Conspiracy theories
August 10, 2020

An internal Facebook investigation has revealed, for the first time, just how large the QAnon conspiracy theory community is on the platform, documents reviewed by NBC News show.

Facebook has been looking into supporters of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims President Trump is leading a secret war to thwart political, business, and Hollywood elites who worship Satan and are involved in sex abuse. As it turns out, there are thousands of QAnon communities on Facebook plus groups of pages, many of which are private (hence the previous lack of clarity about its expanse), that have a combined 3 million followers. The top 10 groups identified in the investigation alone have collectively accrued more than 1 million followers, although it's unclear how much crossover there is between them.

Facebook's investigation will likely inform any action it decides to take against the QAnon community, which the FBI designated as a potential domestic terrorism threat in 2019, NBC News reports. The social media giant is considering rejecting advertising and excluding QAnon groups and pages from search results and recommendations to reduce its visibility. Read more at NBC News. Tim O'Donnell

June 22, 2020

A New York Times analysis found that, amid nationwide protests against police brutality and systemic racism, false rumors about antifa made their way to at least 41 U.S. cities. The conspiracy theories frequently claimed violent activists, placed under the broad label of antifa, were headed to the cities in buses as part of an organized effort. Law enforcement was alerted in some cases, but subsequently found no evidence supporting the claims.

The Times notes that while some of the rumors can trace their origins to national figures like President Trump, they often spread locally and took off when pushed by trusted community sources. For example, the Greater Sioux Falls Chamber of Commerce — after receiving info from sources it deemed credible — tweeted in May that antifa protesters were headed down to the South Dakota city from Fargo, North Dakota, sparking a chain of misinformation and causing dozens of people to reach out to police. From what law enforcement could tell, there were no buses carrying people from out of town on the day of the protest.

Local rumors that form on social media are reportedly especially challenging because the tech companies trying to flag false rumors often have their hands full at the national level. Renée DiResta, a disinformation researcher at the Stanford Internet Observatory, added that "local groups don't have much prior awareness of the body of conspiratorial content surrounding some of these topics." Read more at The New York Times. Tim O'Donnell

September 10, 2019

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has added his two cents to the John Bolton drama.

Cruz tweeted that Bolton — who was either fired, resigned, or forced to resign (nobody is really sure) Tuesday — is a "friend" who "has devoted his life to defending our national security, including providing counsel to multiple administrations." Cruz's lament echoes that of Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who called Bolton's departure a "huge loss" for the United States and its foreign policy.

But Cruz went a little bit further than his colleague in the Senate, suggesting that Bolton's departure might be a result of "deep-state forces" within the Treasury and State Departments convincing President Trump to soften his stance on Iran.

Cruz added that "relaxing the maximum pressure strategy on Iran" would be "an enormous mistake" that could "undo the single greatest national security victory of the Trump Administration," which Cruz considers to be Trump backing out of the 2015 nuclear pact. Tim O'Donnell

July 9, 2019

The conspiracy theories surrounding the murder of former Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich are not new. But a Yahoo News investigation published on Tuesday alleges that the theories spread as a result of Russian intelligence agents.

Rich, who was killed while walking home in D.C. in what appears to be a botched robbery in 2016, was the subject of online drivel for quite some time. Some conservative activists pushed the baseless narrative that Rich was on his way to report corrupt dealings by then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton to the FBI when he was killed by Clinton's hit team. In this falsified tale, it was Rich who leaked the DNC emails that hampered Clinton's campaign.

Since then, it has become clear that it was Russian hackers, not Rich, who were behind the leak. But Yahoo revealed the "previously unreported role" of the SVR — Russia's foreign intelligence service — in fomenting the conspiracy concerning Rich's death, as well. The SVR reportedly circulated a phony "bulletin" disguised to read as a real intelligence report.

Further, the first known instance of Rich's murder being linked to a political conspiracy reportedly occurred on a website that is a "frequent vehicle for Russian propaganda." The original article touting the conspiracy attributed its information to Russian intelligence sources. Russian television networks and internet trolls then continued to push the narrative, per Yahoo.

Deborah Sines, the former prosecutor in charge of the Rich case, spoke about it publicly for the first time to Yahoo. She said that Russia's conspiracy-mongering complicated her work, forcing her to deal with a "blizzard of false allegations." Sines said she briefed Special Counsel Robert Mueller's prosecutors on her findings after she accessed copies of two SVR intelligence reports on Rich that had been intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials. The Washington Post's Philip Bump disputes Yahoo's timeline, however, instead blaming Wikileaks and InfoWars. Read more at Yahoo News and The Washington Post. Tim O'Donnell

February 16, 2016

The conspiracy theory mill has been turning ever since Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead on Saturday at the age of 79. "We discovered the judge in bed, a pillow over his head. His bed clothes were unwrinkled," Cibolo Creek Ranch owner John Poindexter told the San Antionio Express-News after discovering the body.

