But the spotlight on bots has overshadowed the importance of the people who often initiate the flood and flow of information, and how the narratives they build over time influence how we see politics, ourselves, and the world around us.
Last month, the attorney of Christine Blasey Ford, the California professor who has accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault at a long-ago high school party, revealed that Blasey Ford and her family were in hiding and had hired private security after Blasey Ford received death threats over email and social media. Among those cheering on the hate-trollers were many familiar faces from the sewers of the modern far-right disinformation metropolis: dandified Republican rogue (and likely Mueller investigee) Roger Stone, his alt-media protégés Mike Cernovich and Jack Posobiec, anarchist turned Kremlin propaganda employee turned Bernie backer turned Trump backer Cassandra Fairbanks, and breathless Infowars conspiracist-in-chief Alex Jones. And not surprisingly, alt-right super-troll and white nationalist fund-raiser Chuck Johnson had his own connection to players in the scandal.
This is an operational unit of information terrorists helping to transform the way Americans consume news in the age of Trump—some of the central nodes that give order to the information deluge and around which bot armies and human amplification networks can be organized, wiped out, reconstituted, and armed for attack.
Because that is what they do: attack. Many reporters who cover this phenomenon have themselves been swarmed by attacks and harassment from the digital insurgency that these information terrorists—call them the cadre—command. Information terrorism is not a term I apply lightly. But if you accept the core definition of terrorism as “the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims,” then there are few terms more apt to describe what this group has unleashed against their fellow Americans.
The cadre coalesced and sharpened its edge starting in 2014 with Gamergate before throwing in with then-candidate Trump. It has promoted toxic conspiracies like Pizzagate and QAnon, and was ever-present around movements from Unite the Right to #releasethememo.
This same information architecture was used to attack Blasey Ford and exonerate Kavanaugh. The attacks on Blasey Ford aimed to discredit and silence her using the same tactics that have been deployed to discredit and silence others over the past few years. As others have come forward to accuse Kavanaugh of wrongdoing—including Deborah Ramirez and Julie Swetnick—they have been similarly harassed and smeared by the same machinery and themes.
Some call this trolling, but that term is far too mild. These are not the proverbial hoodied losers in some basement, engaging with other humans only via videogames and 8chan. This cadre has hundreds of thousands of followers and devotees on Twitter, Instagram, Gab, and other social media, many of whom will post and amplify their views even after the personalities themselves are kicked off the platforms for threats and rules violations. The network also takes advantage of affiliations with increasingly mainstream partisan media outlets that will subscribe to any argument that suits their current agenda.
Ultimately, the followers—who are real people, not bots—are cultivated and activated: They don’t need be told to threaten or harass whoever the new enemy is because they already know their part in the play.
Even leaving last year’s Unite the Right white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, aside, the conspiracies and toxic narratives this network promotes have inspired a number of armed and violent attacks and dangerous incidents. The feedback within this network is a form of radicalization and extremism. It may seem organized around older conservative themes—belief that “political correctness” has gone too far, straightforward dislike of the Clintons—but it has become a culture of digital violence that is bleeding into real life. The story of how this network emerged and evolved is as byzantine as any fever-dream conspiracy. Unfortunately, it is all too real.
The cadre that now orbits around Roger Stone—with its many affiliates, guest stars, and hangers-on—was among the earliest and most ardent defenders of Donald Trump as the man who would upend “the establishment.” They embraced the Stone playbook of doing whatever it takes to achieve a goal, of politics as “performance art” and seeing themselves as a new kind of mercenary or insurgent in a hopelessly corrupt and broken system. What Stone called “30 years of bipartisan treason and failure.”
Some of the younger, outsized personalities that would eventually storm the 2016 GOP Convention in Cleveland on behalf of Trump first garnered attention during the confusing 2014–15 events now known as Gamergate—an internet culture war sparked when a group of women exposed what they saw as inherent misogyny in the production and culture of videogaming and argued for greater inclusivity.
This started as a legitimate debate with valid arguments on both sides: Yes, gaming was a male-dominated scene, and some games did objectify women and violence, but there was also an expanding realm of games that appealed to different interests. This exchange was quickly drowned out by a group of militant gamers who resented this intrusion into their sandbox and set out to prove they were not misogynistic by relentlessly attacking and harassing the women and anyone who supported them. The women were doxxed and threatened in graphic terms with rape and death, and some fled their homes.
Many in the gaming industry were taken aback by the entire incident, and called for expanded inclusivity and offered rewards for information on the anonymous attackers. But on the other side, the less extremist group of gamers arguing that they didn’t want the culture to change was overtaken by fringe narratives of manipulation by the “left media” and echoes from conservative blogs about the dangers of political correctness. Over the year that followed, a group of emergent “men’s rights” commentators, amplified by far-right media, would attract a sizable internet following because of Gamergate.
