennsylvania said there was no one by that name on that state's active or inactive voter rolls, either.
Two media publications quoted Alan Jeffs this spring, citing another of his Twitter accounts that supported former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. The Christian Science Monitor found in an analysis of social media data that Jeffs's Twitter account, @Bernieorelse, stood out for its frequent and aggressive posts against former Democratic presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg.
"Twitter is the real world now, even more than it was four years ago," the Christian Science Monitor quoted Jeffs as saying in March.
In April, a student-run news website at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism quoted Jeffs in a story about the Democratic presidential nomination. Jeffs said he lived just outside Pittsburgh.
"I'm fed up with the Democrats forcing centrist candidates upon us," he said.
That same month, his social media account @Bernieorelse was suspended by Twitter. A spokesman told The Post the account violated the platform's rules but declined to elaborate.
On June 11, Left Behind USA posted an image on its Facebook page that seemed designed to agitate.
Around an illustration of a U.S. flag aflame, it announced: "Antifa presents: 4th of July Flag Burning To Peacefully Protest For Abolishing Police Nationwide."
"No Bikers, Militias Or Other So-Called Patriots," it said. "Children Welcome - Antifa Face-Painting"
A Facebook page called Central PA Antifa quickly denounced the event as fake, likening it to a hoax in Gettysburg three years ago.
In 2017, rumors of an antifa event at the national park prompted a large group of armed militia members to show up. They encountered no one from antifa, but one of the armed militia members accidentally shot himself in the leg with a revolver.
Still, news of this year's supposed event spread quickly in conservative circles.
On June 22, the far-right website Gateway Pundit published a story claiming that "Antifa domestic terrorists are planning to desecrate the Gettysburg National Cemetery and set the American Flag ablaze on Independence Day."
Local newspapers also picked up the story.
This town of fewer than 8,000 people grew alarmed. Residents flooded authorities with calls. Local officials pledged to mobilize the town's entire 20-person police department and bring in others from bordering towns to protect homes, businesses and statues.
Soon, militia groups were vowing to protect the town as well.
"Multiple local residents in Gettysburg PA have contacted us with HEAVY concerns about the terrorist organization ANTIFA holding a flag burning event in their town," a group that calls itself the Pennsylvania State Militia posted on its Facebook page June 23. The group said it would mobilize its "county response team" as "a deterrent against the enemy forces."
Other Facebook groups called Patriots Against Treason, Defend Our Flag and Nation, Protect Our Flag and Battlefield from Being Destroyed quickly formed and announced they also would mobilize people to Gettysburg.
Bill Wolfe, a Gettysburg resident and member of a private Facebook group called III% United Patriots of Pennsylvania, said in an interview that the flag-burning event represented an "ongoing attack on American heritage and culture."
Antifa's activities, he said, were part of a decades-long campaign by the Communist Party to take over the country.
Last week, the person who identified himself as Jeffs told The Post in a private message sent through Twitter that he expected "500 to 600" people to attend the flag-burning event. "We have mobilized groups from all over the area," he wrote.
"We believe in open carry and plan to do so at this event," he added, a reference to the practice of openly carrying firearms in public.
Twitter suspended the account two days later.
But even more outlandish rumors about the protest were circulating.
A separate Facebook post that circulated widely warned that antifa protesters were planning on "MURDERING White people and BURNING DOWN Suburbs" after the Gettysburg flag burning event. It cited a "controlled unclassified law enforcement bulletin."
In the final days of June, local police publicly said that the post was false.
On Saturday, hours before the planned flag-burning protest, hundreds of bikers, militia members and self-described patriots began gathering outside the Gettysburg Cemetery and at nearby sites with Confederate memorials. Some waved Confederate flags. Many gripped assault rifles slung from their shoulders. One carried a baseball bat.
Steve Eicholtz, a 59-year-old from Biglerville, Pa., said he had seen enough of images of looting and rioting. It wasn't going to happen here, he said.
"These people are acting like savages," he was telling his fellow patriots, while holding an AR-15 rifle.
"We've been letting them get by with it for too long, but that changes now," said Don Kretzer, 52, of Chambersburg, Pa.
Less than a mile away, at the Virginia Monument, hundreds of bikers and armed men gathered around a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Christopher Blakeman, 45, of Falling Waters, W.Va., said he felt compelled to join a group of about 50 bikers, mostly from Maryland, to protect the monument from rumored antifa protesters.
"It doesn't matter if it's a hoax or not," he said. "They made a threat, and if we don't make our voices heard, it'll make it seem like it's OK."
As the 3 p.m. start time for the planned flag burning approached, there was no sign of Alan Jeffs or of busloads of antifa members.
Suddenly, by the statue of Lee, a biker shouted that he had gotten an alarming call. Someone was preparing to burn a flag, after all, he said. Scores of people jumped on their bikes and roared toward the cemetery.
There, they learned it was not the threat they imagined.
A man had entered the cemetery wearing a Black Lives Matter T-shirt. The man, Trent Somes, later told The Post he was visiting the grave of an ancestor, not protesting. A seminarian and associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in Hanover, Pa., Somes said a crowd of about 50 people surrounded him and aggressively questioned him about his shirt.
"I didn't do anything to them," he said.
Police arrived and encouraged Somes to leave.
"For his own safety, federal law enforcement made the decision to remove him, and he was escorted out of the cemetery," Jason Martz, acting public affairs officer for Gettysburg National Military Park, later said.
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The Washington Post’s Alice Crites contributed to this report.