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“False flags,” explained

How the concept of “false flags” traveled from the conspiratorial fringe to cable news.

Bomb threat seen at CNN’s New York City headquarters in the Time Warner Building at Columbus Circle in New York.
Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

After explosive devices were sent to prominent critics of President Donald Trump, including Barack and Michelle Obama, Bill and Hillary Clinton, and former CIA Director John Brennan (via CNN’s New York headquarters), many on the far right and even some people with close ties to the White House had a theory of the case: The bombing attempts on prominent liberals were ginned up by the left to help them win the midterms.

On Friday, even President Trump appeared to hint at this argument, saying that in the midst of Republicans “doing so well” in early voting, “now this ‘Bomb’ stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows” — with “bomb” in quotes.

Alex Jones’s conspiracy theory site Infowars, made its claim even clearer: The bombing attempts are a “false flag” — an attack committed under false pretenses used to drive public perception in a certain direction. Under this scenario, some on the right argue, the goal of the left is to “frame” conservatives for the mailings and drive Democrats to the polls in November.

From Infowars, October 22, 2018.

On Friday, authorities announced that a man in Florida had been arrested in connection with the attempted bombings, but we know very little about the bomber or bombers and their motives at this point.

Maybe it’ll turn out that the motivations were a form of political jiujitsu, or a false flag. Or maybe the motives will turn out to be something completely off the wall, not tethered to political polarization at all. We just don’t know.

But some on the right dove into the “false flag” narrative immediately anyway, without any basis for their claim. And this is not the first time the “false flag” narrative has emerged in response to a tragedy or a scare — from mass shootings at elementary schools to the attacks of 9/11. Some people have reacted to events that don’t make sense by trying to argue it didn’t happen the way we’re being told, or maybe didn’t even happen at all.

Liberals have baselessly claimed false flags too. In 2016, for example, a Black Lives Matter activist argued that the shootings of police officers in Dallas that resulted in five deaths could have been a false flag, saying, “From my experience, whenever public opinion shifts to strongly support the movement, an act of violence against the police happens.”

Conspiracy theories like “false flags” appeal to people along the political spectrum. According to a survey conducted in 2014 and reported by the Washington Post, Republicans and Democrats responded equally when asked if they agreed with four statements like, “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places.”

And in the current political environment, it seems that conspiracy theories are going mainstream. Ideas that used to remain confined to pamphlets or small networks leap from the dark corners of the internet into lines in speeches and tweets from the president himself, who has long trumpeted conspiracy theories.

“Social media has given us the power to spread nonsense further and faster than ever before,” said Becket Adams, a commentary writer at the Washington Examiner who has written extensively on conspiracy theories, told me in an interview. “A solidly insane conspiracy tweetstorm or YouTube video can reach more people now than any newsletter or pamphlet from the 1850s or 1960s ever could.”

The result is that a large swath of the public rejects the working set of facts necessary to truly engage in honest political debates. They prefer, instead, to reject information that might challenge their preexisting ideas — a dangerous position in a moment when many people, our president included, are already committed to “alternative facts.”

What is a “false flag”?

The term “false flag” is an old political concept, referring to an operation or attack that is essentially fake, staged by a group that wants a reason to retaliate against the person or people they’ll accuse of the attack.

For example, the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939 began with a “false flag” attack on a German radio transmission tower that made it appear as if Polish forces were responsible, thus giving Adolf Hitler carte blanche to launch the invasion. (The “flag” part of “false flag” refers to the practice of pirate ships flying “false flags” to fool ships they were attempting to raid.)

And in the early 1960s, the US government contemplated using a “false flag” attack to provoke Americans into supporting a war with communist Cuba. The plan, Operation Northwoods, included potentially blowing up a US ship in Cuban waters and then blaming the Cuban government, with one military official writing, “casualty lists in U.S. newspapers would cause a helpful wave of national indignation.”

So “false flag” attacks have happened, but not often. In the world of conspiracy theorists, though, “false flags” are seemingly everywhere. They’re relied on to explain away events that seem too big or too terrible to be real — and moreover, “false flags” help people who can’t imagine that someone who shares their political, cultural, or religious worldview would do something so wrong.

