We knew nearly nothing, except that the Secret Service had intercepted “potential explosive devices” targeting the Clintons and Obamas, while investigators also looked into a suspicious package at CNN’s New York offices. Days earlier, authorities found an explosive device in the mailbox of liberal philanthropist George Soros. We did not know who sent them, or why, or what exactly the potential devices were.
But John Cardillo, a right-wing media personality, was already tweeting out his suspicions.
“Investigators need to take a serious look at far left groups like #Antifa when investigating the bombs sent to Soros, Obama, and the Clintons,” he wrote in a now-deleted tweet. “These smell like the false flag tactics of unhinged leftists who know they’re losing.”
Cardillo wasn’t alone. Bill Mitchell, a pro-Trump Twitter mainstay and radio host, was also convinced that the real target of the potential explosive devices was the political power of Republicans.
“These ‘explosive packages’ being sent to the #Media and high profile Democrats has Soros astro-turfing written all over it so the media can paint the #GOP as ‘the dangerous mob.’ Pure BS.” Mitchell wrote. His tweet, which is still live on Twitter has more than 2 thousand retweets.
Online speculation is an inevitable result of a breaking news story on the internet. On the pro-Trump Internet, that speculation has increasingly helped to push the once fringe idea of politically motivated “false flag” attacks into the mainstream.
Within minutes of the news of the suspicious packages, the “false flag” narrative began circulating in pro-Trump spaces like the r/The_Donald subreddit. Rising posts linked to articles about Bill Ayers, one of the founders of the radical Weather Underground organization, which claimed responsibility for a series of bomb attacks in the 1970s. Another rising post said, “FALSE FLAG. When you hear the MSM screaming about attempted violence by Trump supporters two weeks before Midterms just remember what leftists are capable of.”
Discovery of the devices came just after a big success for the pro-Trump Internet. Ever since Trump’s inauguration, Trump’s online base has amplified and fed a meme claiming that “violent leftist mobs” present a major, immediate, threat to the safety of the president and all of his supporters. During the confirmation process for Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, that meme became the mainstream conservative reaction to protesters who opposed Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court. As my colleagues in politics recently reported, stoking fears of the “angry mob” of Trump opponents has become a key part of the GOP’s strategy to energize their voters for the midterms.
Many Republican leaders set aside the “liberal mob” talk to condemn the attacks, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Vice President Mike Pence.
Even as some pro-Trump media personalities started to walk back their “false flag” claims, they referred to the “liberal mob” meme to justify that speculation in the first place.
Michael Flynn Jr., who deleted his tweet calling the situation a “total false flag operation,” followed up with a series of tweets claiming he was just asking questions, and that the timing of the incident was “suspicious.” Flynn Jr., the son of Michael Flynn (who was briefly Trump’s national security adviser), has previously spread the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.
“You see? The left already blaming the @GOP for this….If I’m wrong about this being a political stunt, I’ll own up to it. But timing is everything folks. And the timing given how close we are to midterms is HIGHLY SUSPICIOUS!,” he tweeted.
Frank Gaffney, an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist who has previously hosted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his radio show, also invoked the leftist mob in his own assessment of the news: “None of the leftists ostensibly targeted for pipe-bombs were actually at serious risk, since security details would be screening their mail. So let’s determine not only who is responsible for these bombs, but whether they were trying to deflect attention from the Left’s mobs.”
False flag theories have probably always been popular among conspiracy theorists, who can attempt to discredit literally any event that proves inconvenient to their worldview.
But it’s only the past few years – as social media networks balloons in influence and President Trump inserts conspiratorial thinking into the national discourse, including some ideas that originate on social media – that false flags have become almost a feature of the landscape.
The first viral false flag theory may have been the 9/11 “truther” movement, whose devotees spammed out blog posts and suspect documentaries claiming the U.S. government secretly masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a pretext to start the Iraq War. (In some versions, CIA operatives imploded the World Trade Center with demolition charges; in others, the government used cruised missiles disguised as planes.)
Similar theories would occasionally bubble up into the news throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, such as Roseanne Barr’s claims about the Boston Marathon bombing.
But since Trump’s election in 2016, false flag fantasies have become almost as regular as the tragedies they are used to discredit.
See, for example:
– A baseless theory that spread virally soon after the Parkland school shooting in February, claiming the U.S. government had staged the massacre as an excuse to seize people’s guns. The children who survived the shooting were “crisis actors,” according to believers, as were the grieving parents. Nearly identical rumors have circulated online after many other school shootings.
– Two conspiracy theorists who drove to a church in Sutherland Springs, believing the Department of Homeland Security had staged a recent mass shooting there, and demanded the church pastor prove to them that his dead 14-year-old daughter had ever existed.
– Widespread claims that a man who shot a gun inside a Washington pizza restaurant in late 2016 (he believed it was a secret child sex dungeon) was actually a false flag actor trying to discredit other conspiracy theorists.
– The mega-viral QAnon conspiracy theory, a core component of which is the belief that special counsel Robert Mueller is only pretending to investigate Trump’s inner circle for possible crimes – and is actually allied with Trump in a global war against liberals.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Abby Ohlheiser, Avi Selk