First among these were the now-marginalized Milo Yiannopoulos, then a writer for Breitbart, and blogger Mike Cernovich. Cernovich latched on early, amplifying the theory of white-male identity politics long developed on his blog and arguing that Gamergate was a critical new front in the culture war. He wrote frequently on the need to expose the assault on the First Amendment and about how women make damaging, false allegations against men to smear them.
Yiannopoulos weighed in with his characteristic contrarian flare, including in articles like “Feminist Bullies Tearing the Video Game Industry Apart” (note the hyperlink is actually “Lying Greedy Promiscuous Feminist Bullies…,” which is the essence of most of the “men’s rights” memes), and led others at Breitbart to write on these themes. Infowars jumped on the Gamergate bandwagon and, as the conspiracy flourished, continued to be a platform for Gamergaters to reach the masses, as did Breitbart.
Both Cernovich and Yiannopoulos encouraged the doxxing of opponents on their social media feeds and in their blogs and articles (and Yiannopoulos doxxed reporters himself). They gained a kind of leadership over the unruly mob, maintained by issuing increasingly outlandish statements about the place of women and the rightful status of men. Chuck Johnson would also weigh in in favor of the Gamergaters, learning from the event and realizing that it was a chance to take his marginal brand mainstream. He would go on to amplify Yiannopoulos on “the myth of tech misogyny” and Cernovich on themes like false rape allegations.
All this made clear that Gamergate wasn’t really about gaming or even women—it was about identity, a bunker mentality that Trump would mobilize during his march to the presidency. Many long, thoughtful analyses of the road from Gamergate to Trump have been written. Even a Breitbart contributor would later ponder whether “leftists” weren’t right that Gamergate led to the Trump presidency.
The themes of censorship, false accusations, oppressed maleness, and resurgent masculinity were tempered in the fire of Gamergate, and they would gain amplification in the years to come. Gamergate was loud and controversial, and it was a magnet for other internet fringe elements, including white nationalists, anti-feminists, neo-Nazis, and dude-bros who use terms like “shit-posting” as a compliment.
But there’s another aspect to this that is critical: In terms of information architecture, Gamergate was a signal event—a rally-point for the charlatans and hucksters who would become leaders because they could put words to a previously poorly defined sentiment that was more widespread than anyone wanted to think.
Cleveland, Wikileaks, Seth Rich, and the Trump Candidacy
Yiannopoulos was banned from Twitter in July 2016 (as Chuck Johnson had been in May 2015) after directing racist hate-trolling against an actress, which finally seemed to trigger whatever Twitter rules hadn’t applied to his previous transgressions. His celebrity had just reached its peak, and he swaggered into the Cleveland GOP Convention surrounded in controversy and continually reassuring people he wasn’t a white nationalist. He wore his Twitter exile as a badge of honor.
And with this, the Gamergaters shifted into presidential campaign mode. In the months leading up to Cleveland, Yiannopoulos and Cernovich had found common purpose with Roger Stone on the targeted bashing of Ted Cruz, including amplifying a “sex scandal” from favored Trump outlet The National Enquirer.
The America First Unity Rally, which was sponsored by Infowars and cohosted by Roger Stone, would bring together many of the fringe groups that were becoming more mainstream behind candidate Trump. Jones, Yiannopoulos, and Stone would all speak to the crowd, promoting the idea of “radicals” taking the reins of the party.
During and after Cleveland, it was becoming clear that Stone appreciated the Gamergaters—along with Johnson, with whom he has repeatedly publicly feuded—as younger, if equally dapper and outlandish, devotees of his shady political and propaganda tactics. They were willing to cross lines, break rules, harass and intimidate opponents, spread lies, and revel in the the fact that they were reviled by the Republican establishment as trolls, freaks, and con artists—as Stone himself had become in championing Trump against the GOP establishment.
This made them a critical tactical force in Cleveland, where they collectively bullied, attacked, and intimidated anyone who wasn’t a fervid enough supporter of Donald Trump. Stone threatened to punish delegates who wouldn’t vote for Trump. Johnson stalked the female reporter who had accused Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski of physically assaulting her, with Cernovich filming the incident. Yiannopoulos leveraged his celebrity brand—labeled “gay neo-fascist” by one reporter—into high-profile parties that brought the fringes supporting Trump together, amplifying the discomfort many in the establishment GOP felt for this movement.
