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The instant, inevitable cries of ‘false flag’ after bomb threats targeting the Clintons, Obamas and CNN

Authorities continue to investigate more suspicious packages containing explosives that seem to target prominent liberal figures and Democratic politicians. (Video: Joyce Koh, Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

We knew nearly nothing, except that the Secret Service had intercepted “potential explosive devices” targeting the Clintons and Obamas, while investigators also looked into a suspicious package at CNN’s New York offices. Days earlier, authorities found an explosive device in the mailbox of liberal philanthropist George Soros. We did not know who sent them, or why, or what exactly the potential devices were.

But John Cardillo, a right-wing media personality, was already tweeting out his suspicions.

“Investigators need to take a serious look at far left groups like #Antifa when investigating the bombs sent to Soros, Obama, and the Clintons,” he wrote in a now-deleted tweet. “These smell like the false flag tactics of unhinged leftists who know they’re losing.”

Cardillo wasn’t alone. Bill Mitchell, a pro-Trump Twitter mainstay and radio host, was also convinced that the real target of the potential explosive devices was the political power of Republicans.

“These ‘explosive packages’ being sent to the #Media and high profile Democrats has Soros astro-turfing written all over it so the media can paint the #GOP as ‘the dangerous mob.’ Pure BS.” Mitchell wrote. His tweet, which is still live on Twitter, has more than 2,000 retweets.

Online speculation is an inevitable result of a breaking news story on the Internet. On Wednesday, #MAGABomber was the top trending topic on Twitter, propelled by a combination of those assuming the bombs were motivated by Trump’s rhetoric against Democrats and the media — and those who were using the hashtag to criticize it. On the pro-Trump Internet, breaking news speculation has increasingly helped to push the once-fringe idea of politically motivated “false flag” attacks into the mainstream.

Within minutes of the news of the suspicious packages, the “false flag” narrative began circulating in pro-Trump spaces like the r/The_Donald subreddit. Rising posts linked to articles about Bill Ayers, one of the founders of the radical Weather Underground organization, which claimed responsibility for a series of bomb attacks in the 1970s. Another rising post said, “FALSE FLAG. When you hear the MSM screaming about attempted violence by Trump supporters two weeks before Midterms just remember what leftists are capable of.”

Later on Wednesday, Rush Limbaugh promoted the false-flag theory, suggesting that a “Democratic operative” was more likely to have sent the devices than a Republican. “Republicans just don’t do this kind of thing,” Limbaugh said on his radio show. " You’ve got people trying to harm CNN and Obama and Hillary and Bill Clinton and Debbie “Blabbermouth” Schultz and, you know, just, it might serve a purpose here."

The false flag talk spilled over to Fox News, as well. While discussing possibilities with Martha MacCallum on Wednesday, former FBI profiler James Fitzgerald brought up the “false flag.”

Fitzgerald said the bomber could also be “some Democrat, low-level person ... who just decided, you know what, I’m going to put this out, because two weeks before a major election, who’s going to look like the bad guy here? The Republicans."

“Fascinating,” MacCallum replied.

On Thursday, Donald Trump Jr. liked a tweet claiming that the devices were " FAKE BOMBS MADE TO SCARE AND PICK UP BLUE SYMPATHY VOTE."

Discovery of the devices came just after a big success for the pro-Trump Internet. Ever since Trump’s inauguration, Trump’s online base has amplified and fed a meme claiming that “violent leftist mobs” present a major, immediate threat to the safety of the president and all of his supporters. During the confirmation process for Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh, that meme became the mainstream conservative reaction to protesters who opposed Kavanaugh’s elevation to the Supreme Court. As our colleagues in politics recently reported, stoking fears of the “angry mob” of Trump opponents has become a key part of the GOP’s strategy to energize their voters for the midterms.

‘An angry mob’: Republicans work to recast Democratic protests as out-of-control anarchy

Many Republican leaders set aside the “liberal mob” talk to condemn the attacks, including House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and Vice President Pence.

Even as some pro-Trump media personalities started to walk back their “false flag” claims, they referred to the “liberal mob” meme to justify that speculation in the first place.

Michael Flynn Jr., who deleted his tweet calling the situation a “total false flag operation,” followed up with a series of tweets claiming he was just asking questions, and that the timing of the incident was “suspicious.” Flynn Jr., the son of Michael Flynn (who was briefly Trump’s national security adviser), previously spread the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.

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Frank Gaffney, an anti-Muslim conspiracy theorist who has hosted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on his radio show, also invoked the leftist mob in his own assessment of the news:

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False-flag theories have probably always been popular among conspiracy theorists, who can attempt to discredit literally any event that proves inconvenient to their worldview.

But it’s only in the past few years — as social media networks have ballooned in influence and President Trump has inserted conspiratorial thinking into the national discourse, including some ideas that originate on social media — that false-flag theories have become almost a feature of the landscape.

The first viral false-flag theory may have been the 9/11 “truther” movement, whose devotees spammed out blog posts and suspect documentaries claiming the U.S. government secretly masterminded the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as a pretext to start the Iraq War. (In some versions, CIA operatives imploded the World Trade Center with demolition charges; in others, the government used cruise missiles disguised as planes.)

Algorithms are one reason a conspiracy theory goes viral. Another reason might be you.

Similar theories would occasionally bubble up into the news throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, such as Roseanne Barr’s claims about the Boston Marathon bombing.

But since Trump’s election in 2016, false-flag fantasies have become almost as regular as the tragedies they are used to discredit.

See, for example:

  • A baseless theory that spread virally soon after the Parkland school shooting in February, claiming the U.S. government had staged the massacre as an excuse to seize people’s guns. The children who survived the shooting were “crisis actors,” according to believers, as were the grieving parents. Nearly identical rumors have circulated online after many other school shootings.
  • Two conspiracy theorists who drove to a church in Sutherland Springs, believing the Department of Homeland Security had staged a recent mass shooting there, and demanded that the church pastor prove to them that his dead 14-year-old daughter had ever existed.
  • Widespread claims that a man who fired a gun inside a D.C. pizza restaurant in late 2016 (he believed it was a secret child sex dungeon) was actually a false-flag actor trying to discredit other conspiracy theorists.
  • The mega-viral QAnon conspiracy theory, a core component of which is the belief that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is only pretending to investigate Trump’s inner circle for possible crimes — and is actually allied with Trump in a global war against liberals.

The /pol/ message board on 4chan is a hotbed of conspiratorial delusions even on a slow news day. On Wednesday, it was deluged with suspicion.

In one of the most popular threads, amateur detectives opined that the envelope sent to CNN did not have sufficient postage stamps for the weight of the pipe bomb it contained, and so must have been built at the cable news headquarters. (The 4channers did not seem to be aware of a New York Times report that the bomb was delivered by courier.)

Another thread fixated on a tweet Trump sent in late October 2012: “Be careful of an Obama ‘bomb’ to win election!” It’s unclear what “bomb” Trump was talking about, but on 4chan, some people took the tweet as proof that he predicted a false flag attack years ago.

This post, originally published on Oct. 24, has been updated multiple times.