In recent years, with the explosion of social media, politics have often devolved into one side demonizing the other, whether it be the left or the right. This includes the proliferation of conspiracy theories, including numerous spread by the most extreme on the right wing. In many cases, the statistics and accounts used to delegitimize their opponents are outright false, and in more dangerous instances, conspiracy theories were developed in order to promote fear and depict an enemy that was willing and capable of doing anything to infringe on our liberties.
Yet the tactic has proved to be strangely effective, particularly when you consider how seldom people read beyond the big, bold headlines on places like Facebook or Twitter. These are some of the more outrageous conspiracy theories that have been spread by the Alex Jones-types of the world.
10. Obama’s Birth Certificate
In hindsight, Barack Obama’s ability to keep a level head while questions were being raised about his legitimacy is pretty impressive. It’s hard to figure out exactly how Obama’s eligibility to serve as president garnered so much attention that he was forced to release his birth certificate. It seemed to begin with the general hope to disqualify him from the race. Initially, in 2004 a rumor circulated that Obama was secretly a Muslim and that he was educated in a “madrassa” in Indonesia that had indoctrinated him in the faith. When that story failed to keep hold, the conspiracy pivoted to his place of birth. It’s not that the conspiracy that Obama was a Muslim was ineffective – two-thirds of Trump voters still believe it to be true – it’s that the notion wasn’t enough to keep him from the White House.
Delegitimizing his candidacy was then one of the most effective ways to keep vast sections of the voting populace against him and energizing them at the polls. One of the biggest proponents of the birther movement was, as you certainly know, Donald Trump. Some argue that his promotion and support of the conspiracy led to his massive support from mainstream Republicans. Trump tweeted about Obama’s birth certificate countless times, and even went so far as to further the conspiracy after the Hawaiian bureaucrat who released Obama’s birth certificate died in a plane crash. Trump tweeted: “How amazing. … All others lived”
9. Sandy Hook Shooting
On December 14, 2012, a shooter entered the Sandy Hook Elementary school and killed 20 young children around the age of six, and six adult staff members. It was, and still may be, one of the most horrifying mass shootings in American history because of the killer’s victims. It was the only time Obama accounts that he witnessed seeing a Secret Service member cry. The brutality and the shooter’s ability to attack such victims, despite his mental health concerns, led to renewed gun control debate, and the Obama administration took several actions to curb the ability to obtain firearms. This immediately led to the proliferation of conspiracy theories that continue to this day.
Len Pozner, the father of one of the children killed, has chronicled his family’s abuse at the hands of conspiracy theorists. He’s revealed getting voicemails, and abuse online from those claiming that the shooting was staged. That their children aren’t really dead. Some on the right, like Alex Jones, have even suggested that the parents were acting. The Pozner family’s abuse has even included a Tampa Bay woman who left a voicemail stating, “You gonna die, death is coming you real soon… death is coming to you real soon and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
8. Parkland High School Shooting
Some of the same devices and tools from the Sandy Hook conspiracy theories have been used to construct the conspiracy narrative for the Stoneman Douglas shooting. The term “crisis actor” was seemingly generated overnight to depict the roles that the students have taken up in demanding a solution to gun violence. Students like David Hogg have been labeled as “actors” with videos seemingly attempting to expose them for “messing up their lines” or demonstrating behavior deemed inauthentic.
This is similar to the treatment of parents of Sandy Hook victims, who were perceived as pretending to be sad. Time after time, the most extreme online theorists on the right (again, like Jones and his website and YouTube channel InfoWars) have profited by generating conspiracy theories that make their listeners believe that their way of life is under attack. It’s a tactic that’s unlikely to change as the country continues to become more divided.
7. Seth Rich
One of the biggest conspiracy theories during the Presidential election was the murder of Seth Rich. An employee of the DNC, Rich was fatally shot in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington DC. WikiLeaks was out in full force releasing hacked documents from the DNC, and many (at the time) suggested that the hackers were Russian operatives. Seth Rich became a useful tool.
Even cable news anchors like Sean Hannity began suggesting that Seth Rich was a whistleblower who was murdered for “exposing the secrets of the Clinton criminal network.” WikiLeaks only fanned the flames, offering a reward for anyone who could provide information on Rich’s murder. It’s now clear that the Seth Rich conspiracy was created to deflect attention from Russian hackers infiltrating the DNC.
6. Las Vegas Shooting
In 2017, a gunman opened fire on concert goers from his hotel window in Las Vegas, killing 58 people and injuring 851. It was the single deadliest mass shooting in American history. Unlike many of the other mass shootings that have occurred in the United States, the gunman didn’t appear to have a motive, or have apparent mental health issues which would prompt such a vicious outbreak. This led to many forming their own conclusions as to his motive.
