In mid December of last year, Edgar Welch climbed inside of his vehicle in North Carolina—somewhere in the vehicle sat his AR-15 style rifle.
Welch drove all the way from his home to Washington DC—almost 300 miles—and made his way to a pizza parlour named Comet Ping Pong. Prior to this he had consumed videos by online conspiracy mongers like Alex Jones, Jack Posobiec, and Mike Cernovich that told the tale of a child sex trafficking ring being run out of the parlor's basement—the theory was popular in the far-right because it implicated senior staffers in Hillary Clinton's campaign by linking them to pedophilia.
The name given to this theory has since become well-known; pizzagate was a conspiracy with an entire community built around investigating it. Welch, his brain swimming in these theories, walked into the parlour to take the investigation into his own hands. In the end, Welch fired three times inside the parlor—no one was hurt—and was recently sentenced to four years for his actions.
While Welch's story may be one of the more insidious examples of a fantastical conspiracy theory transcending from the online world to reality, it isn't the only one. Sam Jackson, a PHD student at Syracuse University, recently wrote a paper for the extremist program at George Washington University called "Conspiracy Theories in the Patriot/Militia Movement"—perhaps the deepest look we've gotten at the role conspiracy plays in the modern ecosystem of the far-right. Speaking to VICE, Jackson pointed to the influence of Alex Jones—who is frequently name checked in his study—in the 2016 election as proof that this is a growing concern.
"Belief in conspiracy theories is of course not limited to the far-right, but in many ways they have been the most prominent purveyors of conspiracy theories, especially in the US," Jackson told VICE.
With Jones and others preaching about the inevitable civil war that is just around the corner; the insidious power that George Soros and other "globalists" wield; the deep state; and the rise of right wing militia groups—it's impossible to ignore the importance of conspiracies in the wave of far-right extremism that seems to be rearing its head.
When asked why he wrote the paper, Jackson explained that he thought there was a lack of non-partisan info in the militia movement and that there exists a lot of interest in conspiracies because "they're quirky, and crazy, and fun to talk about but they're also potentially really harmful for the public, civil society and the government."
"[I wanted to] point out these aren't just crazy ideas and crazy writings from people in their basement. They're actual increasing popular narratives that can have real consequences for our political world."
These conspiracies can serve as a gateway to many subsects of far-right extremism; they can work as something to organize around; and, most importantly, they can spur some to action. Timothy McVeigh, the man behind the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people in 1995 was a conspiracy theorist focused on the New World Order. In 2014, Justin Borque shot five RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick—three of which were killed. Several friends said that Borque was infatuated with conspiracy theories. Another thing we've seen in Canada is paramilitary style groups admitting that they're monitoring mosques because of conspiracies spread online that they're training jihadis.
Jackson said that these conspiracies "certainly can serve as bridges between people who might not otherwise be a part of the movement." In 2015, a paper published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science concluded that "political extremism and conspiracy beliefs are strongly associated due to a highly structured thinking style that is aimed at making sense of societal events." The piece, which came out of the Netherlands, drew on four studies that analyzed people's political belief paired with questions about well-known conspiracies. The scientists found that those who ranked themselves as politically extreme believed in similar and more conspiratorial answers to societal questions.
Another particular example of conspiracy theories playing into the recent wave of far-right extremism was reported earlier this year by the Anti-Defamation League. The ADL stated that they have seen an explosion in "anti-semitic conspiracy theories against Jared Kushner"—many other "globalist" conspiracies have strong anti-Semitic undertones as well.
"This campaign of anti-Semitism has been driven by white supremacists and anti-Semites and has all the hallmarks of classic Jewish conspiracy theories," reads the ADL report. "The narratives include accusations that Jews in the Trump Administration are trying to start a war to advance the interests of Israel. They contend that Trump has abandoned his "America First" policy, which the alt right supported, because he is being manipulated by Kushner and other Jewish advisors."
Jackson's paper spoke to the integral nature that conspiracies specifically play within the militia movement—or patriot movement as they prefer to be called. Jackson describes the movement as a diverse one whose most important belief is that the government is becoming tyrannical and, in response, these groups "intend to defend the nation." This is a style of thinking that for a long time was specific to America because of their particular history and mythology—ie. the war of independence. However, through social media we're seeing drifting northward more and more.
Jackson lays out several widely-held conspiracies in the patriot movement in his paper such as government coming to confiscate guns from civilians, that Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is planning to move a large portion of the American populace to detention camps, the creeping globalization brought about by the United Nations, and the frequent description of acts of violence as false flags. Another one he profiles is an alternative understanding of Jade Helm—a large scale military training exercise that took place in Texas in 2015. Many online theorists purported that this military training exercise was really an attempt by the government to impose tyranny—the theory became so prominent that Texas governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercise.
Far-right conspiracy theories of this nature extend beyond anti-statism, however. Jackson explained that quite a few militia members travel to the Mexican border because of one theory that posits that terrorists are slipping their agents into the country this way. A similar theory that ISIS is bringing militants into Canada through the American border is a common one in the Canadian far-right ecosystem as well.
According to Jackson, there is a breaking point of thinking that comes when one believes in conspiracy theories—a point of no return if you will. A theorist will reach this when they begin to believe that evidence is being fabricated. At this point the person becomes prone to conspiracies and even while not actively seeking them out will become prone to them.
"Once you get to the point that you believe that the government or academics are fabricating evidence, or whoever, you become, to certain extent, immune from counter-arguments because your response will always be 'oh, you're part of the conspiracy whether you know it or not and your arguments don't mean anything,'" said Jackson.
With this in mind, it's hard not to view the refrain of "fake news" as anything but a reinforcing mechanism—Jackson called this delegitimization of people a "hallmark of conspiracy theorists."
"It creates the deeper problem that not only do we distrust government, we start distrusting media, academics often get wrapped up in this—especially in climate change," said Jackson. "It leads to a increasing case where people are encouraged to distrust traditional sources of authority and place trust in alternative sorts of authority that are not based on any sort of training and skill set or development of knowledge but charisma and self-assigned credentials."
The impact of conspiracy theories, like pretty much everything else, has increased dramatically with the proliferation of social media. Jackson said that prior to modern day social media most conspiracies were spread through conference calls, flyers, and what have you. By removing the limitations imposed by geography, Jackson said, social media has made "it easier for people who might be prone to believing in conspiracy theories to find one another and to converse and to develop those conspiracy theories further."
According to Jackson, how to combat this style of thinking is the "million dollar question."
"You could teach critical thinking in schools, that's what it really comes down to. The easy way to keep you from believing what Alex Jones does is for you to be a critical thinker and to realize that most of what he says is ludicrous and if he says something that is remotely reasonable, that's not a reason for you to believe other things he's said," Jackson said before breaking into a deep sigh.
"There are no real concrete solutions at the moment."
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