Conspiracy Theory Extremism: When Viral Claims Turn Dangerous

If a Twitter user saw Wayfair ranking high last week, one could have initially thought the trending topic may have been tied to a hot summer sale or practices at the online retailer in the era of coronavirus. Instead, the company was accused in a conspiracy theory determined to have started with a QAnon influencer on Twitter before moving to a Reddit board and then catching fire on social media: that high-priced (industrial-grade cabinets) or mispriced (a $99.99 shower curtain showing up as $9,999, as well as pricey pillows) items on the site were actually a front for child trafficking. Once the idea was floated online that this could be a human trafficking front, others started to match names of the cabinet styles to children believed to be (but not all) missing.

Independent fact-checkers reviewed the claims and determined them to be false, and the company explained the pricing and denied anything nefarious was occurring. Many of the social media posts continuing to disseminate the conspiracy theory, dubbed by believers “wayfairgate,” include QAnon hashtags such as #WWG1WGA (where we go one we go all).

If the home decorating supersite was a brick-and-mortar establishment, the conspiracy theory could put the retailer at the same risk as a D.C. pizza joint similarly accused of human trafficking. In December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch drove to the Forest Hills neighborhood of Washington and entered Comet Ping Pong, a family pizza shop and venue for local bands, with a .38 caliber handgun and an AR-15, firing rounds from the rifle before surrendering to police. He claimed he was investigating the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that alleged Democratic Party officials ran a child sex ring out of various restaurants, and the gunman vowed to rescue non-existent captive children from the restaurant’s non-existent basement.

In 2017, Welch was sentenced to four years behind bars. Welch told The New York Times after his arrest that he still didn’t discount the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, even if there were no child slaves at Comet, and that he thought the term fake news unfairly branded stories outside of mainstream media. “The intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” he said; when asked if he regretted firing shots inside the restaurant, he replied, “I regret how I handled the situation.”

The threats stoked by a conspiracy theory, though, haven’t ended for the establishments named by Pizzagate creators. In December, Ryan Jaselskis of California pleaded guilty to setting a fire inside of Comet Ping Pong — again, luckily no one was injured. A Pizzagate video was posted on his parents’ YouTube account an hour before the arson. And this spring, threats against the pizza parlor and its employees ramped up again, with the owner speculating that “it’s part of a disruptive movement,” a “purposely designed, something-backed movement.”

Conspiracy theories jump into the void created by upheaval, whether from an impending election or, as we’ve seen to chilling effect, a global pandemic.

Coronavirus Conspiracy Theories

Simply being asked to don a mask to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 has sparked unhinged, violent and even deadly reactions among some. Security guard Calvin Munerlyn was shot in the head at a Family Dollar store in Flint, Mich., in May after telling a family they would have to wear the state-mandated face mask. Bus driver Philippe Monguillot in Bayonne, France, was fatally beaten this month by four passengers after asking them to wear required face masks. A teen working at a Kansas barbecue shack asked a customer to wear a face mask, only for the man to brandish a gun at the employee in response. An Arizona woman who filmed herself tearing down a display of cloth face masks at a Target store claimed upon her arrest at home that she was “hired to be the QAnon spokesperson.”

Some of the anger over coronavirus is wrapped up in more elaborate conspiracy theories. Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, whose foundation advances healthcare and development projects around the world, said at a 2015 TED conference, “If anything kills over 10 million people over the next few decades, it is likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than war.” Not surprising considering public health experts’ longstanding warnings of a potential pandemic driven by something such as new influenza strains, but conspiracy theorists have painted Gates’ prediction as someone somehow knowing too much or wanting to kill people with vaccines or wanting to microchip people — in a May Yahoo News/YouGov poll, 28 percent of U.S. adults agreed with the statement “Bill Gates wants to use a mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19 to implant microchips in people that would be used to track people with a digital ID”; just 40 percent said the internet rumor was false. This disinformation coupled with longstanding conspiracy theories about the dangers or purpose of vaccination campaigns could significantly impact efforts to vaccinate the population against the deadly coronavirus once vaccines are developed.

