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Conspiracy Propagandists

Conspiracy propagandist groups aim to delegitimize government institutions or government officials by stoking fears concerning door-to-door gun confiscations, martial law, supposed takeover of the U.S. by the “New World Order” and anxieties around the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

TOP TAKEAWAYS

Conspiracy propagandists are part of the antigovernment movement. These groups and individuals intentionally spread disinformation and advance misinformation about government institutions and officials.

Although antigovernment conspiracy theorists target government authority, these ideas are usually rooted in racist, antisemitic and sometimes nativist beliefs. Conspiracy theories have long been a fixture in American political discourse, and today extremists continue peddling these narratives to cast doubt on democratic processes.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported on some of the more egregious assertions that conspiracy theorists make, a handful of which have spilled over from decade to decade. Some of the more persistent conspiracy theories have been adopted as core beliefs within conspiracy propagandist circles.

Beginning in 2016, extremists started to adopt, and in some cases merge, prior conspiracies leading to the QAnon movement. Since former President Donald Trump left office, QAnon has persisted and spread, at times in conjunction with other conspiracies. These include the “Big Lie” narrative that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump, theories about activities and groups at the southern U.S. border, and conspiratorial sovereign citizen beliefs that the U.S. government, acting as a corporation, has defrauded its citizens.

Many of those prevalent conspiracy theories continued into 2023, including the “Big Lie,” attacks on public health measures to slow the spread of COVID-19, and threats of a Marxist takeover. Additionally, along the border, antigovernment extremists and some elected officials in Congress continue to elevate uncorroborated narratives that paint migrants as dangerous and violent. These theories have, at times, been validated by elected officials from the community level up to Congress. Antigovernment extremists continue to distrust U.S. Customs and Border Protection and depict the federal agency as a secret network of child traffickers.

Antigovernment groups advocating “Q” theories have used them as a foundation to build their membership. Such organizations as the America Project and ReAwaken America use “Q” rhetoric and openly network with QAnon influencers to attract more followers. Gen. Michael Flynn’s “ReAwaken America” road show continued in 2023. At every tour stop, attendees heard a range of conspiracies, from antisemitism and election integrity to Christian nationalism and QAnon. In 2023, Flynn created One More Mission, focused on recruiting veterans to volunteer as poll watchers by using militarized language and imagery.

When COVID-19 rates increased at times during 2023 and a new vaccine was rolled out, conspiracies quickly reemerged. They drove fearmongering around possible public health measures and the supposed dangers of vaccines to personal health and/or being part of government tracking schemes. Anti-student inclusion groups also spread this disinformation as many returned to their roots in anti-masking and anti-vaccine fights. Conspiracy theories regarding Marxist threats have continued to gain steam in other circles as well. During 2023, anti-student inclusion groups espoused conspiracy theories as part of their general narratives, claiming that public schools and the government are attempting to sexualize and indoctrinate children with their progressive Marxist agenda. Anyone who disagrees is labeled a “groomer” who is sexualizing children. These groups say it is up to parents to save children from the government and public schools.

KEY MOMENTS

Perhaps the biggest conspiracy theory from 2022 that continued in 2023 was the “Big Lie.” A cottage industry of election conspiracy theorists traveled around the country and made their cases that the 2020 presidential election was stolen; local elections lack security, making it easy to manipulate vote counts; and the 2024 presidential election will likely be “stolen” again to keep Trump out of power.

Mike Lindell, founder of MyPillow, is a major source of conspiracies surrounding the so-called stolen 2020 presidential election. In August 2023, he published The Plan: The Anti-Steal Dossier, with the goal of exposing election fraud by demonstrating that election equipment can be manipulated when connected to the internet. Lindell’s plan is to create a grassroots movement based around technology created by him to report on election fraud in real time, send reports to law enforcement, and eventually get new legislation passed to make elections secure.

