Right-wing media have recently resorted to calling acts of bigotry and violence “false flag” operations in an attempt to deflect blame for their incendiary rhetoric. By claiming real events of violence and bigotry are staged, right-wing media seek to evade criticism and culpability, conveniently suggesting that anything which might put them or conservatives in a bad light is really the work of George Soros, Hillary Clinton, or “the feds.”
Though not a new phenomenon, the trend of prominent right-wing voices claiming that events are “false flags” shows that conservative media are ushering their audiences even further from reality and mainstreaming what was once considered a fringe tactic.
Mariupol hospital bombing and Zaporizhzhia power plant attack
Fox News personalities and far-right figures have been ardent supporters of Russia throughout the war, obsessing over the false “biolabs” conspiracy theory. After Russian troops attacked a nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on March 3, and six days later bombed a maternity ward in Mariupol, right-wing media figures lied that the events were staged or even conducted by former Secretary of State “Hillary Clinton’s mercenaries."
- One America News Network's Pearson Sharp called the bombing in Mariupol “yet another false flag operation,” saying, “It would be a lot more convincing if Zelensky didn't have George Soros' hand up his back, moving his mouth.”
- Infowars’ Alex Jones called the Zaporizhzhia power plant bombing “the mother of” all “staged” events.
- Right-wing radio host Pete Santilli said the shelling of the power plant “sounds like a false flag” that was staged, perhaps to start “WW3,” adding, “Russia is not going to be firing at nuclear power plants. That is Hillary Clinton’s mercenaries dressed up as Russians.”
- Conspiracy theorist and right-wing host Stew Peters said that Ukrainian leaders lied about the attack on the power plant because they want to drag the world into a war, adding, “Zelensky’s government completely lied and said Russia was damaging the plant and creating the risk of a Chernobyl-level nuclear catastrophe. … It was a complete fabrication.”
War crimes in Bucha
Since Russian troops withdrew from Bucha, a suburb of the capital Kyiv, mainstream media outlets have reported that war crimes may have been committed there by the Russians. Media Matters documented how right-wing media came to Russia’s defense, calling the massacre in Bucha a “false flag” and echoing Russian propaganda.
- While discussing the events in Bucha, Jones said Ukraine had been caught “staging all these fake massacres and these fake events,” and he went on to claim that articles on the InfoWars website “clearly show a lot of this was fake.”
- While guest hosting on Infowars, Robert Barnes claimed Russia did not “cut off any civilian infrastructure” in Bucha and said that the delay in reporting the massacre — until days after Russian forces left — was evidence of a “false flag.”
Beginning in late January, a group of truckers attempted to occupy downtown Ottawa, Canada, by using vehicles to block traffic, which led the city’s mayor to declare a state of emergency over fears of violence from the “Freedom Convoy.” Similar protests in the United States emerged, including the so-called “People’s Convoy” protesting vaccine mandates. Amid reports that the U.S. Department of Homeland Security feared an Ottawa-style convoy could shut down Washington, D.C., right-wing media began suggesting that the FBI and other instigators would stage a false flag event to make the protesters look bad.
- A Fox News segment suggested fascist symbols at the Canadian convoy in Ottawa were false flags. Toronto Sun reporter Joe Warmington said that Nazi and Confederate flags at the trucker rally “were most likely props that were put in to try to quell this thing. ... I smell a rat.”
- Newsmax host Greg Kelly said a Nazi and Confederate flag being flown at the Freedom Convoy was a "false flag operation," adding that he was initially skeptical of the idea of false flags but that this is a “textbook false flag” to give them “the pretext to do all this horrible stuff to the truckers.”
- Turning Point USA founder and radio host Charlie Kirk fearmongered that “the feds” would infiltrate the Freedom Convoy “to do a January 6-type deal of instigators and agitators. They’re going to try to make it seem like it’s violent and all of that.”
- Former national security adviser Michael Flynn told Santilli he was “concerned” the federal government and Department of Justice were planning “infiltration” like January 6. He went on to say that based on what he’s seeing on “social media,” there is “the potential for the Department of Justice, through its law enforcement arms, to do infiltration of this truckers convoy and to maybe even cause people to do, you know, stupid things.”
