‘False Flag’ Theory on Pipe Bombs Zooms From Right-Wing Fringe to Mainstream

Just hours after the news broke this week that explosive devices had been sent to Bill and Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and other prominent Democrats, a conspiracy theory began to take shape in certain corners of conservative media.

The bombs, this theory went, were not actually part of a plot to harm Democrats, but were a “false flag” operation concocted by leftists in order to paint conservatives as violent radicals ahead of the elections next month.

“These ‘Suspicious Package’ stories are false flags, carefully planned for the midterms,” tweeted Jacob Wohl, a pro-Trump internet troll who writes for Gateway Pundit, a right-wing news site.

By nightfall, as more explosives were discovered addressed to Representative Maxine Waters, a California Democrat, and Eric H. Holder Jr., an attorney general under Mr. Obama, the fact-free explanation had gelled: The bombs were props, planted by Democratic operatives and amplified by a biased liberal media. A woman arrived at a debate between the two candidates for Florida governor, Ron DeSantis and Andrew Gillum, with a sign that read “Democrats Fake News Fake Bombs.” Lou Dobbs, the Fox Business host and confidant of President Trump, echoed that line in a tweet that he later deleted.

Conspiratorial thinking has always been with us — the grassy knoll, the moon landing, the Freemasons. But it has been turbocharged in the Trump era, as cable news networks and pliant social media networks allow hastily assembled theories to spread to millions in an instant. Often, by the time the official, evidence-based explanation has taken shape, it has already been drowned out by a megaphonic chorus of cranks and attention-hungry partisans.

“The process by which something gets called a false flag has accelerated,” said Anna Merlan, the author of “Republic of Lies,” a coming book about conspiracy theories. “People who make a living conspiracy-peddling are in an arms race with each other, so there’s a rush to stake out that territory and start spinning their narratives about what happened.”

[READ MORE: The investigation into the pipe bombs sent to Trump critics has turned its focus to Florida.]

Within hours of the first bomb’s discovery, conservative media figures were openly speculating about the true motives behind the campaign. Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage and other high-profile commentators flocked to an alternative narrative that could explain the targeted threats to top Democrats without blaming those Democrats’ political opponents.

“Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,” Mr. Limbaugh said on his radio show. (Critics quickly provided Mr. Limbaugh with plenty of counterexamples, including abortion clinic bombings committed by right-wing extremists.)

As prominent conservatives tiptoed around the conspiracy theory swamps, the right-wing internet dove in headfirst. Users on a pro-Trump Reddit forum called r/the_donald frantically assembled evidence to buttress the unfounded theory that the bombs were a left-wing setup. Conservatives on Facebook and Twitter distilled the theory into memes and talking points that were shared thousands of times. Groups originally formed to promote QAnon, a sprawling pro-Trump conspiracy theory, latched on and turned up the volume even higher.

Historically, “false flag” conspiracy theories — named for a naval maneuver in which a ship flies a different country’s flag in order to trick enemies into retreating or to facilitate an escape — have remained on the edges of American discourse. Alex Jones, the conspiracy-theory-loving Infowars founder, was labeled a crank and worse for theorizing that the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, were an “inside job,” and suggesting that the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School was an elaborate hoax concocted in order to promote gun control.

Mr. Jones has been largely pushed to the fringes of the internet — kicked off Twitter, Facebook and a dozen other services — and his cries for attention now seem mostly pitiful. (This week, he was filmed yelling at a pile of manure outside a rally for President Trump in Texas.)

But his spirit lives on in the larger universe of pro-Trump media, which has fused the conspiratorial grandeur of Infowars with an unshakable faith in Mr. Trump’s righteousness. Conspiracy theorists who might once have resorted to handing out subway pamphlets and shouting from street corners have found hungry, durable audiences on cable news shows and social networks. And false flag philosophy — the idea that powerful groups stage threats and tragic events to advance their agendas — is now a bizarrely common element of national news stories.

“The reason we’re seeing more false flag narratives is not that there are necessarily more of them, but that they’re more visible,” Ms. Merlan said. “It’s much easier for a casual news consumer to see them on Twitter.”

Conspiracy theories most often rise around fast-moving news events, like mass shootings and bomb threats, in which fuzzy initial reports often give way to more accurate explanations later on. And sometimes, those questioning the most apparent motives turn out to be justified.

Last year, a string of bomb threats against Jewish institutions in the United States was thought to be an act of anti-Semitic intimidation until police apprehended a Jewish teenager in Israel, whom they suspected of making the threats. The 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando was thought to be an anti-L.G.B.T. hate crime until further evidence suggested the shooter had no idea it was a gay club.

One appeal of heat-of-the-moment conspiracy theories is that they allow for blame-shifting. Candace Owens, a right-wing activist and media personality who has been invited to the White House, earlier this week responded to the bombs by tweeting that “these leftists are going ALL OUT for midterms.” (Ms. Owens, who is now the communications director for the conservative student group Turning Point USA, appeared on Infowars with Mr. Jones as recently as last year.) She later deleted the tweet, but wrote another one in which she said that she still believed that “when it comes to political violence, the left is the likely culprit.”

There are structural reasons for the conspiracy theory boom. Social media platforms like YouTube, Reddit and Facebook have allowed fringe thinkers to bypass traditional gatekeepers and reach millions of people directly. In addition, the dominance of Fox News and other partisan media outlets has created a flourishing market for conspiracy-driven outrage. And a polarized electorate has eagerly lapped up explanations for major news events that conform to their views.

The desire for politically convenient explanations is not contained to the right. Soon after the bombs were reported, and before key facts about them were known, liberals on Twitter adopted the term “MAGAbomb” to describe the campaign, referring both to the explosive devices and to Mr. Trump’s signature rallying cry.

It is Mr. Trump, of course, who has done more than any other prominent figure to promote (or in the case of the racist conspiracy theory about Mr. Obama’s birth certificate, to popularize) a number of conspiracy theories. Other theories have taken root among his followers — like Pizzagate, QAnon and the baseless, sensational claims made about Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh of sexual assault — often without official censure.

“We have a president who pushes these ideas because he built a coalition that believes in conspiracy theories,” said Joseph Uscinski, an associate professor of political science at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories. “He has to continue pushing these ideas to keep his people motivated.”

Conspiracy theories play especially well on social media, which amplifies provocative and engaging content by design and often rewards misinformation with increased distribution. One study published this year, led by M.I.T. researchers, found that on Twitter, falsehoods were 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than accurate news.

Conspiracy theories are not false news, exactly. They often rely on a speck of doubt, or a gap in the evidentiary trail, to make a bold claim, even if they ignore some of the other available proof. But they do travel over the same networks, and stand out from more accurate — if predictable — stories in much the same way.

[What we know — and don’t know — about the bombs]

Fact-checking, long offered as a possible antidote to misinformation, is not likely to solve the problem. The available data on the effectiveness of fact-checking, especially on social media, is mixed. Facebook halted a program last year that labeled false news stories with red flags, after finding that the labels actually induced more people to click. The company’s current approach is to decrease the visibility of stories labeled false by third-party fact-checkers, in hopes of starving them of oxygen.

The real solution, of course, is likely to be cultural, rather than technological. A White House occupied by a conspiracist-in-chief is not likely to do much to quell the spread of implausible narratives, nor is a conservative media apparatus that profits from the popularity of these theories. As long as Mr. Trump is in office, conspiracy theorists will continue to raise the specter of false flags, and some in power will feel empowered to take them seriously.

“If we had President Jeb Bush, we wouldn’t be wondering if he believed these theories,” Mr. Uscinski said.

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