Within hours of the Atlanta massage-parlor massacres, extremists and QAnon followers were already spinning wild conspiracies claiming the attack was the work of the CIA, the Biden administration, or China—some sort of a “false flag” operation devised by shadowy forces trying to crack down on gun control and inflame racial tension.
Georgia police took the accused gunman, 21-year-old Robert Aaron Long, into custody Tuesday night a few hours after the killings of eight people at three spas in the space of an hour. Six of those killed were Asian women, and the murders have been widely decried by Asian American groups as hate crimes. But in the hours after the shootings, far-right extremists and QAnon followers began spreading conspiracy theories blaming a host of culprits for orchestrating the attacks to achieve various goals, from implementing restrictive gun control legislation to increasing racial and ethnic divisions in the U.S.
One Parler user posted: "Biden's CIA-managed false flag attacks designed to provide a justification to confiscate guns and demonize patriots has begun."
And Hillary Clinton, a central villain in the QAnon narrative for years, came up in some of the wild claims. In a popular QAnon channel on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, a moderator cited a Clinton tweet offering her condolences to the families of those killed as proof of some nefarious plot to keep the U.S. divided.
“Do you see the play? Do you see how false flags work?” the user wrote on Telegram, quoting Clinton’s tweet. “Cabal uses false flags to change the narrative and to keep Americans divided by race, ethnicity, gender, politics, etc. these people are monsters.”
For years, QAnon has pushed the conspiracy that a group of elites is operating a global child sex-trafficking ring. The stereotype that massage parlors are fronts for brothels made the Atlanta-area shootings a prime target for further conspiracies.
“Every tragedy is a reason for far-right/conspiracy adherents to swarm like vultures, calling the Atlanta shootings a false flag to stoke anti-white sentiments, or going with the hallmark QAnon narrative of human trafficking based on stereotypes of massage parlors as brothels,” Rita Katz, director of Site Intelligence Group, tweeted.
The comments by Georgia Sheriff Capt. Jay Baker added fuel to the fire, when he said in a press conference Wednesday that the man suspected of murdering eight people was “having a really bad day,” and focused on the suspect’s claims of “sexual addiction” rather than possible racial motivations. The comments were widely condemned by the press and the public, but extremists seized on them as proof of a mass conspiracy to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.
QAnon followers aren’t the only ones claiming that the shooting was a covert operation by some shadowy group. Multiple far-right and neo-Nazi groups were making the same claim that the Atlanta tragedy was a pretense designed to mask the true nature of a different operation, according to reporting from SITE Intelligence Group, an organization that tracks extremists.
In a Telegram channel called "JFTM", one user claimed that there were “obscure clues” that suggested the attack was some kind of cover-up. The user suggests that the media’s narrative that this was a hate crime should be ignored, but added that the media had mistakenly included hints as to the real nature of the crime.
“Who were they and what did they know? Don't ever trust Yahoo or NBC, but they drop/obscure clues that actually help sometimes, like Wikipedia. These women knew something. Ignore the hate crime slant, that's what they want you to see. Look here, not here as usual,” the user wrote.
Similarly, the Telegram channel of a famous online neo-Nazi personality claimed the attack was an effort to blame “white spuremacy” for all crimes.
In a chat room linked to the popular X22 Report, a QAnon news service, one member said that the shooting was part of the grand plan to dismantle the pedophile ring, but had been co-opted by bad actors.
They wrote that the murders were an example of “white hats taking down human trafficking rings at massage parlors, black hats pinning it on a random white guy and use it to justify upping security at their other locations and fuel false flag op," the user wrote.
Some QAnon followers made even more outrageous claims on Wednesday, including one believer on the fringe social network WeWake claiming to have "met the master spy that ran [the] network of massage parlors" that were targeted in the shooting, before falsely linking the attack to the government in Beijing.
Over on Parler, some users were claiming that the murder spree was orchestrated by President Joe Biden in order to introduce more restrictive gun control lesiglation.
“Biden’s CIA-managed FALSE FLAG attacks designed to provide a justification to confiscate guns and demonise Patriots, have begun!,” one Parler user wrote on Wednesday.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began in the U.S. last March, there have been 3,800 reports of "hate incidents" against Asian Americans, and more than 400 reports of physical assault, according to the group Stop AAPI Hate in a report published on the same day as the Atlanta shootings.