January 6 attack on the Capitol
Following the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, right-wing media set out on a propaganda campaign to deflect blame from former President Donald Trump’s supporters who stormed the Capitol, and they ultimately landed on promoting the baseless conspiracy theory that the federal government instigated the attack through the use of informants in order to frame conservatives. The conspiracy theory has essentially become right-wing orthodoxy following Fox host Tucker Carlson’s public bullying of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for dismissing the false claim.
- Carlson has repeatedly pushed false flag allegations on his prime-time Fox News show, and he put out a three-part Fox Nation series alleging the Capitol riot was a “setup” by the FBI to create the pretext to crack down on Trump supporters. Carlson also promoted the debunked Ray Epps conspiracy theory, which elevated it from fringe right-wing media to the most popular cable news show.
- One America News Network has platformed the January 6 false flag conspiracy theory, including buying into the claim that an Arizona man named Ray Epps was a federal informant who initiated the attack on the Capitol.
January 6 pipe bombs found outside DNC and RNC
In February 2022, multiple conservative outlets pushed the conspiracy theory that the pipe bombs placed outside the Republican National Committee and Democratic National Committee the night before the January 6 insurrection were part of an FBI operation. The suspect who placed the bombs has yet to be arrested, which has given fuel to right-wing media seeking to pin blame on the federal government for the events of January 6.
- Fox's Tucker Carlson insinuated that the pipe bombs found could have been planted there by the FBI.
- OAN host Kara McKinney claimed the pipe bombs were “another hoax perpetrated by the FBI.”
- Right-wing host Stew Peters said the reason the name of the person who placed the bombs hasn’t been released is “because more than likely they were planted by feds.”
Patriot Front marches
In December and January, the white supremacist group Patriot Front held marches in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, and right-wing media were immediately skeptical about whether the marchers were actually members of Patriot Front, claiming instead that they were connected to the FBI.
- A Newsmax guest said Patriot Front’s December march “sounds staged,” to which anchor John Bachman responded, “Exactly,” and suggested the march could be a false flag by the FBI “because we’ve had these issues with the feds recently.”
- Spotify’s Joe Rogan also parroted the conspiracy theory that the marchers were actually federal agents, saying the white nationalist march was “fake” and put on by “the feds.”
- Right-wing pundit Dinesh D’Souza tweeted of the December march, “This looks fake to me. Why are their faces covered? Is it because they are FBI agents posing as right-wing extremists?”
- The far-right news site The Gateway Pundit also lied that federal agents were behind the march, publishing articles with titles like “Evidence Suggests Yesterday’s Khaki-Clad Patriot Front Parade in Chicago Included ‘Tradecraft’ Indicating Federal Government Involvement” and “More on the Government-Sponsored ‘Patriot Front’ Showing More Government Ties.”
August Capitol bomb threat
In August, a North Carolina man outside the U.S. Capitol said he had a bomb in his truck, broadcasting the situation live on Facebook and demanding that Democrats “step down” and that he be allowed to speak with President Joe Biden. Before the suspect was even apprehended, conservative influencers began claiming the incident was a “false flag” operation. PolitiFact fact-checked the baseless claim that the bomb threat near the Capitol was staged and found there was zero evidence to support it.
- Washington Times columnist Tim Young tweeted, “I've never seen more people yell ‘false flag’ in my life... also I've never replied to someone yelling ‘false flag’ with, ‘sounds about right,’ until today.”
- American Greatness’ Julie Kelly weighed in, saying, “Guys, we barely survived another hillbilly insurrection Today. Let that sink in #FalseFlag.”
- The Federalist Papers’ Carmine Sabia tweeted that the incident was meant to distract from the Afghanistan withdrawal, adding, “If you say a #FalseFlag from the FBI cannot happen, read the Gov. Whitmer kidnapping plot story.”
- Former Newsmax host John Cardillo tweeted, “They weren’t even creative with this false flag.”
Calling real events “false flags” is one of the lazier worldviews right-wing media could offer their audiences. Instead of engaging with the facts, they cultivate a separate reality where conservative violence and acts of hate are always fake, staged, or someone else’s fault.