Threats posed by COVID-19 were detailed in an April Joint Intelligence Bulletin from DHS, the FBI, and National Counterterrorism Center warning law enforcement that domestic extremists were “extremely likely” to continue attacks linked to the pandemic. White supremacist Timothy Wilson, killed in March in an FBI shootout as his alleged plan to bomb a Missouri hospital was disrupted, linked the plot to the pandemic, stating that “if he contracts COVID-19, he would conduct a ‘lone wolf attack’ and ‘try to take out as many as I can during that time, but I don’t want to sit in a hospital bed and die, doing nothing.’” Wilson wanted to “attack high value targets if the government issued martial law and quarantine orders as a result of COVID-19.”

At the end of March, a train engineer who shared conspiracy theories about nefarious “segregating” intent of the Navy’s hospital ship in the Port of Los Angeles derailed the train with the intent of striking the USNS Mercy, according to prosecutors. “You only get this chance once. The whole world is watching. I had to,” Edward Moreno told investigators, according to the criminal complaint. “People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will.” The bulletin noted that some domestic violent extremists may be “influenced by online conspiracy theories describing the pandemic as a government-perpetrated hoax,” and also warned of threats to the Jewish and Asian-American communities from “conspiratorial narratives assigning blame for the pandemic to a Jewish conspiracy or China.” Other conspiracy theories were linked to “a future government declaration of martial law and gun confiscation.”

Conspiracy theories around coronavirus have led to other criminal acts. Dozens of communications towers in the UK have been targeted by arsonists and telecom employees harassed as a result of a conspiracy theory alleging that 5G technology is connected to the spread of the coronavirus. The latest 5g/COVID conspiracy theory alleges that the nose bridge of surgical masks contains 5G antennas that are being used to track people. A recent DHS Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency memo to industry partners warned that “while the U.S. has not seen similar levels of attacks against 5G infrastructure linked to the pandemic, the tactics used in Western Europe [have] begun to migrate to the U.S.”

Amid it all, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Director Dr. Anthony Fauci had to beef up personal security because of threats. “It isn’t conspiracy theories that bother me and my family — it’s the threats that we get from the deep dark web, as it were,” Fauci said last month. “Which is really a crazy bunch of people who get their kicks out of making threats to people’s life and safety and harassing people‘s children and their wives and their families.”

QAnon

On July 2, Canadian Forces reservist Corey Hurren of Manitoba was arrested after a pickup truck crashed through a pedestrian gate at Rideau Hall, grounds where both Governor General Julie Payette and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau live. Officials said the armed driver made it to a greenhouse on the property and surrendered two hours later; his motivation and exact threats that may have been made have not been disclosed. Hurren’s Instagram account posted about QAnon conspiracy theories.

QAnon is described by extremism researchers at the Anti-Defamation League as “first and foremost an online trolling and disinformation movement” that began in 2017 on the 4chan message board. The mysterious posts from the unidentified “Q,” who claims to be one or more people with insider government access, push the conspiracy theory that there is a “deep state” plotting against President Trump, that high-ranking Democrats and Hollywood stars are involved in a pedophile ring, and other “scattershot and sprawling” theories that include JFK Jr. not being dead as well as “antisemitic and anti-government elements,” according to ADL, which roughly estimates the number of QAnon adherents in the tens of thousands and adds that while they do not “believe that all QAnon adherents are inherently extremists, this is a dangerous theory that has inspired violent acts.”

Forrest Clark, accused of setting a destructive wildfire in Orange County, Calif., in 2018, posted QAnon links on his Facebook page. Jeffrey Gardner Boyd, arrested in Pennsylvania in 2018 and charged with threatening to kill the president and his family, “had become convinced that a Pennsylvania woman who posts about QAnon on Twitter was being held hostage by shadowy forces” and thought Trump was under CIA mind control. Anthony Comello, the suspect in last year’s shooting of alleged Gambino family boss Francesco “Frank” Cali, believes in QAnon and thought Cali “was a prominent member of the deep state, and, accordingly, an appropriate target for a citizen’s arrest,” Comello’s attorney wrote in court documents.