New names popped up in Cleveland that would become important to the insurgency. Neo-Nazis and “white nationalists” that would become better known later on because of Charlottesville—Richard Spencer, Ricky Vaughn, Tim “Baked Alaska” Gionet, Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer—would congeal near the core cadre in Cleveland. The anonymous pro-Trump bot-king “MicroChip” had helped amplify Stone’s message of the “#clevelandsteal” before the convention; at the convention, GOP delegates were intimidated via twitter, including by Vaughn, who targeted threats of violence to certain delegates.
Online and on the ground, the atmosphere built by the core group and these new affiliates felt wild, dangerous, and out of control. It was the perfect counterpart to the fear that people closer to the Trump campaign had built up over the previous months—that if Trump was not given the GOP nomination, there would be violence.
Also debuting at Cleveland were memetic warfare advocate Jack Posobiec and Cassandra Fairbanks, a shape-shifting activist. In 2013, Fairbanks was an Occupy movement/anti-rape activist. In 2015, she spent months in Ferguson with Black Lives Matters. Her anti-police anarchist attitudes gained her the attention of Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik, for which she became a writer in 2015. At the time, she was a fan of Bernie Sanders and engaged with his campaign. A year later, just before Cleveland, she threw in with Trump, using her platform to convince other Bernie supporters to come with her. (And as the Mueller indictments would later detail, tapping into the leftist anti-establishment sentiment backing Sanders was a pillar of the 2016 Kremlin disinformation campaigns). In short, Fairbanks was the perfect “horseshoe”—using her anarchist political views to bridge left and right anti-government sentiments and, in this case, align them behind Trump.
Collectively, this group dominated the media surrounding the GOP convention with their outrageous statements and intimidation tactics. It was the grotesque slow-motion train wreck no one could pull their eyes from—in particular when they realized it was no longer the sideshow, but indicative of the main event, with Trump as ringmaster. This was no longer your father’s GOP.
As Cleveland took down police barricades and Republicans slumped homeward, the Stone cadre was full steam ahead, pivoting smoothly into promoting Wikileaks’ hacked DNC materials before the Democratic convention (material which was, of course, provided to Wikileaks by Kremlin hackers).
Stone would, by all appearances, become a focus for the Mueller investigation for his alleged contacts with Wikileaks and Guccifer 2.0. They all played a central role in amplifying Wikileaks, along with the parallel conspiracy theory that the DNC hack was actually a leak from murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich (a conspiracy reportedly amplified by Kremlin disinformation networks). Fairbanks wrote an article to fuel the conspiracy and was a leading driver of it. Johnson, working with Cernovich and Wikileaks, offered a bounty for information supporting the conspiracy in 2016. A year later, Yiannopoulos was still promoting this conspiracy.
But the work on this complex hacking/emails narrative wasn’t done. And hey—why not start some new ones about child sex trafficking while you’re at it?
In September 2016, Johnson claims he helped the teenage girl sexting with disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner, husband of Clinton staffer Huma Abedin, sell her story to the media. The girl would later explain she had baited Weiner into the online relationship to see what he would do. The story published in the wake of Johnson’s efforts (and, he claims, amplified by his “troll army”) became the pretext for the FBI’s access to Weiner’s computer—an event that famously impacted the Clinton campaign in the final months, especially when FBI director James Comey opened, and then closed again, the investigation into the “missing” emails.
Johnson had other irons in the fire as well. The day before the sexting story came out, Johnson published an article claiming he had obtained information from a “Soros-tied PR firm” that was launching a website, PutinTrump.org, supposedly to “spread conspiracy theories about Donald Trump’s connections to Russia.” Shortly after the story was posted, Wikileaks tweeted out the link to the website, which was still password-protected, along with the password itself. Johnson wrote about this in triumph, telling Wikileaks: “We can take down Hillary together.” (Later, in August 2017, Johnson would arrange a meeting for Putin-loving Republican congressman Dana Rohrabacher with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange in London—which Johnson would also attend, and then refuse to tell Senate investigators about.)
At the same time, Johnson was supposedly helping GOP operative Peter Smith make contact with hackers who might have the “missing” Clinton emails.
In the summer of 2016, there was a lot going on, and these events have been interpreted in wildly divergent ways. But a central group of actors was fueling conspiracies to attack Trump’s opponent, and these were amplified by Kremlin-backed information operations targeting America.
There’s one more critical element to attribute to the toxic disinformation brigade: the stories Johnson helped spin on Weiner were in turn the origin of the fabricated nonsense that the Democrats were running a child sex trafficking ring—a narrative that has become the central axis around which another far-right conspiracy now orbits.
Pizzagate and QAnon
In October 2016, an online conspiracy that would become known as Pizzagate was started by a fake account, alleging that emails discovered on the Weiner laptop seized by the NYPD contained proof of a (potentially occult) child sex trafficking ring run by prominent Democrats like John Podesta and Hillary Clinton.
