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While conspiracy theories have dabbled with mainstream acceptance for all of human existence, this past decade was when they finally achieved it.
At the beginning of the 2010s, conspiracy theories were still on a fringe of extreme thinkers, weird pseudo-celebrities, and people with way too much time on their hands. But with the proliferation of the internet, social media, and one tin-foil hatted commander-in-chief, they soon became a focal point of conversation and a matter of national discussion.
Ten years ago, it was just the cranks. But events swiftly supercharged them. Two years into the decade, the 2012/end-of-the-world phenomenon generated dozens of books, TV shows, and videos all based on a misunderstanding of Mayan scripture.
Then came Donald Trump, far-right YouTube channels, and message boards where theories percolated in private, gaining large fan bases, such that when they hit the mainstream, there was an army behind them, ready to defend them.
The current president is a preeminent problem. He began his political career by openly questioning the veracity of Barack Obama’s birth certificate (which he’s still doing), casting doubts on vaccines at the Republican debate, and continuing to use his platform to spout an endless series of un-evidenced plots. As of this writing, he appears to be headed toward impeachment thanks to his belief in yet another conspiracy theory about who *really* meddled in the 2016 election.
Trump is drenched in conspiracy, building a fervent base of support out of those who unquestioningly believe bizarre ideas simply because Trump agreed with them.
Before Trump took that escalator ride down to his presidential run announcement in June 2015, conspiracy theories centered on Obama’s legitimacy, Hillary Clinton’s every move, and the “hostility” of the federal government toward freedom. Some were born out of racism, a way to claim you were afraid of Obama’s actions without saying it was because he was Black.
Most pre-Trump conspiracy theories of the decade revolved around Obama on the verge of some kind of massive effort to disarm and round up dissenters, and install himself as president for life. They usually involved a greater power or funder (usually George Soros) that controlled his actions. And always, the specter of Obama being some kind of secret Muslim sleeper agent for a worldwide caliphate or globalist cabal loomed over everything the president said and did.
A perfect example of the fear of Obama comes from the 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
The planner of the 9/11 attacks had evaded justice for George W. Bush’s entire presidency, but a mission authorized by Obama in May 2011, after just two years in office, finally killed the Al-Qaeda leader. How does a “secret Muslim” president square with killing the head of the largest Islamic terror group in the world?
For many conspiracy believers, it didn’t matter that Osama was gone—only that Obama gave the order.
They picked over the absence of photos of Bin Laden’s corpse, its reported burial at sea, and whether the assassination was timed to benefit Obama in some way. There were even conspiracy theories that Bin Laden was either still alive or had been on ice for years, and that the entire raid was a hoax designed to make it look like Obama was on our side.
None of this has ever been proven. No matter how positive the result, the anti-Obama right simply couldn’t give Obama a win. And it wouldn’t be the last time.
Obama’s status as the North Star for early 2010s conspiracy theories was apparent in the accusations that followed every mass shooting or terror attack in the first part of the decade. Starting in 2012, every instance of a major shooting was immediately followed by accusations that they were staged as a false flag to impose authoritarian rule and take our guns.
This skepticism became less an ideology and more of an industry. First came the whispers of a second shooter that the “media wouldn’t cover.” Then the accusations that the shooter was a dupe of the government, paid to either kill people or pretend to kill people. Then the deeply painful and personal accusations that the victims were either in on the hoax or never existed in the first place.
Again and again, it happened with the seemingly endless string of attacks. The first time the cycle penetrated the mainstream was the shooting of 20 first-graders and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Dec. 2012.
That was hit with a flood of social media-driven conspiracy theories so outrageous that they’re still leading to defamation lawsuits. People to this day still deny the event happened, and that it was orchestrated to bring about mass gun confistcation, something that never happened.
SANDY HOOK: Sandy Hook crisis actor Gene Rosen identified as Official FEMA Employeehttps://t.co/w9Uny7qNyq— Henry Makow (@HenryMakow) March 15, 2019
Most “normies” were utterly repelled by the Sandy Hook conspiracy complex, but just months after Sandy Hook came the bombing of the Boston Marathon with pressure cookers filled with ball bearings.