Jessica Prim of Illinois, who shared QAnon theories online, was arrested in New York this spring with a stash of knives after posting on her Facebook page, “Hillary Clinton and her assistant, Joe Biden and Tony Podesta need to be taken out in the name of Babylon! I can’t be set free without them gone. Wake me up!!!!!” Matthew Wright pleaded guilty to blocking a bridge at the Hoover Dam in 2018 with an armored truck, holding up a sign referring to a prominent QAnon demand; behind bars, he would sign a letter with the common QAnon phrase “where we go one, we go all.”

The ‘Great Replacement’

One conspiracy theory that has led to devastating extremist violence claims that white populations are targeted for “replacement” by multiculturalism with the complicity of leaders. The “Great Replacement,” which comes from a 2011 French book of the same name, dovetails with the “white genocide” conspiracy theory that claims there is an organized plot against whites driven by immigration, interracial marriage, violence, etc. Brenton Tarrant, who has pleaded guilty to killing 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, called his 74-page manifesto “The Great Replacement” and promoted both theories while railing against immigrants and describing himself as an “ethno-nationalist.”

A manifesto believed to have been posted by Patrick Crusius, accused of killing 23 in the August 2019 El Paso Walmart shooting, notes Tarrant’s attack as well as the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory. “Even if other non-immigrant targets would have a greater impact, I can’t bring myself to kill my fellow Americans,” said the manifesto, in which the author claimed to have driven 650 miles to wage the attack on the border city in response to the “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

A study by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that Twitter mentions of the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory jumped from just over 120,000 in 2014 to just over 330,000 in 2018; about a third of the discussion is from English-speaking countries. “The Great Replacement theory is able to inspire calls for extreme action from its adherents, ranging from non-violent ethnic cleansing through ‘remigration’ to genocide,” wrote authors Julia Ebner and Jacob Davey. “This is in part because the theory is able to inspire a sense of urgency by calling on crisis narratives.”

Conspiracy Theories

A May 2019 intelligence bulletin from the FBI’s Phoenix Field Office warned that “anti-government, identity based, and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely motivate some domestic extremists,” and some theories “very likely encourage the targeting of specific people places and organizations” while some narratives “tacitly support or legitimize violent action.” The FBI “assumes some, but not all individuals or domestic extremists who hold such beliefs will act on them” but notes that the spread of conspiracy theories in the “modern information marketplace” could be mitigated by social media companies regulating potentially harmful content.

Importantly, the FBI stresses that the open nature of conspiracy theories means that targeting also frequently unfolds in the open. “Promoters of conspiracy theories, claiming to act as ‘researchers’ or ‘investigators,’ single out people, businesses, or groups which they falsely accuse of being involved in the imagined scheme,” the bulletin continues. “These targets are then subjected to harassment campaigns and threats by supporters of the theory, and become vulnerable to violence or other dangerous acts.”

The internet, the bulletin underscores, has also “enabled a ‘crowd-sourcing’ effect wherein conspiracy theory followers themselves shape a given theory by presenting information that supplements, expands, or localizes its narrative.”

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Bridget Johnson is the Managing Editor for Homeland Security Today. A veteran journalist whose news articles and analyses have run in dozens of news outlets across the globe, Bridget first came to Washington to be online editor and a foreign policy writer at The Hill. Previously she was an editorial board member at the Rocky Mountain News and syndicated nation/world news columnist at the Los Angeles Daily News. Bridget is a senior fellow specializing in terrorism analysis at the Haym Salomon Center. She is a Senior Risk Analyst for Gate 15, a private investigator and a security consultant. She is an NPR on-air contributor and has contributed to USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, New York Observer, National Review Online, Politico, New York Daily News, The Jerusalem Post, The Hill, Washington Times, RealClearWorld and more, and has myriad television and radio credits including Al-Jazeera, BBC and SiriusXM.

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