Post Partisan

The mail bomb suspect and the right-wing conspiracy machine

Editorial Writer

Who’s responsible for the bombs sent to prominent Democrats and critics of President Trump this week? The mailer, of course.

A suspect was arrested Friday, and soon we’ll learn who he is, whether he had any help and why he may have shipped those 12 suspicious packages. But the narrative of right-wing radicalization so many have seized on has drawn attention to a frightening phenomenon: Not only do addled Internet lurkers, the anti-mainstream media and the man in the Oval Office create a pipeline for furious falsehoods to travel from the fringes to the forefront of the national conversation, the rest of us, trying to figure out what’s going on, also often end up making it worse.

The perpetrator of the bomb mailings, it’s worth noting, seems to have lived at least partly on the Internet: NBC News reports that an image on the device sent to former CIA director John Brennan appears to be a parody of an Islamic State flag popular on the right-wing web. What is believed to be his van is plastered with similar memes.

But anyone with a television set could have developed an obsession with George Soros as the leader of a globalist cabal, with the Clintons and CNN embedded in its upper echelons. The prototypes for conspiracy theories and conservative calls to arms are often born on message boards, where users can bounce notions off each other and build them into something bigger. When they’re ready for prime time, though, that’s where they end up.

What’s really unprecedented — more so than conservative talking heads’ willingness to don tinfoil hats — is that the president of the United States is just as happy to participate in the trend. From Fox’s mouth, crackpot concepts go straight to Trump’s ear — and then to the rest of ours.

It gets even stickier. In these cases, legitimate news outlets don’t always help; sometimes, reporting on absurdities brought in from the periphery by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk only gives oxygen to theories that might otherwise have burned out. QAnon truthers appeared on television screens all around the country after supporters showed up at a Trump rally, but it was the breathless coverage (including some, I must admit, from yours truly) that turned it into the phenomenon it became.

The problem is, when what starts small becomes a worldwide phenomenon — with the help of Ann Coulter or President Trump or the nonpartisan press simply trying to report on what matters to Americans — it only prompts more theorizing. A sense of powerlessness runs through the world of online wackiness. There has to be a reason things are not going right, and unraveling that reason provides an illusion of control. This control feels far greater when the people in power, or at least close to it, really begin to listen.

Nothing delighted QAnon adherents more than reading into the president’s words acknowledgments of the plot they thought they had spotted — and seeing the same acknowledgments peppered throughout the day’s top stories. When Trump, or Fox or newspapers like this one pick up on what began on the outskirts on the Web, it’s only a sign to keep going.

The bomb scare shows this cycle in full swing. Someone may have been radicalized by widespread conspiracy theories that may have begun online but were given a huge boost by bigger-name right-wingers and the president. That person may have taken action. And the translation of angry imaginings into the week’s biggest event, with front-page splashes across the country and constant cable news coverage, has now further energized the theorizers. Already, netizens and prominent right-wingers alike have transformed the tale of the suspicious packages into yet another conspiracy theory, the false flag. And already, we’re writing about it.

Conspiracy theories, and false flag accusations in particular, are nothing new. What’s new is the machine. Discrete online communities constantly generate conspiracy theories, a conservative media set seeks them out and spreads them further, a commander in chief happily helps — and reporters struggle to tell the public what they need to know without smoothing the way for the next outburst of absurdity. Who’s responsible? All of us, who have yet to figure out a way to degrease the gears.

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