Local officials across the US are raising concerns about provocateurs hijacking peaceful protests
Local officials across the US are raising concerns about provocateurs hijacking peaceful protests © Getty Images

The vandal who smashed a police car in Pittsburgh last Saturday was not protesting against police brutality against minority citizens. According to a Washington Post report, the white 20-year-old who police say incited vandalism during the protest was a militant vegan, sported an “Animal Liberation Front” symbol and stored spray cans and guns at his home in the suburbs.

This story is an example of one of the most worrying aspects of the heartbreaking turmoil that now has the US in its grips. Local officials across the country are raising concerns about provocateurs, many of whom seem to be young white men, hijacking peaceful protests. As the Washington Post article shows, they range from anarchists to rightwing militia members.

It is hard to know for sure how much of the property damage has been carried out by provocateurs rather than angry protesters (as for violence against people, that seems to have been overwhelmingly on the police side). But that is part of the point. Vandalism and violence, obviously and unacceptably, harm the victims and alienate the broader voting public while distracting from the core issue of police brutality. But uncertainty about who is rioting can be as damaging as the rioting itself.

Economics has something useful to say about this. In 1970, the maverick economist and later Nobel laureate George Akerlof wrote a famous paper called “The Market for Lemons” — referring not to the citrus fruit but to the American slang for a dud second-hand car. It was a pioneering analysis of how markets fail to achieve efficient transactions when consumers have worse information about the product than the sellers. In the used-car example, because some unscrupulous used-car traders try to pass off “lemons” as “peaches”, consumers are aware that not all cars are what they seem to be, and discount the value they are willing to put even on the cars of perfectly respectable sellers. Because it is hard to distinguish lemons and peaches in the dealership yard, all used cars are tarnished by this risk.

The point of economic models is to make general theoretical points that may apply in a wide variety of contexts, and so it is with this one. A fundamental application of Akerlof’s analysis is to money: as my local butcher’s refusal to accept £50 notes illustrates, the presence of counterfeit coins and bills undermines confidence in legitimate currency generally. It is, in a word, a model of distrust.

We should understand the effect of agents provocateurs in America’s equal justice protests in the same way. The effect of seeding vandalism and rioting amid the protests is to make it hard to distinguish legitimately angry but peaceful protesters from violent mobs. As a result all are tarred with the same brush.

Akerlof showed how this means people pull back from mutually beneficial exchange. In his example, distrust merely meant an inefficient second-hand car market. In America’s summer of discontent, a failure of “exchange” means that polarised groups become even more alienated from one another, with the broader public refusing to make common cause with the protesters, even seeing them as threats to their own wellbeing.

There is no doubt that there are deliberate attempts at creating such division through confusion and violence. In the past two months, the Department of Homeland Security has sent law enforcement agencies at least five intelligence notes warning about domestic terrorists, including far-right militias, seeking to inject violent action in a situation of national crisis.

And the link between provocation and misinformation is not just theoretical. Twitter suspended an account presenting itself as part of the radical “Antifa” movement and inciting violence, which was in fact linked to a white nationalist group.

These provocations are, therefore, of a piece with social media propaganda campaigns that spread misinformation. Again, trust is the casualty: the effect of misinformation is not so much to spread false beliefs as to eliminate confidence in truthful ones. As the title of a book by Peter Pomerantsev captures so well, the outcome is that “nothing is true and everything is possible”.

The masters of disinformation have long been the Soviet and Russian intelligence services, as the New York Times’s captivating video series on Operation Infektion shows. Watch it to understand how misinformation campaigns can work — and keep Akerlof’s market for lemons firmly in mind as you continue to watch how Americans’ expressions of despair unfold.

Coronanomics readables

• James Politi examines the persistent and widening economic gap between African-Americans and their fellow citizens.

Chart shows African-American weekly earnings as a % of median weekly earnings for all workers

• Pilita Clark surveys the evidence on home working — and unfortunately finds that while it can be good for productivity, physical proximity matters in an outsize way for individual workers’ careers.

• The European Commission’s ideas for new Europe-wide taxes are revealed in an interview with the EU’s budget chief, Johannes Hahn.

Other readables

• The New York Times’s Privacy Project tracks in horrifyingly graphic detail how protesters’ phones give away their positions — and thereby expose their political predilections — to buyers of location data.

Numbers news

• In both the EU and the eurozone, unemployment rose by 0.2 percentage points from March to April — better than expected, because of furlough schemes, and much better than in the US, where the unemployment rate soared from 3.5 per cent to 14.5 per cent of the workforce.

Chart showing unemployment rate in Europe

• The Resolution Foundation documents in a new report how unfairly the burden of the lockdown has hit those who were already in the lowest-paid and most precarious jobs. As it says: “In 21st century Britain, an employer can cancel a shift for a zero-hours contract worker who has already paid for a train fare to get to the job.”

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