This lunacy of alleged secret code embedded in various food words—pizza, pasta, cheese—and communicated via secret calls to a DC pizza parlor escaped from the rumor/conspiracy peat bog and gained real attention when it was heavily promoted by Infowars and other right-wing disinformation sites like True Pundit; by Stone himself, plus Cernovich and Posobiec; by Fairbanks; and by a healthy array of foreign-hosted botnets. (Rolling Stone took the trouble to lay all this out in incredible detail.)
Posobiec was one of the biggest drivers of Pizzagate on social media, and his name will forever be synonymous with it. Johnson’s alt-right/white nationalist fund-raising site offered a bounty for anyone who could find proof of the conspiracy.
That one anonymous tweet about Weiner’s laptop culminated six weeks later in an armed attack by a Pizzagate believer who, inspired by an Infowars video, drove from North Carolina to DC with an assault rifle to raid the pizza parlor and free all the trafficking victims he was expecting to find. Shots were fired, but no one was injured. Suddenly, this fevered online circus was very real—in an immediate and dangerous way.
The Pizzagate promoters worked to distance themselves from the conspiracy. Even Alex Jones briefly realized he had crossed a line with this one, posting an apology for pushing the Pizzagate story on Infowars.
The problem was—his followers believed it. Pizzagate believers rallied at the White House after Jones renounced the conspiracy. The Pizzagate apology disappeared from the Infowars site, and Jones went right on into the next iteration of this elaborate contrivance—QAnon—hosting the exact same set of Stone-related characters to talk about it on his show.
Everything about the Pizzagate conspiracy theory was debunked. But if the pizza parlor raid was a dud, the sex trafficking conspiracy didn’t die; it was first relabeled in memes and murky chatrooms as “pedogate” and then found a new outlet as QAnon—a complex and addictive conspiracy that soon burst into mainstream consciousness.
QAnon takes the prepared ground of sex trafficking mania and links it to the need to prove that Mueller’s Russia investigation isn’t real. It argues—and I’m abbreviating this tremendously—that President Trump is saving the world from a vast Soros/Clinton/Podesta child sex trafficking ring; that attorney general Jeff Sessions has prepared tens of thousands of sealed indictments to arrest all those connected to the sex-trafficking ring; that the mass arrest is coming any day now, when people will be rounded up in the abandoned Walmarts or maybe GITMO or whatever; and that Mueller is in on it, because the Russia investigation is just cover for the investigation of the sex traffickers.
I really wish I was kidding—but alas. Way before Q went mainstream, I had a black car driver in Texas explain to me that he had already heard Trump’s pre-recorded secret address from the Oval Office, which would be aired when the mass arrests—of 18,000, 40,000, who can say how far it goes?—took place, which would be soon. He calmly, rationally, and politely insisted that Q “explained everything.”
In 2014, Chuck Johnson explained in a Mother Jones interview how he offered “bounties” to independent online researchers to solve “puzzles” that he gave them. What he said is actually a good description of why QAnon works: “You get all these hobbyists and amateurs and people out there who have a lot of time on their hands, many of whom are retired or they’re a mother, their kids are sleeping while they’re researching, they’re stay-at-home moms, or they’re college students or they’re unemployed or this is their moonlighting thing. All those people are starting to find one another.” It’s that sense of being a part of a bigger mission.
The way I wrote it, it’s easy to dismiss QAnon. Except that it was only nine months from its launch date (October 28, 2017) until people were so deeply entrenched in their belief of Q that they were caravaning to Trump rallies. Except celebrities promote Q. Except that less than a month after it was launched, President Trump promoted an account that supported the QAnon theory that replied to him on his Twitter feed. Except that Trump has hosted one of its promoters in the Oval Office and praised and defended celebrities who champion Q.
And the frenzy builds and builds.
So QAnon had fertile ground to seed. It had been a year since Pizzagate, but the anti-Clinton, anti-Podesta “THE EMAILS —> secret child sex trafficking” narrative had never died down in far-right blogs and “news,” including among the Stone cadre. Before the launch of QAnon for example, on August 5, 2017, Stone tweeted: “Gen Flynn has a list of high level pedophiles, the release of which will decimate the Deep State dons”—a tweet that was later reposted as proof that Trump “knows everything” by the same QAnon account the president retweeted.
By January, QAnon was regular fare for Infowars, where conservative writer Jerome Corsi was a frequent QAnon explainer, having started linking everything to Q in December 2017. (Corsi has now been subpoenaed by Mueller apparently as part of his investigation into Roger Stone.)