As the gun control debate raged on, right wing conspiracy theorists attempted to link the gunman to the Islamic State. The conspiracy theory was given more life by US congressman Scott Perry, who on the Tucker Carlson show stated, “I smell a rat like a lot of Americans… Nothing’s adding up. I’ve been made aware of what I believe to be credible evidence, credible information regarding potential terrorist infiltration through the southern border regarding this incident.”
5. Vincent Foster Suicide
The “OG” of right wing conspiracy theories, the Vincent Foster suicide foreshadowed the current political climate. Deputy White House counsel Vincent W. Foster was found dead in Fort Marcy Park just outside Washington DC in 1993. To fully understand the reason for Foster’s suicide becoming a political firestorm, it’s important to know that three months before Foster’s suicide was the Waco siege. Right wing outlets seized on it as “government intervention,” portraying the Clinton administration as threatening the rights for Christian Americans.
With the Clintons rolling out their healthcare plan, called “HillaryCare” by opponents in 1993, it’s not surprising that Vince Foster’s suicide that same year was used to denigrate the administration. The suicide led to six investigations, with many on the right convinced that it would uncover a conspiracy of murder and deceit that led up to Oval Office. No links or evidence was found. Investigators found that Foster killed himself because he was depressed and had told friends and colleagues that he couldn’t stand resigning in defeat, and returning to Arkansas. Although the Foster suicide wouldn’t lead to the downfall of the Clinton administration, eventually they would chase the right lead, finding the dress that would lead to votes for impeachment (though that still didn’t end the administration, considering Bill Clinton served out his full second term as president).
4. Agenda 21
Another right wing conspiracy theory around that same time was the fear that the United Nations was leading a global conspiracy that could threaten the United States. Starting in 1996, the Republican Party platform alluded to the dangers of the UN. In 2004, not long after US troops went into Iraq, the 2004 platform warned that “American troops must never serve under United Nations command.”
Changes to the GOP platform based on conspiracy theories would continue. The 2016 GOP platform called for a constitutional amendment to protect homeschooling “from interference by states, the federal government, or … the United Nations.” Right wing conspiracy theorists eventually found a program that they could argue was making headways in the US: Agenda 21.
More than two decades ago, the UN held an Earth Summit which focused on the environment, especially CO2 emissions. It adopted a voluntary blueprint called Agenda 21. It wasn’t talked about for nearly a decade until Obama entered office. When the Obama administration created the White House Rural Council to promote economic development, “a Fox News anchor warned that it was ‘eerily similar to a UN plan called Agenda 21, where a centralized planning agency would be responsible for oversight into all areas of our lives. A one-world order’.”
Newt Gingrich was met with applause during the 2012 presidential campaign when he mentioned the topic during a debate and, of course, Glenn Beck release a book titled Agenda 21 during the same period. The scariest part of this conspiracy is that a dozen Republican majority state legislatures actually passed resolutions against Agenda 21.
3. Antonin Scalia’s death
As Obama’s presidency came to a close, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died at the age of 79. The constitution gives the president the right to fill the bench, and many on the right believed that Obama may have had something to do with Scalia’s death. Some theories went so far as to accuse Obama as arranging a hit on Scalia in order to remake the court in his image.
President Obama would do his constitutional duty and nominate Merrick Garland for the bench, but Republicans refused to give him a hearing. They left the seat vacant until the Trump presidency, leading to the appointment of conservative Neil Gorsuch. It’s clear that whether or not mainstream Republicans embrace conspiracy theories themselves, it’s certainly helped the party.
2. Illegal Aliens Voting in Elections
After Donald Trump won the presidency, he was quick to blame illegal aliens for his losing the popular vote. Trump tweeted out that he won the popular vote too, “if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” The Trump administration even created a commission for “voter integrity” where they attempted to gain access to voter files from each state. This effort was rebuffed, as most States refused to share their data with the commission.
Although there is no evidence to support voter fraud, right wing websites like InfoWars, the New American, and Freedom Daily promoted and furthered this claim. After losing the special election in Alabama, Roy Moore cited voter fraud as the reason for his defeat, and refused to concede the race. It’s a tactic that will surely continue to be used in the future.
1. Russia Investigation
To finish our list, we had to throw in the biggest conspiracy of them all: the Russia Investigation. Somehow, the right wing establishment, which is fearful of the UN, fearful of losing their guns, fearful of losing their Christian way of life, aren’t fearful of Russian hackers.
Virtually no one on the right (outside of a few people like John McCain) even acknowledges the possibility that the Trump campaign may have conspired with the Russian government. It’s not possible. Alex Jones, the founder of InfoWars, has stated he needs more information, because he’s cool with saying 6-year-olds weren’t brutally murdered at Sandy Hook with zero evidence, but actual links between Russia and many in Trump’s administration is murky at best, as far as he’s concerned. You can bet that if Robert Mueller and his team ends up proving that there was collusion, it’ll be the biggest conspiracy in American history.