Editors' note: This story has been updated to more clearly attribute phrasing from work previously published in the New York Times.
Since the beginning of the 2016 election cycle, some of President Donald Trump’s supporters have claimed that the Republican is more cunning than he appears, playing “four-dimensional chess.” But what was never totally clear was the extent to which Trump believed the most extreme claims he made in public. Was he playing to the fringe? Or did he really believe this stuff?
But now, thanks to the impeachment inquiry, we know that the president has spent months fixated on a conspiratorial web of right-wing fan fiction.
His attempt to extort the Ukrainian government into investigating Democrat Joe Biden, one of the leading contenders for his party’s nomination for president, has made it clear: Donald Trump is part of a digital human centipede of his own making.
This week, we learned that Trump and Attorney General William Barr investigated three pieces of “Russiagate." The conspiracy theory maps out an intricate machinery of blather, but here is the core: In 2016, the Democrats faked the hack of the Democratic National Committee’s servers to frame Russia so as to make Trump’s presidential win look illegitimate. In the years since, it has spiraled out into a tangled paranoid contraption involving state-sponsored killings, pedophile sex rings, and even, in some cases, demonic sacrifice.
Within this vast conspiracy, Trump and Barr have latched on to three specific elements that circulate among right-wing blogs, pro-Trump subreddits, and white nationalist message boards — namely the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, the Australian diplomat Alexander Downer, and Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud. Bear in mind that basically none of what follows is true.
But the president of the United States seems to think it is.
Trump famously doesn’t read news on the internet, but he does read Twitter. As you can see here, his feed mostly mixes Fox News anchors, conservative political operatives, and his children, the last of whom seem to push right-wing conspiracy theorists straight to him. Among his feed, Donald Jr. and Eric heavily engage in 4chan and Reddit-adjacent meme culture. Eric has liked several tweets about QAnon over the years, including one just this week from a major QAnon conspiracy theorist account threatening civil war. And Donald Jr. is constantly sharing weird Reddit memes. Perhaps as a consequence, detritus from Reddit finds its way to Trump more and more often. His tweets have become less discerning about which far-right conspiracy theory he’s referencing at a given time. Just this week, Trump tweeted an anti-Biden meme about Nickelback, before the band’s label forced him to take it down.
Of course, it’s not just his sons who are immersed in the far-right fever swamps. Since the beginning of his 2016 campaign, Trump has hired (and fired) extremely online characters like Steve Bannon, the former executive chair of hyperpartisan conservative news outlet Breitbart, Republican strategist and regular Infowars guest Roger Stone, and Hungarian nationalist and intelligence analyst Sebastian Gorka.
It’s not conspiratorial to say that there has been a direct pipeline from Breitbart to the White House since the very beginning — the site helped create Trump’s political base. One of Bannon’s protégés, former Breitbart staffer Julia Hahn, has risen through the ranks of the administration over the years. The administration hired Michelle Moons, the site’s former White House correspondent, last July.
At the height of Facebook’s traffic hose in 2016, Breitbart — 58% of its readers above the age of 55 — was one of the leading publishers on the platform. The news outlet is part of the reason Trump’s supporters are not just largely on Facebook, they largely are Facebook. The social network’s core demographic has grown increasingly similar to the demographics of the Trump coalition. Algorithmic changes since his election have resulted in a much smaller readership for conservative news outlets, but not conservative content. Right-wing users brought together by the 2016 Trump traffic explosion have stuck around, migrating to right-wing meme pages.
The Trump reelection campaign has already spent more than $1 million on Facebook ads to counter the impeachment inquiry, and this week announced it had raised $125 million in the third quarter of the year — a presidential fundraising record. Combine that with Facebook’s announcement that they will continue to exempt politicians from third-party fact-checking and allow them to post content that would otherwise be against community guidelines, and the consequence is a full-stack propaganda machine that draws from some of the internet’s darkest corners.
And there is no doubt that the administration is actively networking with edgelords and fringe conservative media personalities. In July, the White House held a “social media summit,” inviting far-right activists and influencers including QAnon-supporting radio host Bill Mitchell, Reddit troll Carpe Donktum, fringe social media huckster Ali Alexander, Project Veritas founder James O'Keefe, founder of Turning Point USA Charlie Kirk, and former BuzzFeed News reporter and current chief creative officer for Turning Point USA Benny Johnson.
The far-right narratives on Twitter, the meme pages on Facebook, Trump’s own erratic behavior, it all has to be synthesized daily into something resembling a news story. Enter Fox News, which the president regularly watches, appears on, and live-tweets. The network rarely creates elements of this conspiracy theory, but it does freeze them in place, like it did at the height of last year’s “Spygate" controversy. Fox took a rambling series of tweets from the president and turned them into around-the-clock coverage. They scoop up the conspiracy theories and find the through line, retransmitting them back out to Facebook groups and white nationalist message boards.