While Stone hawked QAnon, others in the group were more cautious after being burned by Pizzagate. Cernovich may have been capitalizing on the moral panic stoked by Q-fever when he targeted a Hollywood director, but both he and Posobiec claimed they weren’t believers in the conspiracy. Still, they would engage in individual parts of the vast plot. Both Cernovich and Posobiec were drivers of another pet theory of Q conspiracists, the #ReleaseTheMemo campaign—as was Fairbanks, even though she was otherwise outspoken in her dislike for Q followers’ fervor.
It was a fine line to walk. And even before Q was visible at Trump rallies and the media was writing about it, there was a disturbance in the Q-force. In May 2018, Infowars and the others in the Stone cadre started urgently denouncing QAnon, saying it had been “hijacked” by a deep-state information campaign or maybe just by people out to make a buck. For most of the summer, Posobiec teased that he would explain the whole deal.
In September, his opus supposedly debunking QAnon debuted, outing MicroChip, the aforementioned bot-king, and someone named Dreamcatcher as the creators of QAnon. According to Micro (if any of this is to be believed), they basically just created a word salad out of the stuff Trump supporters believed—the sex trafficking mania, Clinton is about to be arrested, the Generals, Russia’s not a thing, Trump is the savior—and made a list of questions that would tantalize that audience and engage them online.
“It was meant to be funny, to get people’s imaginations going,” Micro said in his interview with Posobiec. “It’s not supposed to go this far.” He said they only wrote a few of the original posts, essentially to bring disparate factions of the Trump movement together, and then someone else took it over.
Whatever its provenance, the conspiracy took on a dark life of its own. On June 15, an armed Nevada man and apparent QAnon follower blocked traffic on a bridge near the Hoover Dam using a homemade armored vehicle, demanding the release of the “OIG report”—a reference to a QAnon theory that there’s a secret, unreleased part of the Office of the Inspector General report on former FBI director Comey and the 2016 elections.
This resulted in a stand-off with police; he now faces a terrorism charge. An Arizona man with ties to QAnon was arrested on July 22 after a weeks-long argument with police over a homeless camp that he believed to be the site of the secret child sex trafficking camp. He still faces assault charges from a prior arrest and faces others, including trespassing, for the latest.
According to a video he once posted, the veterans’ group he is a part of once showed up with AR-15s and stood overlooking a highway. In August, a reported QAnon buff in California was arrested for starting the Holy Fire, a wildfire that scorched 23,000 acres of California’s Cleveland National Forest. He faces charges of arson and felony threat to terrorize. A group was also indicted in Illinois for various crimes, including federal civil rights and hate crimes violations for a bomb plot; the group’s name was an apparent reference to part of the QAnon conspiracy.
All of this to say: Q got out of control, and this fervor began to manifest in domestic terrorism and conflicts with law enforcement. No one wants to own that.
As with the previous toxic conspiracies, once they started sparking potentially violent events, their promoters pretended that they had always had their doubts. They had done the same on Charlottesville, when suddenly they all distanced themselves from the neo-Nazis they had befriended, partied with, and promoted in Cleveland.
And, as before, even as they denounced the conspiracy they kept a door open and prepared for the next iteration. “There is something going on with Trump,” Micro said as he debunked Q, implying there was a different secret conspiracy behind Trump just waiting to be discovered. “QAnon is not going to save you. You have to get out and vote, and do activism.” As I said—how convenient, just before the midterms where Republican voter turnout is in question.
Posobiec may now be ironically outraged that others are monetizing conspiracies. But he knows the drill too: “Perhaps [the format Q used] can be the starting off point for a new series of riddles and puzzles and a new type of information system.” A new type of information system that is essentially mindfuckery.
Reddit has recently banned a central QAnon forum for inciting violence, as they had done previously with a Pizzagate forum. The cycle repeats. But the audience is waiting.
The Kavanaugh Accusations
Once information architecture is in place, it’s like pipes. You just inject new material into the system, and it gets where it needs to go faster and faster as people get used to receiving narratives and themes in a certain context from certain sources. On the far-right, in particular, there has been a concerted effort to recruit people to participate in this process. They act as human amplifiers, both organic and automated, within these narrative structures. (I outlined an example of this here; it irritated this network so much, there are two “Q cards” that reference that piece).
This process of unleashing conspiracies is not just an online activity. This is about behavioral change. And often, in the case of the far-right, about different forms of radicalization.
This architecture has a preternatural advantage, of sorts: It has always been backed by hackers and coders—participants like MicroChip, who understand how to use algorithms and automation. As a result, a small number of important actors can drive the system as long as they have the right content to distribute—content that triggers the right emotional response.
