In the final weeks of October 2018, following months of increasingly shrill, increasingly baroque conspiracy theories pushed by official after elected official, someone began sending mail bombs out to their favorite subjects.
The first person to receive a mail bomb was philanthropist billionaire George Soros, who has been the American far right’s favorite bugbear at least since Russian president Vladimir Putin, piqued by Soros’s mild criticism in 2014 of what he saw as encroaching nationalism and expansionism, threw Soros’s Open Societies Foundation out of the country and began weaponizing antisemitic smears against him, including during an appearance with United States President Donald Trump in Helsinki in mid-2018:
In response to a question about election interference, Putin brushed off allegations that the Russian government was involved. He compared the company that allegedly gave cover to the Russian intelligence agents to Soros — essentially arguing that an individual company doesn’t represent Russia, just like how Soros doesn’t represent America.
“You have a lot of individuals in the United States, take George Soros, for instance, with multibillion capitals, but does it make him — his position, his posture, the posture of the United States? No, it does not,” Putin said.
Putin could have named a big American company as an example. He could have named any wealthy American, like Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos. But he didn’t. Instead, he mentioned a man who’s been smeared by the far right as a liberal puppet master and, worse, a Nazi collaborator (though Soros is actually a Holocaust survivor). In elections from Hungary to Italy, Soros has been referenced by far-right political figures, often with anti-Semitic rhetoric following closely.
A few days after someone targeted Soros’s home, makeshift bombs and explosives appeared nearly simultaneously at the homes of the Obamas and the Clintons. At the same time, others were sent to CNN’s New York offices (addressed to former CIA director John Brennan, care of CNN; Brennan does not work for the network), and intercepted in Maryland en route to Rep. Maxine Waters’ office. Yet another was sent to Eric Holder, but the address was wrong. The packages had the return address of Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, so they would be “returned” to her.
Each of the targets share commonalities. Each has criticized United States President Donald Trump, many are Democrats, and all of them have been singled out as the subjects of massive interconnected conspiracy theories that have for years been pushed out through fair means (debunkings) and foul (baseless accusations) on social media networks. In fact, their conspiracy theories are so interconnected that they are almost one grand unifying theory.
According to this worldview, George Soros is more than simply a philanthropic billionaire who spends enormous sums of his great personal fortune to bolster democracies around the world; he is a banker and a puppetmaster sitting like a great spider on a globalist web to heartlessly manipulate current events. That these descriptions bear a striking resemblance to Nazi-era tropes about Jewish people is no coincidence; Soros, who was born in Hungary, is Jewish, and famously survived the Holocaust:
The far right has ecstatically embraced the spectacle of elected political figures such as Trump and Gaetz theorizing about Soros. After Trump’s Soros tweet about Kavanaugh, the neo-Nazi website the Daily Stormer echoed and surpassed Trump’s assertion that anti-Kavanaugh dissent was a nefarious, paid-for plot.
“It is impossible to deny that subversive anti-American Jews were the primary force involved in a sinister plot to destroy Kavanaugh,” Lee Rogers wrote on the site a couple of days later. “These Jews do not represent the interest of America. They represent the interest of their diabolical and evil race first and foremost.”
In response to an Oct. 19 Trump speech in Missoula, Mont., in which Trump again suggested that protesters were paid by “Soros or somebody,” a commenter on anonymous message board 4chan exulted, “TRUMP NAMED THE IMMIGRATION JEW.” (“Naming the Jew” is an anti-Semitic term that refers to pointing out purported nefarious Jewish influence on world events.)
Hillary Clinton, who infuriated Putin as U.S. Secretary of State before running against Donald Trump, has been the topic of conspiracy theory after conspiracy theory, not least Pizzagate, in which she and husband Bill Clinton were purportedly smuggling babies through the basement of a Washington, D.C. area pizza restaurant in order to sell them, sacrifice them to Satan, or do some other equally outlandish and horrible thing. That rumor came to an abrupt end when Edgar Maddison Welch traveled from North Carolina to the pizzeria loaded down with weapons, shot into the ceiling, and demanded to be taken to the basement to free the babies, only to discover that the restaurant has no basement:
Finally, Welch responded to police calls for him to leave the building and surrender. He put his AR-15 on top of a beer keg and his revolver on a table. He came out with his hands up, following police commands to walk backward toward them.
Welch was handcuffed, and Sgt. Benjamin Firehock asked him why he had done it. Welch said, according to the arrest affidavit, “that he had read online that the Comet restaurant was harboring child sex slaves and that he wanted to see for himself if they were there. [Welch] stated that he was armed to help rescue them. [Welch] surrendered peacefully when he found no evidence that underage children were being harbored in the restaurant.”
This conspiracy theory was later recycled as part of “QAnon,” proving that in the conspiracy world, nothing ever really goes away:
Like Pizzagate, the Storm conspiracy features secret cabals, a child sex-trafficking ring led (in part) by the satanic Democratic Party, and of course, countless logical leaps and paranoid assumptions that fail to hold up under the slightest fact-based scrutiny. However, unlike Pizzagate, the Storm isn’t focused on a single block of shops in D.C., or John Podesta’s emails. It’s much, much bigger than that.
In this fantasy world, all of the far right’s wildest dreams come true: Q promises that Clinton, Obama, Podesta, Abedin, and even McCain are all either arrested and wearing secret police-issued ankle monitors, or justabout to be indicted; that the Steele dossier is a total fabrication personally paid for by Clinton and Obama; and that the Las Vegas massacre was most definitely an inside job connected to the Saudi-Clinton cabal.