Never mind that officials said Scalia "suffered from a host of chronic conditions" and that his death appeared "entirely natural and normal" — fingers have been pointing instead at everyone from the CIA to Dick Cheney. One theorist, Alex Jones, said in an "emergency broadcast" that his "gut" told him Obama was behind Scalia's death and that the president was seeking to obtain "unprecedented power... during his last year in office."

Now even Donald Trump has thrown his weight behind the rumors, wondering aloud about the exact circumstances of Scalia's death. No stranger to conspiracy theories, Trump spoke Tuesday with talk show host Michael Savage about the possibility of foul play.

"I just landed, and I'm hearing it's a big topic — that's the question," Trump told Savage, adding, "And it's a horrible topic, but they say they found a pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow." Listen below. Jeva Lange

December 28, 2015

Not everyone is thrilled about Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan working with Democrats on a trillion-dollar package of spending and tax cuts. And, as The Hill points out, some critics have taken it pretty far, questioning if Ryan's facial hair isn't actually a clue to his motivations.

"Twitter is littered with references to the Wisconsin Republican's new 'Muslim beard,'" The Hill writes, and indeed:

Now The End Begins, a website that describes itself as being "unashamedly Conservative in our thinking" but not "anti-Arab," wrote that "Paul Ryan is 100 percent in line with Obama's liberal agenda, he is 100 percent against Donald Trump, and he has just authorized billions to be spent to bring more Muslim migrants into the United States. And, oh yeah, he suddenly has a full beard."

However, one commenter using the name Raymond Andrews wasn't so sure about that logic, replying to the article by asking, "Do you think everyone with a beard is either a Jew or a Muslim? I graduated last December from Louisiana State University. One of the degrees I received was in Forestry. Every male in my Forestry major had a very full beard." Jeva Lange

May 26, 2015

On Monday night, 17-year-old reality TV star (and apparent conspiracy theorist) Kylie Jenner tweeted a typo-ridden meme about airplane condensation trails. It's worth quoting the post in full:

For the record: No, Kylie Jenner, you do not need to be afraid of "chemtrails" — the term commonly used by conspiracy theorists to refer to the condensation trails that come from planes.

Condensation trails, or "contrails," are a byproduct of airplanes — formed naturally when the warm air that comes from a plane's engine mixes with the cold temperatures of the upper atmosphere. Conspiracy theorists argue that the government is using contrails as a cover to spread chemicals across the country, with a wide array of alleged effects (most commonly, controlling the weather and making people sick).

None of this has any basis in reality, but if you'd like some reassurance, here's a document from the Environmental Protection Agency explaining why contrails "pose no threat to public health." Here's a similar document from the Air Force. If you'd rather not take a federal agency at its word, Gawker's independent weather blog The Vane is one of many sources — including scientific journals, universities, and and major media organizations — to feature a thorough, scientific debunking of the conspiracy theory. You can read it here.

The one caveat, cited by many who have investigated the conspiracy theory, including the EPA: contrails may contribute to human-induced climate change. So Kylie, if you're really worried about it, maybe cut down on all that private plane travel? Scott Meslow

April 21, 2014

There's a new type of Clinton "truther" out there — no, not the "shoe truthers" — and this one thinks that Chelsea Clinton's pregnancy is an elaborate ploy to turn Hillary Clinton into America's Favorite Grandmother, which in turn will cause everyone to vote for her if she chooses to run for president in 2016.

Steve Malzberg, the host of an online show for Newsmax TV, is just one of several talking heads who see this as the Benghazi of baby announcements. "Pardon the skeptic in me, but what great timing!" Malzberg said on his Friday show. "I mean, purely accidental, purely an act of nature, purely just left up to God. And God answered Hillary Clinton's prayers and she is going to have the prop of being a new grandma while she runs for president. It just warms the heart. It brings a tear to my eye."

Newsmax executive editor Ken Chandler was quick to distance the company from Malzberg, telling Mediaite: "Steve Malzberg's comments were intended to be humorous not hurtful. They were clearly inappropriate and do not reflect the views of Newsmax." Duly noted. Catherine Garcia

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