In 1944, a member of the antiwar America First movement argued in a pamphlet that the attacks on Pearl Harbor that launched the United States into a war with Japan was a “false flag” of sorts, saying that the United States let the attack happen so that the American people would support a war. (Some people still believe this, and no, it’s not true.)

Conspiracy theories involving the government gained wider sway after the Vietnam War. “Several American generations experienced firsthand the fact that the federal government is extremely capable of lying and engaging in far-reaching cover-ups,” Adams said.

But it was the rise of the internet in the 1990s that spread the idea of “false flags” from pamphlets and magazines aimed at fringe groups to the broader world, and one conspiracy theorist in particular who popularized them: Alex Jones.

Alex Jones and “false flags”

In the 1990s, as the internet started taking conspiracy theories mainstream, Alex Jones, the founder of Infowars, was a feature on local access TV news in Austin, where he presented anti-government and anti-“New World Order” conspiracy theories to a small audience.

The Oklahoma City bombings of 1995 — where Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols orchestrated a domestic terror attack on a federal building that ultimately killed at least 168 people — sparked Jones’s interest in “false flags.”

To be clear, McVeigh, who visited Waco, Texas, during the infamous siege at a cult compound in 1993 that resulted in a fire that killed more than 80 people, was radicalized by what he viewed as tyrannical government action taken at Waco, writing to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) before the Oklahoma City bombing, “all you tyrannical people will swing in the wind one day for your treasonous actions.”

But Jones was convinced that a cover-up was afoot. He started espousing his belief that the government was involved in the attack (“I understood there’s a kleptocracy working with psychopathic governments — clutches of evil that know the tricks of control”). Then he started saying the Oklahoma City bombing was a “false flag” that was actually committed by the government to frame the right and help Bill Clinton win the 1996 presidential election.

They set it up to make it look like — ‘Oh, the feds got hit back’ — because Waco hurt them so bad it was going to lose them the election,” he said in April 2018 to the Austin American-Statesman’s Jonathan Tilove. “It is a false flag. One hundred percent.”

Since 1995, the conspiracy theorizing has continued from Jones. He has promulgated the idea that the 9/11 attacks were a “false flag” organized by the Bush administration in order to popularize a war in the Middle East, and that the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013 were a “false flag” event aimed at expanding government intrusion.

In fact, Infowars sent one of its personalities, Dan Bidondi, to a press briefing with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick held just hours after the Boston bombings to ask if the bombings were a “staged attack to take our civil liberties and promote homeland security while sticking their hands down our pants on the streets.” (The governor answered, “No.”)

More recently, Jones has argued again and again that mass shooting incidents — like the murder of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012 or the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier this year — were “false flag” efforts committed by the US government in order to push gun control measures forward.

In 2015, Jones said, “Sandy Hook is synthetic, completely fake, with actors; in my view, manufactured. I couldn’t believe it at first. I knew they had actors there, clearly, but I thought they killed some real kids, and it just shows how bold they are, that they clearly used actors.” (This is, of course, is not true — and families of the victims of Sandy Hook have since sued Jones for defamation.)

The psychology of “false flags”

To Jones, and to people who think like him, a “false flag” is a way to make sense of events that don’t make sense, or worse, might contradict his fervently held political beliefs. To Jones, it’s inconceivable that an American veteran like Timothy McVeigh could have been behind the murder of 168 people — so the Oklahoma City bombing was a “false flag.”

Little children couldn’t have been murdered with the same weapons many Americans own and enjoy using — so the Sandy Hook shooting was a “false flag.”

And no right-thinking conservative would send Democratic figures bombs in the mail because they were enraged by anti-Trump Democrats — so it’s a “false flag.”

Like conspiracy theories themselves, the “false flag” idea offers a buttress against being forced to recognize that sometimes bad people do bad things, and occasionally, those bad people might share your political, social, or cultural viewpoints.

