During the past year, there were two major developments on the political and media landscape. The first, which started before 2017 but picked up steam during the past year, was that traditional conservative media, already a conduit for conspiracy theories, became increasingly open to amplifying misinformation from the far-right. The second was that Donald Trump was inaugurated as president -- a man who would embrace conspiracy theories to an extent that no high-ranking public official, much less the president, had ever done. When combined, these developments led to some conspiracy theories, which started off in far corners of the internet, reaching members of the House of Representatives and the White House -- sometimes within a matter of days. Here are a few examples.
Obama is operating a “shadow government” in Washington, D.C.
In 2016, then-President Barack Obama leased a home in Washington, D.C. for his family to move into after he left office so his daughter Sasha could finish high school. After the election, Ed Klein, a discredited author known for peddling extremely dubious claims about political figures, claimed on Fox & Friends that Obama and his aides were actually using that new home for “setting up what they're calling a shadow government,” which is “almost an insurgency,” to oppose Trump once he became president. The claim remained generally dormant until February 2017, when Paul Sperry, a New York Post columnist who was formerly the Washington bureau chief for far-right conspiracy theory outlet WorldNetDaily, published a column claiming that Obama had “an army of agitators” against Trump whom he would command “from a bunker less than two miles from the White House,” adding it would “effectively be a shadow government.” The conspiracy theory spread among far-right and fake news outlets before reaching more traditional right-wing media. Fake news websites further expanded on the conspiracy theory later in the year, suggesting “shadow president” Obama was violating the Logan Act, a law barring private citizens from interfering with American foreign policy.
In March, Rep. Mike Kelly (R-PA), speaking at a town hall in his district, said Obama was using his D.C. home “for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to run a shadow government that is gonna totally upset the new agenda.” A spokesperson for Kelly later walked back the conspiratorial remark.
Far-right rally in Charlottesville was a liberal set-up
In August, white nationalists gathered in Charlottesville, VA, for a so-called “Unite The Right” rally to protest the city’s plan to remove a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Far-right protesters participated in the rally yielding torches and weapons and chanting bigoted and anti-Semitic slogans; a man also drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring at least 19 other people. In an attempt to deflect blame, far-right and fake news outlets pointed to a Southern Law Poverty Center (SPLC) profile of Jason Kessler, who helped organize the rally, and noted that his previous reported support for Obama when he was still president suggested that Kessler was a “liberal double agent” and the rally was a “#falseflag” and a “#SorosOp.” A user on the far-right, conspiracy theory-obsessed subreddit “r/The_Donald” claimed he was the one who found Kessler’s SPLC profile and that far-right and fake news outlets had picked up his original post that implied Kessler was a liberal operative.
In September, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) told the San Francisco Chronicle that a “former ‘Hillary and Bernie supporter’” duped “dumb Civil War re-enactors” into attending the rally, adding, “It was left-wingers who were manipulating them in order to have this confrontation” and to “put our president on the spot.” The following month, Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) told Vice News that Kessler “was an Obama sympathizer” and that the rally “was created by the Left.”
Roy Moore’s accusers were bribed and one of them forged Moore’s signature
On November 9, The Washington Post reported that multiple women alleged that then-Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore engaged in sexual misconduct with them when they were teenagers, including one who was 14 years old at the time. Shortly after the Post’s report was published, Twitter account @umpire43 claimed that a “family friend” told the account's wife that “a WAPO reporter named Beth offered her 1000$ to accuse Roy Moore.” Far-right and fake news outlets ran with the tweet, even though that account had previously made a similar allegation about two other news outlets and had lied about its own background. Rep. Billy Long (R-MO) subsequently retweeted a November 10 tweet by “alt-right”-connected figure Mike Tokes that pushed the conspiracy theory.
After the Post’s report, other women accused Moore of sexual assault, including Beverly Young Nelson, who also said Moore had signed her yearbook. In response, far-right outlet The Gateway Pundit cited discredited figure Thomas Wictor to claim the signature was forged. Shortly afterward, Moore’s campaign also suggested that the signature was forged. Two weeks later, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) said in a radio interview that “the evidence is almost incontrovertible about whether the yearbook was forged.” Trump, who endorsed Moore in December, also reportedly told people he believed the signature was likely forged. (During a December 8 interview with ABC’s Good Morning America, Nelson explained that she had added a note to Moore’s yearbook inscription, which led the conspiracy theorists to falsely claim she had admitted to forging the entire document. News outlets were quick to point out that Moore’s handwriting in the yearbook inscription matched another handwriting sample produced by “yet another woman who [said] Moore pursued her when she was in high school.")
A former Obama official confirmed that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower
On March 2, nationally syndicated radio host Mark Levin outlined on his show what he claimed was an Obama administration effort to undermine Trump’s candidacy during the 2016 election by, among other things, wiretapping Trump Tower. The next day, Breitbart published an article that detailed Levin’s claims as if they were breaking news. The next day, on March 4, Trump accused Obama of illegally wiretapping Trump Tower, tweeting, “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!” Right-wing and far-right media outlets tried to defend the president’s baseless claim, making up false and misleading defenses for it.
On March 28, a YouTube account called The Leaping Frog posted a video that it falsely claimed showed former Obama administration official Evelyn Farkas admitting that Obama spied on Trump. Far-right outlets subsequently picked up the video and the claim was eventually aired on Fox News, including on Trump’s favorite morning news show Fox & Friends, all within a span of a few days. Shortly afterward, then-White House press secretary Sean Spicer cited Farkas’ interview to defend Trump’s false claim.
Truck drivers in Puerto Rico were on a strike during relief efforts after Hurricane Maria
In September, Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico and caused widespread damage, leaving hundreds of thousands without electricity, food or water. The Trump administration’s response to Puerto Rico’s plight drew significant criticism and the island is still struggling to recover from the storm. After San Juan mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz criticized the acting secretary of homeland security for calling the administration’s inadequate hurricane response a “good news story,” Trump attacked her on Twitter for her “poor leadership.”
On September 28, a YouTube account called visionrealtyusa com posted a video that it falsely claimed showed a Puerto Rican truck union leader promising to sabotage the relief efforts. Others started sharing the video on social media, and far-right and fake news outlets cited the video and other Twitter users to claim Puerto Rican truck drivers were on strike. A Fox News anchor subsequently pushed the false claim on September 30, and a few days later the Teamsters union was forced to debunk the claim. Despite that, on October 3, Trump appeared to push the claim, saying, “We need their truck drivers. Their drivers have to start driving trucks. We have to do that. So at a local level they have to give us more help.”