The package bombs that were sent to 13 prominent Democrats this week was marked by another disturbing phenomenon: baseless conspiracy theories, once confined to the fringes of discussion the wake of violent acts, leaped with shocking speed into the mainstream.
A surprisingly large number of figures from the conservative establishment — commentators, radio hosts, Trump family members, and other Republican figures — shared, liked, hinted at, raised questions about or otherwise endorsed a fringe theory that the attacks were a “false flag,” — a staged attack designed to advance the political goals of the very people it seemed intended to hurt.
But the FBI’s arrest of a suspect Friday who seemed to fit the profile of a politically motivated right-winger did little to quell the baseless conspiracy theories spreading among the far right.
That some of the conservative establishment had been willing to assert, without evidence, that the bomb threats were a “false flag” ploy by Democrats was a troubling reminder of how deeply the practice of politically motivated conspiracy mongering and hoax spreading has seeped into the country’s DNA.
And that these theories persisted Friday, even after a suspect had been detained, was a reminder that for those who spread doubt and misleading information, for whatever ends — confusion, attention or other types of political or personal gain — any piece of evidence offered up by authorities can quickly be turned on its head, no matter how credible.
In this case, those on Internet message boards began to twist such disparate facts as photographs of what is believed to be suspect Cesar Sayoc’s van, which was plastered with pro-Trump and anti-Democrat stickers, the spelling of his name, whose letters could be rearranged to spell another word that some posters claimed they thought was suspicious, and other more typical conspiracy theory-minded fare that is now a regular facet of those boards.
Many on the 8chan message board took aim at a common target of bigoted conspiracy theorists: Jews.
The FBI quickly dismissed the fanciful notions floating around about the devices in a news conference given shortly after 56-year-old Cesar Sayoc was arrested and charged with a raft of counts in the attacks.
“These are not hoax devices,” FBI Director Christopher A. Wray said.
But no matter. On Friday, Bill Mitchell, a prominent pro-Trump radio host, questioned the information that Wray — who was nominated to his post by Trump — gave about the bombing materials and routine parts of the federal investigation. Earlier, Mitchell had asserted that the suspect had “wanted to be caught,” giving oxygen to the theory that the suspect was somehow put up to the task.
Other fringe, far-right sites continued to drum up suspicion about the facts presented in the bombing.
Even the popular conservative website Drudge Report seemed intent on helping to spread this doubt.
“GOT HIM?” its main headline read.
Most distressingly, those peddling false information were given a boost by a serial spreader of hoaxes with a particularly large megaphone: President Trump, who seemed to question both the timing of the bombs and their integrity in a bizarre tweet Friday morning.
“Republicans are doing so well in early voting, and at the polls, and now this ‘Bomb' stuff happens and the momentum greatly slows — news not talking politics,” he wrote. “Very unfortunate, what is going on.”
There was little in the way of apologies by those who had spread false or misleading information about the bombing suspect in the days leading up to his arrest.
Fox News host Geraldo Rivera acknowledged Friday that he was wrong. He said that the reason he had previously conjured up the theory that the bombs were a false flag operation was because he “outsmarted” himself.
“Actual alleged perp 56-year old #CesarSayoc,” he wrote, “a middle-aged, rabid, extreme right winger w a troubled past & long criminal record.”