Through each iteration of this network, rape has been a constant theme. Rape and pedophilia are potent triggers that elicit an intense emotional response from an audience. Rape has been used to fling charges of hypocrisy—almost always involving accusations against Bill Clinton or other Democrats. It has been used to highlight examples of “fake news” by pointing to the few cases where the media has promoted unsubstantiated rape allegations. It has been used in attempts to prove elite corruption by insisting that there is a secret cabal of elites who are pedophiles and predators. It has been used to normalize racism—referring to blacks and Muslims as serial rapists and to migrants as rapists and killers. And it has been used to justify misogyny by arguing that rape is “misunderstood.”
Cernovich’s manicured persona has always had an edgy and loathsome sexual aspect, studded with macho proclamations about dominance, violence, and rape—the boy-fantasy version of 50 Shades of Grey. There’s a lot of talk, as his Gamergate wingman Yiannopoulos used to say, of rape culture being a “fantasy”.”
Johnson had previously published a blog post targeting a rape accuser, only it was the wrong person, and has suggested that women who stay silent haven’t really been raped. Rape isn’t a myth for them, though, if you are a Democrat or in particular if you are Bill Clinton or maybe Senator Chuck Schumer. Stone helped deflect a series of assault allegations made against candidate Trump by bringing all of Clinton’s accusers to a debate.
This has all taken on a new heady energy as pushback to #MeToo—and riding the coattails of the conspiracy bandwagon. But the intent is the same: to demonize the opponent, define identity, activate the base around emotional rather than rational concepts, and build a narrative that can be used to normalize marginal and radical political views. It is, after all, very convenient to have a narrative positing that all your political opponents are part of a secret cabal of sexual predators, which thus exonerates your side by default.
This is the ideological landscape that has been so swiftly leveraged in the defense of Brett Kavanaugh.
The cadre and their followers knew exactly what to do when the allegations made against Kavanaugh by Christine Blasey Ford became public. They did not disappoint. Rapid efforts by far-right blogs and personalities to dox and troll Blasey Ford resulted in the targeting of the wrong Christine Blasey Ford; Posobiec was one of those reportedly amping this misguided doxxing. Cernovich said Blasey Ford was a “far left wing activist” who had been “scrubbing” her social media profile, so her accusations were “activism.” Alex Jones made a joke of the whole thing, with Infowars saying Blasey Ford is a “leftist” whose accusations were a “political ploy.” Fairbanks: “She can’t prove it… Her clothes were on… Fuck that lady.” That’s a particularly strong comment from a one-time anti-rape activist. Stone: “This is a woman looking for her Anita Hill moment.”
But this was pretty typical fare for this group. And then, in an interview discussing the allegations, Roger Stone cited Mark Judge’s denial of Blasey Ford’s account. Judge, it turns out, has a long history of interaction with this core network.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Judge deleted his Twitter and YouTube accounts soon after the Blasey Ford accusations were made public. (Johnson also deleted his entire news site.) Judge’s writings about high school drunkenness and sexuality and his experience getting paid to take pictures of women in bikinis have been duly noted, as has a yearbook quote that references hitting women. But Judge was a prolific writer on a range of conservative “culture warrior” causes, including for The American Spectator, CNSNews.com, The Daily Caller, Acculturated, and Splice Today, among other blogs and publications. Much of it fits right in to the Cernovichian advocacy of “men’s rights.”
Judge has weighed in on just about everything: holding forth about the need to “make Playboy great again” (masculinity), advising women on “graciously turning a man down” (toxic feminism), and expounding on how Melania Trump is an archetype feminine woman raised outside the “leftist orthodoxy.” He has quibbled over the definition of sexual misconduct by asking whether Wonder Woman was raped, and, on Acculturated, explored other “double standards” applied to what he sees as the increased liberation of women causing the oppression and depression of men. And don’t forget about the need for unrestrained “male passion.” Plus, you know, young women in bathing suits.
Judge discussed Hollywood liberals and child rape jokes with Cernovich (Hollywood/pedophilia is a topic he frequently returns to). He wrote a piece on Gamergate linking to Yiannopoulos and calling media critic Anita Sarkeesian a “social justice warrior.” He authored a positive review of alt-right backer David Horowitz’s book. (Horowitz is known for his views that the real race war is being waged against white people and that the coverage of Charlottesville was “fake news.”)
In short, Judge was a generator of content for the alt-right machine, using his high school bad-boy, “real man” credentials as a springboard to comment on the whole suite of social issues that the alt-right feels is eating away at our Americanness.