Multiple counties pulled Dominion Voting Systems machines at the request and under the coordination of Lindell and others. Many of these counties had no replacement in mind and no way to conduct the next set of elections. Outside of Lindell, Faith Education Commerce has worked with a network of election deniers, including David Clements, Douglas Franks and Kash Patel. Like Lindell, these election conspiracists travel the country spreading the narratives that the last presidential election was stolen and election results cannot be trusted.

While some individuals and organizations have based their sole existence on so-called “election integrity,” these conspiracies have become so common that other groups have adopted similar rhetoric. The John Birch Society, Moms for Liberty, Eagle Forum, Christian nationalists, and militias have regularly hosted events on the topic and spread conspiracies through publications and social media.

In some places around the country, election conspiracists have succeeded in getting their people elected to office. One example in 2023 comes from Cascade County in Montana. Sandra Merchant was elected as county clerk and recorder after campaigning on a platform based on election conspiracies. Her time in office has been marked by claims that she was incapable of running elections, including reports that she sent out incorrect ballots – or didn’t send them at all – and missed deadlines. Her incompetence led the local library to successfully get a judge to appoint an election monitor to observe Merchant’s office during a mill levy election. The Cascade County Commission eventually removed election duties from Merchant’s office.

The largest litigation story involving a conspiracy propagandist in 2023 revolves around Alex Jones and the $1.5 billion judgments related to the Sandy Hook case. Jones filed for bankruptcy trying to protect his resources from being seized to satisfy the judgment. During a November court hearing, the Sandy Hook families offered to settle the debt for only pennies on the dollar – $85 million over 10 years. In his most recent bankruptcy filing, Jones listed about $13 million in total assets. If Jones doesn’t accept the families’ offer, the judge will determine how much Jones will pay the families and other creditors. In other news related to Jones and his propaganda outlet, Infowars host Owen Shroyer, who federal prosecutors said “helped create Jan. 6” by mixing 2020 election conspiracy theories with calls for violence for a large internet following, was sentenced in September to two months in jail.

WHAT’S AHEAD

In November 2022, Donald Trump announced his 2024 presidential bid, setting the stage for the election fraud narrative to continue. This came only a month after the U.S. House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol unanimously voted to subpoena Trump to testify before them.

Although the conspiracy theory that Trump lost the 2020 presidential election due to voter fraud has been debunked, the premise of the “Big Lie” endured into 2023. The Southern Poverty Law Center has noted antigovernment conspiracy and other hard-right narratives ramping up ahead of the 2024 election.

As we continue to see large-scale fallout from the Jan. 6 attack in the form of criminal convictions, which was a result of the “Big Lie” narrative, there have been noticeable changes in antigovernment organizations. For instance, the Southern Poverty Law Center has observed a rise in “patriot” groups, mostly formed as a response to COVID-19 and vaccine mandates, spreading their versions of constitutional education and election lies. These groups also concentrate on trying to get extreme, right-wing politicians elected.

Additionally, looking back on the fluctuations in the endurance of the Red Scare conspiracy theories, we can expect conspiracies about Marxism and communism to gain steam, particularly around the Great Reset and the claims of Marxism in public education.

BACKGROUND

The modern-day conspiracy propagandist is fueled by the belief that American ideals are being eroded by liberal forces that aim to destroy the country from the inside out. The goal of this supposed cabal of liberal elites is to establish a communist/socialist/Marxist regime and renounce U.S. sovereignty, instead choosing to opt into a one-world government.

Paranoia is at the center of propagandist messaging. These individuals peddle narratives that paint the world as a battlefield between the forces of good and evil. The ideas, often riddled with misinformation and disinformation, target institutions and public figures that exist in contrast to their worldview. The issues faced by society today are depicted in apocalyptic terms that leave no room for compromise.

Extremists under the antigovernment conspiracy propagandist designation focus on presenting false, sometimes even fabricated, information as fact. With the emergence of social media, propagandists leveraged the ability to reach large numbers of uninformed people and flood online spaces with wild unsubstantiated claims decrying government institutions and key figures as being “tyrannical.” As a result, conspiracies have been allowed to flourish in an environment where misinformation and disinformation are dispersed among considerable amounts of valid and verified content.