The crime was quickly pinned on a pair of Chechen brothers, but that didn’t stop a flood of conspiracy theories that the brothers were dupes of the Saudi government, who set off a bomb to usher in martial law—while simultaneously accusing the bombing victims of being crisis actors paid to pretend to be maimed. And lest you think conspiracy theories can stand up to photographic evidence, one particular victim was a man whose leg was graphically blown off, only to have skeptics accuse him of being a man who had already lost his leg and pretended to have it blown off again.
The mainstreaming of these theories was proven when the boogeyman left the Oval Office, but the conspiracies persisted.
The Las Vegas massacre of 2017 and the recent string of manifesto-driven shootings have all been deluged by conspiracy theories and accusations of false flags.
The reasons at least changed. During the Obama years, it was to impose harsh gun control laws on the country, not that any shooting ever led to any sort of major gun control legislation. In the Trump era, the fake shootings kept happening, but are now perpetrated by a dark cabal attempting to distract the public from the collapse of various efforts to take Trump down.
The violence stays the same, the made-up motivation change.
Over and over, the Obama administration was portrayed by conspiracy theorists as both monstrously evil and hopelessly incompetent. A perfect example of these two aspects colliding was the string of conspiracy theories and hearings that followed the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya in September 2012, which killed a U.S. ambassador and three contractors.
It was the subject to nearly a dozen congressional investigations and committees and dominated right-wing media discourse for years. At the same time, countless conspiracy theories flew that Obama called off a rescue team that could have stopped it, that U.S. media censored images of the ambassador being murdered, that Obama’s staff lied repeatedly to the public and presented conflicting talking points seeking to absolve themselves, and that the capture of attack’s planner was timed to help former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sell books.
It took nearly four years for the Republican-controlled House to produce its final report on the attacks, and what they found had no relation to the years of fevered Fox News talking points or social media-driven conspiracy theories: that neither Obama or Clinton were to blame. But by then, anti-Obama paranoia had already moved on to another topic.
During the summer of 2015, this movement had its final hurrah with the paranoia over the military exercise known as “Jade Helm 15.”
Carried out over several states in the southwest, Jade Helm was designed to train elite soldiers to deal with new threats over a range of territories. But then the public found a creepy and very real map coded with designations for “hostile” and “friendly” territory, along with military acronyms and an “insurgent pocket” in California.
Soon, social media was swamped with “sightings” of government shock troops heading into Texas, FEMA “death domes,” and Walmart stores closed for “plumbing repairs” secretly housing prisoners.
None of that was true, and the four-month exercises passed without any gun-owner purges or mass executions.
The focus on Hillary Clinton’s role in Benghazi was a coming attraction for the frenzy of conspiracy theories that emerged in the final days of the 2016 election.
With Trump sagging at the polls and seemingly headed for a historic loss, right-wing conspiracy theorists pulled out all the stops in tarring Clinton with every allegation they could possibly find. A few coughing spells and her collapse from pneumonia at a 9/11 memorial event two months before the election sent social media into overdrive speculating about her health, that she was secretly hiding some kind of degenerative illness that would claim her life within weeks.
Of course, she was back on the campaign trail within days and exhibited no symptoms of any of the various brain-eating diseases she was tagged with. In fact, she is still alive, and prominent conspiracy theorists are concerned she’s about to run again.
More conspiracies joined those. One insinuated Clinton or the DNC had rigged the primary elections of a number of states to push out Clinton competitor Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—thanks to some embarrassing emails that were hacked by Russian intelligence and dumped by WikiLeaks a month before the election. That gave way to another conspiracy theory: that Clinton arranged for the murder of DNC staffer Seth Rich, shot dead in an unsolved robbery in D.C. in July, supposedly as revenge for hacking those emails and giving them to Wikileaks.
And none of these were as bizarre as Pizzagate, the lurid accusation that Clinton and other prominent Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring out of the basement of D.C. pizza place Comet Ping Pong. The plot seemed bizarre in the extreme, and was based on a few innocuous references in emails stolen from campaign chair John Podesta, along with a fake “pedophile code” that started on 4chan and had no basis in truth.
But it fired the conservative imagination enough to get significant press in those final weeks.
None of these conspiracy theories had compelling evidence to support them. Did any of it influence any voters? We’ll likely never know, but given how close the vote tally was in several key states, it’s possible.