This is the information that flowed through the architecture the Stone cadre popularized and mainstreamed over the past few years, moving it from the fringe to a central pillar of the conservative agenda, cartoonifying legitimate issues of conservative concern and recruiting new supporters as they went. The narrative was set long ago—allegations are false, men (especially white men) are oppressed, the people who stand against you are corrupt perverts worthy of demonization, and everything that is the America you know will fall apart if you don’t fight for some notion of the way things were and should be again. And the best way to achieve this, since the system will fight back, is viciousness.
This architecture is established, and permanently in transmit mode.
Players like Judge may seem marginal to us—but their role in building these networks is important when suddenly the worlds they come from are involved in events like the accusations Blasey Ford has leveled in the midst of a Supreme Court confirmation battle.
Consider the now-infamous and disavowed (but archived here) Ed Whelan twitter thread, an odd diversionary narrative hyped as an alternate theory of the night Blasey Ford describes. Its gist: mistaken identity of the perpetrator. Potential defamation issues aside, it seemed to build on the groundwork being laid by Senate Republicans and the White House to carefully insinuate that Blasey Ford wasn’t lying, merely mistaken about who attacked her. But Whelan transformed it into a bonkers Twitterverse conspiracy theory about the bedroom at the top of the stairs.
An analysis of the accounts that retweeted Whelan’s teaser for his conspiracy most frequently post content from right and far-right media, several of which are anchors in the far-right disinformation ecosphere (and Russian disinformation, to boot).
Posted for less than 24 hours, Whelan’s mistaken-identity theory sparked a wave of blog posts and discussions on far-right sites that live on even after Whelan backed off. This post, for example, repeats Whelan’s claims and suggests they all but vindicate Kavanaugh. It was a top-trending piece on disinformation trackers and was still being circulated on Twitter days after the source was deleted. And so was this one, this one, and this one. Some 1.5 million “Fox and Friends” viewers heard all about the mistaken-identity theory live on TV. Once it’s out there, you can’t pull it back.
Whelan only did what the Stone cadre has done for years: push a lie, entrench it, later disavow, thus minimizing the damage all while presumably knowing that it’s still there, colonizing the target population. Whelan’s conspiracy plugged into the narrative architecture that had been refined since Gamergate. They know these themes and narratives, and the “evidence” scratched the conspiracy brain, seeming like plausible open-source intelligence. It achieved exactly what it was intended to.
The narratives to defend Kavanaugh were mostly about discrediting Blasey Ford: that she was part of a secret CIA mind-control project (the CIA connection was also alluded to by Kremlin disinformation purveyors); that George Soros was behind her allegations; that her lawyer was linked to Hillary Clinton; that she was motivated by profit; that she did this as revenge for a foreclosure case where Kavanaugh’s mother, also a judge, ruled against Blasey Fords’s parents (only, she didn’t—she ruled in their favor); that she had also made false allegations against Neil Gorsuch; and many more.
What was the payoff for this multifront conspiracy defense? Well, Blasey Ford was asked questions that hinted at some of these conspiracies during her testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee—who was paying her bills and pulling her strings?—by the prosecutor representing the Republicans. Presumably those questions came from members of the committee.
And then, when it was his turn to testify, Kavanaugh himself deployed this narrative by referencing and implying conspiracies in his red-faced attacks on the Democratic members of the Senate Judiciary Committee. While he would not say directly that Blasey Ford was lying, he alleged the left was “willing to do anything … to blow me up,” including “false last-minute smears” “calculated and orchestrated” against him as “revenge on behalf of the Clintons.”
In the course of his angry self-defense, Kavanaugh stamped a lot of bingo squares: attempted rape allegations as a political tool, false allegations, Clinton, secret conspiracies. By going out and taking the big swing, he elicited a powerful emotional response in his defense—an activated response from a hardened base. #ConfirmKavanaugh was trending—with support of far-right and Russian-linked accounts—after the hearing.
The chasmic problem facing us all: Radicalization is relatively simple to accomplish using social networks and other media, but de-radicalization is not. Pizzagate believers still believe. The people pushing Q disavowed it months ago—and only after that did it crest in the public imagination.
As Micro said in his confession: Things weren’t supposed to get so out of control. But this is the system the cadre built—a network hungry for the next hit of disinformation to inflame confirmation bias, moving content so swiftly that stories can jump from rando twitter to MSM in 12 hours flat. The landscape is prepared. The participants know what to do.
When it comes to the psychology that shapes mass movements, there are two fundamental rules: Everybody wants to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and everybody wants someone to tell them what to do so that things will turn out OK. With that in mind, our understanding of what conspiracy theories are and why they work comes into focus. Conspiracy theories aren’t something that stupid or uneducated people fall for—they are something that people who want to believe in something latch on to.