In 2016, the Democratic National Committee hired American cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike to investigate a breach into their servers. The firm concluded that Russian government–backed hackers compromised the network, not a lone operator. The minute CrowdStrike released that conclusion — with a full report later on in December 2016 — it kicked off a sprawling web of delusions.
In March 2017, news site Voice of America released an article titled “Think Tank: Cyber Firm at Center of Russian Hacking Charges Misread Data,” which reported that a British think tank disputed CrowdStrike’s report. According to social media metrics service BuzzSumo, it was the most shared article on Facebook about the cybersecurity firm between the DNC hack in June 2016 and April 2017, when Trump brought up the CrowdStrike conspiracy theory in an AP interview.
The VOA article kicked up a flurry of right-wing stories, with Zerohedge, the Conservative Daily Post, and Breitbart chasing after it. It’s also when communities like 4chan and Reddit started talking about CrowdStrike. Along the way, Russian media pounced. Collectively, they claimed that CrowdStrike’s report was most likely a hoax perpetrated by the Democrats.
Following the cue, ordinary users then began copying and pasting a false claim that a Ukranian oligarch owned CrowdStrike — in fact, the California-based company is owned by an American citizen who was born in Russia. People also accused CrowdStrike of being secretly controlled by the Atlantic Council — it is not — although its cofounder and CTO has worked for the think tank. But what sticks isn’t what’s most accurate, just what makes the best story. Which is why by 2018, CrowdStrike is being referred to on 4chan as a Ukrainian-owned information warfare operation working for a shadowy cabal of anti-Russia Democrat pedophiles. (We could explain the pedophile part, but honestly, it doesn’t make any sense and you’re better off not knowing.)
Toward the end of 2017, reacting to new information surfacing from FBI director Robert Mueller’s investigation, Russiagate splintered in a few directions. The QAnon movement, which claims Trump and the US military are, via 4chan, slowly leaking their plans to arrest every Democrat and free the country from the Deep State, is obviously the most fantastical offshoot, but another wave has seemed to have more resonance with the president.
The central claim here is that the Obama administration spied on Trump’s presidential campaign. Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud and Australian diplomat Alexander Downer are supposed key players in “Spygate,” a term Trump tweeted on May 23, 2018. He accused the FBI and the Obama administration of spying on his 2016 campaign, basing the claim off a New York Times report that the FBI had sent an informant to meet with former Trump campaign staffer George Papadopoulos to investigate Russian collusion. As Papadopoulos tells it, Mifsud met him in London in 2016, and promised Russian-sourced information about Hillary Clinton that could damage her campaign. Then, a few days later, Papadopoulos told Downer, an Australian diplomat in London, that the Russian government had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Mifsud, it should be noted, was said in the Mueller report to have “connections to Russia” and was described by former FBI director James Comey as a “Russian agent.”
Following Trump’s tweets, Fox News ran close to a dozen pieces about it. It also spread to Reddit and 4chan. Based on BuzzSumo data, Spygate content has had a long tail on Facebook: In May 2019, a Federalist article titled “NYT Confirms Obama Admin Used Multiple Spies Against Trump in 2016" had over 240,000 engagements on the platform. Russian state media aggressively pushed Spygate. The Epoch Times, a newspaper with links to the Falun Gong movement, rallied around during Spygate.
The conspiracy also became the name of a book by far-right radio show host Dan Bongino, who has made it the focus of his website, podcast, and Twitter account. In September 2018, Matt Palumbo, a writer who works with Bongino, created a Spygate “character" chart, writing that “the scandal has more characters than a Harry Potter novel.”
According to Palumbo’s chart, which spread across Reddit and 4chan, Mifsud and Downer framed Papadopoulos for trying to collude with Russia to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton. In his Spygate chart, Palumbo points out that Mifsud and Downer both have donated or worked with the Clinton Foundation in the past. That’s it. That’s the smoking gun that supposedly proves the two men set up Papadopoulos.
Papadopoulos, who eventually served 12 days in federal prison and is currently on a 12-month supervised release after pleading guilty to making false statements to FBI agents, has been tweeting a lot this week, claiming the recent news as a win.
“What Attorney General Barr is up to abroad is to get to the bottom of how the Obama administration coerced, and colluded, with foreign governments to spy on a political rival. Those governments willfully participated in this operation. We can never let this happen again. Never,” he tweeted Wednesday night.
“We will soon find out who directed Alexander Downer to spy on me. The Australians don’t freelance without our rubber-stamp, this came from the top of the CIA,” he tweeted Thursday.
All of this — the fake Ukrainian cybersecurity firm, the fake FBI informants, and the Deep State cabal — is why on a call between Trump and Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump says to Zelensky, “I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike… I guess you have one of your wealthy people… The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
And why, as the New York Times reported, "Trump pushed the Australian prime minister during a recent telephone call to help [Barr] gather information... [to] discredit the Mueller investigation."
And also why House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced she would open an official impeachment investigation.