The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump loves a conspiracy theory. Now his allies in the fringe media want him to fall for one in Syria.

President Trump speaks during a news conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan, not pictured, in the Rose Garden of the White House on Wednesday. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

The brutal chemical weapon attack in Syria on Tuesday shocked much of the world. Even President Trump, who had pushed an “America First” foreign policy, seemed shaken.

"When you kill innocent children, innocent babies — babies! — little babies," Trump said outside the White House on Wednesday, “that crosses many, many lines. Beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”

Now this emotional reaction appears to have prompted Trump to take action against Bashar al-Assad's Syrian government. Late on Thursday, the U.S. military launched 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian military airfield, marking a major shift in U.S. Syria policy.

Many of the administration's allies cheered the move, suggesting Trump was taking action where his predecessor had not. But there was a different view of the situation from Trump-supporting fringe media outlets — who instead argued the president is being tricked into making a major mistake.

Turkish autopsies confirm chemical weapons used in Syria attack that killed scores

Before the U.S. strikes even hit, an alternative take on Tuesday's horrific chemical attack — widely attributed to the Syrian government — had begun to spread across the Internet. It was a “false flag,” the theory went, designed to trick Trump into intervening more forcefully in the Syrian war. Those spreading the theory were often closely linked to the “alt-right,” a small, far-right movement whose members are known for espousing racist, anti-Semitic and sexist points of view.

One of the most notorious figures associated with the movement, Mike Cernovich, posted tweets on Wednesday claiming that the gut-wrenching footage of victims of the chemical weapon attack was faked.

How Mike Cernovich’s influence moved from the Internet fringes to the White House

In another tweet, in which he circumvented Twitter's character limit by posting an image of text explaining his take, Cernovich suggested that “basic logic and 101 level game theory and strategic thinking” had to be ignored if one were to believe that the Syrian government had gassed its own people.

Instead, he argued, the mass killing was “done by deep state agents.”

Cernovich's messages about Syria found an audience. They were retweeted several thousand times by his 245,000 followers — even though the California-based Internet personality acknowledged that he didn't know much about the situation. “I don't have an opinion on the Syria gas attack because I don't know that much about Syria,” Cernovich said in another video.

Cernovich was far from the only person on the right pushing a “false flag” message. His argument was echoed by a variety of accounts that are loosely ideologically similar, such as the website Infowars, which shared a story suggesting that the chemical attack was staged by groups funded by billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who supports liberal political causes.

The Texas-based website, run by the provocateur Alex Jones, argued that a group of volunteer rescue workers in Syria commonly known as the White Helmets had “reportedly staged another chemical weapon attack on civilians” and listed allegations it mockingly called “coincidences.”

One non-American group that suggested a similar narrative was WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy organization led by the mercurial and anti-establishment Julian Assange, an Australian citizen who has been living in the Ecuadoran Embassy in London for five years.

The WikiLeaks Twitter account, widely believed to be controlled by Assange alone, shared a video from a Syrian activist in Germany on Thursday that said Islamist extremists were probably behind the chemical attack, not the Syrian government.

With the partial exception of WikiLeaks, many of the most popular outfits that pushed the “false flag” narrative are U.S.-focused and neophytes to the Syrian conflict. However, they found ready allies in the Syria-watching world on social media, where accusations of “false flags” and the use of propaganda are rampant among those who support the Syrian government as well as those who oppose it, with wildly varying degrees of veracity.

The Syrian government has denied ever using chemical weapons. Russia has suggested that an airstrike hit a depot producing chemical weapons for use by Syrian rebels, though one chemical weapons expert told the BBC that such an explanation for the attack was “pretty fanciful.”

Limited access to sites in Syria often makes proving or debunking claims difficult. However, autopsies conducted by Turkish doctors on Thursday have confirmed that chemical weapons were used in the attack. The autopsies were conducted under the supervision of the World Health Organization. Doctors Without Borders said the victims showed symptoms consistent with exposure to a nerve agent.

Suspected chemical attack kills scores of men, women and children in Syria (Video: The Washington Post)

Any other president at any other time might have barely noticed the “false flag” narrative — Trump, like his predecessors, has at his disposal an entire intelligence community that can offer expertise and context. He doesn't need to listen to obscure online voices if he doesn't want to.

However, growing distrust of the media has allowed wild theories to enter mainstream discussion in recent years. Throughout his campaign and in the early stages of his presidency, Trump has shown himself willing to court this distrust and look to the fringes of debate.

Just in the past week, both Donald Trump Jr. and White House counselor Kellyanne Conway have praised Cernovich — Trump's son suggested that Cernovich should win a Pulitzer. President Trump has praised Infowars, telling Jones during an interview last year that his reputation was “amazing” and that “I will not let you down.” At a campaign rally, he said, “I love WikiLeaks.”

The U.S. military strike against the Syrian military early Friday appears to have burned some of the fringe figures who thought they understood Trump. On Twitter, Cernovich tweeted toward the U.S. president that his supporters had “voted against this.”

Another popular alt-right figure, the InfoWars-affiliated Paul Joseph Watson, went further, suggesting that he was leaving the “Trump train.” In a later message, Watson said he would now be focusing his support on the French far-right leader Marine Le Pen instead.

The U.S. president loved to court the fringes. But now, after pursuing military action against the Syrian regime, the conspiracy-loving U.S. president finds himself in a new and perhaps odd position: He is viewed as a dupe by many who share his worldview.

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