Maybe it’s religion, family, national identity, ethnic identity, community, or government that used to be this structure—the system of belief, the answers to who you are and where you fit within the system. But when those break down, conspiracies can take their place, particularly in times of rapid change or upheaval. They become the framework for making things that don’t make any sense somehow understandable.
As Kavanaugh was holed up in the White House undergoing intensive prep to combat the accusations, Blasey Ford was off the grid, moving from house to house with a newly employed security detail, terrified by death threats, swarmed and disparaged by trolls and digital attackers whose smears and conspiracies then bleed over into the blogs and then into more acceptable conservative media. So prepared is this landscape for new conspiracies of central bogeymen—crisis actors, pedophiles, Soros, secret CIA plots, and more—that naked absurdities are liked and reposted without much thought.
Gamergate became Pizzagate became QAnon became entrenched modern narrative architecture ripe for exploitation. The cadre mobilized a movement of misogyny and white nationalism and intimidation—of angry boys who reveled in the chaos god of Roger Stone—and cultivated the narrative to make it acceptable to a wider lane of conservatives. This is triggering violence and identifiable forms of extremism that we can no longer ignore.
This is Donald Trump’s America. But more, it is Roger Stone’s America. Whatever it takes to win is fair game, even if they burn down the minds of Americans in the process. This willful radicalization is a campaign of information terror waged on fellow countrymen—the necessary domestic counterpart for hostile nation-state information warfare to be successful. It seems no accident that Stone is apparently in Mueller’s sights, possibly for behavior that suggests coordination with Kremlin-linked actors.
The leading lights in Stone’s orbit take scalps and champion memes, only to shed their skins and awake in a new persona, turning their flamethrowers from one topic or group to the next. In a non-Trumpian America, they might have remained the fringe provocateurs they are, trolling the fact-based world for exposure and ad revenue, vitamin hucksters and doomsday preppers masquerading as political commentators.
But as the Trump Train prepared to leave the station, the conservative media was already so thoroughly riddled with conspiracists and storytellers that the fringe had ample bridges to the much-maligned MSM. To name a few: Sean Hannity and his commentators (John Solomon, Dan Bongino, Sara Carter); Tucker Carlson and his Daily Caller, where Johnson and Judge contributed; Breitbart, which helped integrate conspiracy and propaganda like Infowars and Gateway Pundit.
And, of course, the president himself has amplified conspiracy and demonized “the media”—even while elevating a new ecosystem of far-right media groups and personalities, like One America News’ Posobiec and whatever TruNews is. This has transformed the way conservative Americans consume information, altering how they make judgments on truth and reality.
Blasey Ford has learned how devastating this runaway narrative architecture can be. But so, now, has Kavanaugh, whose personal credibility was also being run down by the propaganda being levied in his defense. Maybe, just maybe, it was a Hail Mary that worked out for him, in the end. Certainly, it has helped inflate a sense of urgency to vote on his nomination and to make it more intensely partisan. Or, as Posobiec added at the close of the hearing, “Confirming Kavanaugh to own the libs.”
As with Gamergate and Pizzagate and QAnon, the information weapons being fired in the Kavanaugh controversy are uncontrollable and adaptive. We are beginning to see the cost of this—but now the question is: Who will pay?
It is clear that foreign powers seeking to manipulate Americans with these asymmetric tools of information warfare must pay a price for doing so. But what about domestic forces that use the same tools and tactics? How do we judge those who apply disinformation against their fellow citizens to improve their odds, seeking to benefit from the ability of this architecture to spark frenzy and fear, intimidation and violence? What price should they pay for the scorched earth they leave behind?
Cognitive warfare is a dark, seductive rabbit hole. It is powerful and unregulated, and right now, thanks to social media in particular, the information domain is as lawless as the wild west, as demoralizing as the terror of World War I trench warfare, and as adaptive as the guerrilla tactics in the Philippines in World War II. There are state actors, nonstate actors, private sector and other independents—armies, mercenaries, and terrorists, all looking to master these techniques. Even small groups, like the cadre I described here, can achieve significant outcomes when the network effects kick in.
Trained and untrained operators alike are beta-testing tools and tactics on human minds, deliberately or intuitively. Information weapons are intangible. But people aim them, and people are the target. It’s time we take them seriously. The immediate costs are already visible in America. The long-term costs will be devastating. One need only look to Stalin’s campaigns of internal psychological terror waged in captive nations to understand the price can be inconceivably high.
And we’re all paying the price already, whether we know it or not.
Molly K. McKew (@MollyMcKew) is an expert on information warfare and the narrative architect at New Media Frontier. She advised Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili’s government from 2009 to 2013 and former Moldovan prime minister Vlad Filat in 2014–15. Open source researcher Jay McKenzie (@JamesFourM) helped conduct the research for this analysis.