The role of social media — and Trump — in conspiracy theories

Traditionally, a false flag would be staged by the government, but to Jones, an avid Trump supporter, the pool of suspects who have faked attacks has widened. A “false flag” can mean simply “someone staged this incident to make someone else look bad” — and that’s the very argument some on the far right are making about the mail bombing attempts this week.

“The language has shifted, like how ‘fake news’ has lost its meaning,” said Charlie Warzel, a senior technology writer for BuzzFeed News who has written extensively about conspiracy theories on the internet. “It used to mean misinformation and an organized group of people putting something forward — now, it just means something you don’t agree with.”

A similar thing has happened to “false flag,” he said: “‘False flag’ has lost the ‘government’ meaning, and now it just means ‘you’re being duped.’ It’s a stand-in for ‘something smells fishy.’”

So combine an existing conspiratorial mindset with pipe bombs being sent to prominent critics of the Trump administration, Democrats, and a left-leaning billionaire philanthropist, and you have what we’re seeing this week: “false flag” accusations running rampant.

So how did the “false flag” idea get big enough online that mainstream right-wing figures are tweeting about it?

Jones and Infowars bear much of the responsibility for this, said Warzel. “I really think that they’ve rewired the way the far right talks,” he told me. “They’ve bullied their way into the normal discourse. This is why you’re saying every far-right commentator suggesting that [the mailing of bombs to Democratic figures] is a hoax ... or a false flag.”

The research bears this out. In 2017, University of Washington professor Kate Starbird found that social media — and websites like Infowars and others — have been powerful vectors for conspiracy theories, and specifically for terms like “false flag” that appeal to people of many political backgrounds.

When she noticed that after both the Boston Marathon bombing and a mass shooting at a community college in Oregon, social media traffic showed a big rise in “false flag” tweets (like arguments that the Navy SEALS were behind the bombing), Starbird started researching how conspiracy theorists talk to one another, and the websites and social media platforms they use.

In her paper on the “Alternative Media Ecosystem,” she not only showed how popular conspiracy theory websites really are but argued that conspiracy theories — like “false flags” — don’t operate on a liberal-versus-conservative axis; they focus more on “anti-globalism,” a space “where U.S. Alt-Right sites look similar to U.S. Alt-Left sites.”

An example of an alt-left site, in her research, would be, which argued on the site and elsewhere that Israeli “death squads” had been present at Sandy Hook in 2012. The true common denominator, she found, is anti-globalism — deep suspicion of free trade, multinational business and global institutions. “To be antiglobalist often included being anti-mainstream media, anti-immigration, anti-science, anti-US government, and anti-European Union,” Starbird says.

The flattening of mainstream media means that outlets like the Chicago Tribune are now competing with websites like Infowars (in fact, the two have had similar traffic numbers as recently as last year). Conspiracy theorist websites like Infowars and others have large platforms, including YouTube channels that put “false flag” conspiracy theories in search results for random topics. That puts more “false flags” and conspiracy theories into the web browsers — and thus, the minds — of everyday people just trying to find out what is going on in the world.

The Trump administration has accelerated these trends. Trump embraced conspiracy theories while on the campaign trail (like that Ted Cruz’s father helped kill John F. Kennedy), and was a leading proponent of birtherism. Not to mention he appeared on Infowars during the presidential campaign, telling Jones his “reputation was amazing” and “I will not let you down.”

In its near-constant combat with mainstream media outlets, the administration has regularly encouraged supporters of the president to look to “alternative facts,” as Kellyanne Conway put it in January 2017, that will be more supportive of his message.

So it might not be surprising that in the wake of bombs apparently sent to the president’s enemies, some of Trump’s biggest supporters are turning to one of the most durable “alternative facts” at all: the idea of a “false flag.”

The “false flag” conspiracy theories are an effort to make sense out of a world that often doesn’t make sense. Moreover, it’s about proving to yourself that no one who shares your views could possibly do something wrong. And with the help of big-time conspiracy theorists and the power of social media, the “false flag” concept isn’t going anywhere.

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