This story was originally published by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.
Amid the chaos of Saturday’s Unite The Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, James Alex Fields Jr. allegedly drove through a crowd of anti-racist protesters, killing one person and injuring eight more.
But the story being told in some far-right corners of the pro-President Donald Trump internet is considerably more complicated. The violence at the rally, they argue, wasn’t the work of white supremacists who came to the event armed and ready to for battle. Instead, the entire rally, and its attendant tragedy, was staged by the United States government as an excuse to crack down on free speech.
By Sunday afternoon, that seemingly preposterous theory – embellished with sightings of paid “extra” actors and complicit police officers – had taken off on the web. This would all seem like idle speculation except for recent indications that such “false flag” suspicions about other events are sowing doubt even inside the White House.
In an hour-long video, Infowars host Alex Jones charges the entire event was orchestrated by Jewish financier George Soros, and his progressive allies in government and the nonprofit sector. Their goal? To discredit conservatives and, ultimately, place the entire United States under authoritarian military control.
Jones charged, providing no evidence, that the Southern Poverty Law Center had hired actors to dress up like white supremacists and play to the cameras, followed closely by antifa protesters, who Jones insisted were bused in by Soros. “They said they’ve got to now start luring the right wing into towns where they control everything,” Jones said, noting that Charlottesville, the home of the University of Virginia, is one of the most progressive cities in Virginia.
The plan, he argued, was to create a fake vanguard of aggressive white supremacists to incite the police to attack the rally’s legitimate attendees. From there, the government could use the ensuing, racially tinged chaos to declare martial law across the entire country.
“That’s the plan. Trigger the violence because you can’t stop the legitimate free speech,” Jones continued, rattling off a list of conspirators that included, “the deep state, the Islamists, Hillary, Obama, all the usual suspects.”
Sentiments that Soros, a longtime bugaboo for conservatives, was active behind the scenes was echoed by prominent right-wing figures like actor James Woods and social media personality Mike Cernovich.
This instance is far from the first time Jones has pushed a false flag conspiracy theory. He has repeatedly called the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, a false flag. As recently as this June, Jones, who Trump once said has an “amazing” reputation, has refused to apologize for casting doubt on on the Sandy Hook story.
Leonard Pozner, whose 6-year-old son was murdered at Sandy Hook, has been deluged with death threats from Infowars fans who believe he is abetting a government-backed cover-up.
A similar sentiment about Charlottesville being a false flag popped up on Reddit’s r/The_Donald community, which is one of the internet’s most active alt-right hubs and has been used as a source of legislative policy ideas by at least one Republican congressman.
“This is smelling more like a setup,” charged one Reddit user. “A protest called ‘Unite the Right’? What kind of freedom-loving group would call itself this? ‘(Alt) Right’ is what leftists call us, not what we call ourselves. Police told to stand back while situation escalated? Hmm… this smells.”
“The Mayor of #Charlottesville is a Berkeley-educated Democrat,” noted another user. “Did he INTENTIONALLY decide to provide INADEQUATE police protection?”
A third post read, “Reminder: Antifa are literally showing up at Trump rallies disguised as ‘Trump supporters’ giving Nazi salutes.
On 4chan’s Politically Incorrect message board, charges of Charlottesville being a false flag were rampant. One thread investigating elements of Fields’ automobile attack reported dozens of clues, ranging from how there was “seemingly no hesitation” on the part of the driver before he plowed into the crowd, to “the air bags did not deploy” and the “(g)uy being accused of guilt has several Jewish ties.”
“I’m typically the last person in the world to hop on the “false flag”/”conspiracy theory” train,” wrote one commenter, “but something about this, and all the threads on /pol/ today just seem so odd.”“They’re hiding evidence which would prove it was a false flag,” wrote another.
Not everyone on 4chan, argued elements surrounding the Unite The Right rally were fixed by outside forces to make the attendees – and, by association, the alt-right at large – look bad. Theorizing about what happened in Charlottesville also received significant pushback. But fears of a grand conspiracy to frame the event’s white supremacist participants was rampant.
Similar claims have arisen after nearly every terrorist attack or mass shooting in recent years.
Kate Starbird, a researcher at the University of Washington, has spent years tracking how such conspiracy theories are generated and then spread across the internet.
Starbird and her team found false flag theories surrounding the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, the Umpqua Community College shooting in Oregon, and the 2016 terrorist attack at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub.
“For every man-made crisis event we studied,” she wrote in a blog post outlining her research, “we found evidence of alternative narratives, often shared by some of the same accounts and connected to some of the same online sites.”
Starbird discovered that some of these false flag narratives – such as the Umpqua Community College shooting and a mass coordinated terror attack in Paris – were being spread by networks of Twitter bots.
Fact-checking narratives that push back against these dubious narratives, Starbird found, often have the opposite of their intended effect.
“In the case of the New York Times, the newspaper posted an article explicitly denying alternative narratives of the Orlando shooting event,” she wrote. “This denial was then cited several times by those promoting those narratives? – as even more evidence for their theory.”
Rhetoric about falsified attacks isn’t confined to the dark corners of the white supremacist internet. It’s also affecting White House actions.
Earlier this month, someone set off an improvised explosive device inside of a Bloomington, Minnesota, mosque. No one was killed in the attack, but it deeply shook a community that had already received its fair share of threats.
While elected leaders, like Minnesota’s Gov. Mark Dayton, decried the attack as an act of terrorism, Trump declined to make any specific statement. When asked about the White House’s conspicuous silence on the issue, presidential adviser Sebastian Gorka, who has sparked controversy for his association with an anti-Semitic Hungarian militia, argued that the administration wouldn’t comment until law enforcement’s investigation into the bombing had concluded.
The attack, he argued, was likely a false flag.
“We’ve had a series of crimes committed – alleged hate crimes by right-wing individuals in the last six months – that turned out to actually have been propagated by the left,” Gorka said. “So let’s wait and see.”
This story was produced by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization. Learn more at revealnews.org and subscribe to the Reveal podcast, produced with PRX, at revealnews.org/podcast.