Trump’s rise to the presidency ushered in a whole new raft of conspiracy theories, including one borne out of the previous frenzy over Clinton: QAnon. This is the conspiracy that holds Trump as the secret leader of a military intelligence operation to rid the country of pedophiles and deep state Democrats. While Pizzagate burned out after a believer went to the actual pizza place with a gun, QAnon is still going strong, even surviving 8chan’s demise and fueling a thriving merchandising industry.
The entire Trump apparatus seemed powered by fears of a nebulous, all-powerful “deep state” that has its claws in everything and everyone not sufficiently loyal to the president.
While the term has been around since the late 90s, Trump’s version of the deep state has come to comprise everything from career civil servants to Silicon Valley to the intelligence community to former Trump staffers to major media outlets. All are said to be working together to stop Trump through leaks, fake stories, economic sabotage, witch hunt investigations, and most recently, the “sham” impeachment process. In reality, most of the damage inflicted on Trump can be ascribed either to disgruntled staffers or the president’s own erratic behavior.
As the new decade dawns, America finds itself in the midst of an impeachment push that began thanks to Trump pushing a conspiracy theory that the DNC hack wasn’t carried out by Russia or by Seth Rich, but by Ukraine. It relies on an almost willful misunderstanding of how technology works.
Yet it was the driver behind the president’s infamous July 25 call with Ukraine’s president—as he ranted about “the server” and demanded Ukraine’s president investigate his nation’s meddling in the 2016 election. Meddling that no intelligence agency or expert believes took place.
But a president threatened with being pushed out of office because of his own feeble grasp on the truth would be a perfect coda for a decade that saw conspiracy-driven media sources like Alex Jones and InfoWars became a primary source of information for Americans.
The proliferation of conspiracy YouTube channels, fake news stories on Facebook, prominent figures on Twitter, and the general inability of people to tell fact from fiction has injected a “question everything” ethos into popular discourse.
This is a decade when the denial of basic science over climate change has reached the White House, the anti-vaccine movement is stronger than ever, and even people who question whether the Earth is round have major media exposure.
It’s almost an assumption that when major media figures, experts, and/or politicians tell you something, it’s false and designed to throw you off the truth. As a result, conspiracy theories fill up the holes in stories where there are reasonable questions to be asked. It’s no longer enough to simply say that we don’t know what happened in a given case—we have to say that we don’t know, therefore it must be a conspiracy theory, and we’re being lied to.
A great pre-Trump example of this tendency was Malaysia Airlines flight MH370. The Boeing 777 with 239 passengers disappeared on March 8, 2014 after a series of unplanned turns sent it far off course. Because nobody knew what happened, conspiracy theories became the default explanations. The culprit was everything from an accidental shoot down to a hijacking to suicide-by-pilot to a miniature black hole eating the plane. Even though some of these have been ruled out, it’s likely that the complete timeline of the plane’s final moments will never be fully known—and that the conspiracies will linger.
But in a decade where an entire plane can disappear, is it that had to believe maybe it just flew off the face of a flat Earth?
No incident, though, sparked more mainstream theorizing about “what really happened” than Jeffrey Epstein’s death. While Epstein’s autopsy made it clear the financier and convicted sex offender died by hanging himself in his prison cell, the death was so bizarre, unexpected, and convenient for so many people that conspiracy theories seemed like the only natural reaction. How does someone who had previously attempted suicide, who should have been on suicide watch, and who was in one of the most heavily staffed prisons in the country find the means and opportunity to take his own life?
“Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” was so ubiquitous that it spawned a legion of memes and mainstream mentions, even from people who ordinarily mocked such notions. It’s so widely-believed that recent polling revealed only a third of Americans think Epstein actually hanged himself, with the rest either believing he was murdered, or not being sure.
It’s likely, because of it, we will never get a full accounting of Epstein’s crimes and the people involved, the truth of a massive pedophilia ring involving presidents, celebrities, and the wealthiest people in the world completely vanishing.
It sets the stage for a new decade where the truth will be even harder to discern. And with people already willing to believe nearly anything, it’s likely to get much, much worse.
Mike Rothschild is a writer who specializes in researching and debunking conspiracy theories and fringe beliefs. He also writes about politics, history, and breaking news.