They believe all of this will be coming to a head any day now. That “The Storm” — of arrests, political turmoil, and Republican vindication — is coming. Though there have been some, uh, miscalculations as for exactly when.
Former United States President Barack Obama and his wife Michelle Obama have been targeted by the racist far right for years. For example, the “Birther” conspiracy theory was enthusiastically pushed by Trump and his supporters, who heavily implied and saying outright that Obama was not eligible to be President of the United States, because he had been born in Kenya, not the United States and thus was not a U.S. citizen. This racist conspiracy theory was debunked time and again, not least by Obama himself, who finally released his birth records (from Hawaii, not Kenya) with little effect. That Kenya itself did not exist the year Barack Obama was born (Kenya did not gain independence from British rule until 1963; Obama was born in 1961) was apparently of no consequence to people pushing the conspiracy theory.
Rep. Maxine Waters has been singled out time and again by Trump as a “low IQ individual” due to her unflinching criticism of his policies and behavior. She has also been subjected to shadowy accusations of various unsavory activities, never with any proof to back them up. Eric Holder has been a common ingredient in many conspiracy theories that have to do with false flags and guns along with the usual racialized commentary, thanks to his role and testimonials in the “Operation Fast and Furious” controversy. John Brennan, another Trump critic, has been smeared as a “secret Muslim” and a communist — whose security clearance was abruptly revoked by Trump in August 2018, seemingly out of nothing more than spite:
President Trump on Wednesday followed through on threats to strip the security clearance of former CIA director John Brennan, igniting a firestorm of criticism that the president was recklessly attempting to distract from his own political problems and silence high-profile critics.
Press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced the decision at a White House briefing, reading a statement from Trump that accused Brennan of making “a series of unfounded and outrageous allegations — wild outbursts on the internet and television — about this Administration.”
Brennan, who led the CIA during most of President Barack Obama’s second term, has emerged as one of Trump’s fiercest critics, denouncing his performance at a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month as “treasonous.” On Tuesday, Brennan lambasted Trump’s personal character after he derided former White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman as a “dog.”
Each of the people listed have been singled out repeatedly by the Trump administration and folded into a larger conspiracy theory without any factual basis to go from. However, stochastic terrorism needs no foundation in truth to be encouraged. Study after study shows that online radicalization is rampant and operates by the same mechanisms, no matter who the target group is, and once credulous people have been brought into the cult, it’s difficult to lead them back out again.
And because the internet is the way it is, it’s possible for small groups of people to speak to millions over time, again and again, saying whatever they like, until someone decides to act on what they’re saying. That these conspiracy theories and charges are being floated by elected officials in public with no attempts to either verify or retract their ludicrous statements makes it a certainty that people will continue to act out on them in a way that is statistically inevitable but individually impossible to predict — stochastic terrorism:
Michael Jetter, a professor at the School of Economics and Finance at Universidad EAFIT in Medellín, Colombia, and a research fellow at the Institute for the Study of Labour in Bonn, Germany, analysed more than 60,000 terrorist attacks between 1970 and 2012 as reported in the New York Times. Jetter notes that over the past 15 years “the world has experienced a terrifying, exponential increase in the number of terrorist attacks”. The Global Terrorism Database listed 1,395 attacks in 1998, a figure that has steadily risen since then, reaching a record high of 8,441 in 2012.
The total number of casualties from terrorist attacks in the past 15 years has soared from 3,387 to 15,396. At the same time, terrorist groups have increasingly sought to use the media to promote their agendas.
Graphic videos of beheadings filmed by Islamic State and released on the internet have turned the group into a globally feared brand. But they have also prompted anguished questions about how much such organisations should be given “the oxygen of publicity”.
As researchers point out, mass communication and publicity are key components of this particular type of terrorism.
Given that House Republicans put out yet another attack ad against George Soros (who is not running for office, nor has he announced any plans to) mere days after he was targeted in a coordinated domestic terrorism attack, it seems as though these conspiracy theories will not stop lurching into real life any time soon.
Update, 4/5/2023, 10:22 AM: The term “stochastic terrorism” has finally broken through into the mainstream, thanks once again to disgraced former U.S. President Donald Trump.
In the days leading up to his April 4 2023 indictment for financial crimes, Trump doubled down on conspiracy theories and far-right smears, once again predictably blaming George Soros for his legal and financial woes, and in doing so referencing a whole constellation of antisemitic and racist conspiracy theories:
Trump further fanned the flames in a press conference directly after his indictment:
During his 27-minute address to the country, Trump called Manhattan prosecutor Alvin Bragg a “criminal,” and added that a U.S. Justice Department-named special counsel is a “radical left lunatic.” For good measure, he slurred a district attorney in Georgia as “a racist” and New York’s attorney general “a racist in reverse.”
“They are looking at me through the Espionage Act of 1917, where the penalty is death,” Trump said.
Ahead of the indictment, Trump’s bombastic social-media posts — he had called Bragg “an animal” and warned of “death and destruction” if he were arrested — had already elicited pushback from his own attorney.
His family members also shared images of Judge Juan Merchan (who will preside over the criminal case) and his daughter (who will not) online in an obvious attempt to target them, as well.
These online-to-real-world techniques, algorithmically boosted as they have been, have worked to deliberately direct stochastic violence and intimidate people for political gain for years. Whether 2023 will be the year they are finally rendered ineffective remains to be seen.