Today, misinformation and disinformation have become crucial in helping sustain dangerous conspiracy theories, in some cases even supercharging narratives that have, as a result, mobilized large swaths of disgruntled Americans.

As historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” conspiracies have always had a place in American history. In the 18th and 19th centuries, fears surrounding such groups as the Illuminati, the Masons and the Catholic Church were weaponized for political purposes. Today, baseless claims asserting plots to destroy the current political system, American values and cultural norms continue to find their way into political discourse.

The conspiracy propaganda wave we see today came out of the 1970s racist and antisemitic Christian Identity movement. Christian Identity adherents believe white Northern Europeans are descendants of the lost tribes of Israel, Jewish people are descendants of Satan, and nonwhites are “mud peoples.” Many of the key conspiracies that define the conspiracy propagandist classification under the SPLC’s antigovernment designation were born out of antisemitic falsehoods.

Those falsehoods were first popularized by antisemites such as William Potter Gale, who was instrumental in merging Christian Identity beliefs with a growing tax-protest, antigovernment movement. Gale preached about the Posse Comitatus, a set of principles that place ultimate government authority at the county level, dictating the county sheriff as the highest authority and placing emphasis on common law, instead of constitutional law, as the foundation for government.

Strands of antisemitic and nativist beliefs are common in current antigovernment conspiracies.

Some of these ideas include the belief in an impending “New World Order,” the idea that a secret cabal of powerful elites with globalist agendas is conspiring to rule the world through a one-world government. According to antigovernment conspiracy propagandists, the initiative would be facilitated by the United Nations, in the form of both treaties and nonbinding agreements, such as one about environmental and climate concerns known as Agenda 21/2030. Conspiracy propagandist groups such as the John Birch Society see Agenda 21/2030 not as an agreement to reduce human impact on the environment, but instead as a blueprint to create a single government under a communist regime.

By the 1990s, such incidents as the standoff at Ruby Ridge, the Waco siege and the Oklahoma City bombing served as catalysts for conspiracy propagandists to vilify government agencies. Events involving law enforcement provided fertile ground for far-right extremists to double down on fears around mass gun confiscation. Combined with angst around the militarization of police forces, the events in this period culminated in the creation of two of the most influential antigovernment conspiracy propagandist organizations of the last two decades: WorldNetDaily and Infowars.

At the end of the 20th century, far-right conspiracy theories thrived as the U.S. kick-started the “War on Terror.” Nativist talking points were elevated in antigovernment conspiracy theories, emphasizing anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim propaganda.

In the early 2000s, fears of “others” helped inspire waves of militia minutemen to appear at the southern border under the pretense of defending the country from an invasion. The conspiracy theories peddled by Alex Jones’ Infowars, Joseph Farah’s WorldNetDaily and the John Birch Society pushed such false concepts as “open borders” and the idea that the Democratic Party is helping facilitate an influx of migrants. Some conspiracy propagandists attempted to appear as legitimate news outlets and drove the fake news trend. As the U.S. continues to struggle with the best way to handle the migrant crisis at the southern border, propagandists have managed to loop these theories back to antisemitic beliefs by tying the issue to Jewish billionaire and philanthropist George Soros as a leading figure allegedly funding migrant caravans with the aim of destroying the country’s identity.

By 2008, as former President Barack Obama was preparing to take office, antigovernment extremists reacted with contempt at the idea of swearing in the first Black U.S. president. They mobilized resentment of demographic changes and economic instability, fueling antigovernment activity and wild conspiracies. As a result, the SPLC documented a record number of active antigovernment organizations in 2010 and exposed the unfounded claims that emerged in far-right circles denouncing Obama as a secret Muslim, a Kenyan naturalized citizen and a demonic being.

The paranoia and skepticism around the United States’ democratic processes eventually reached a boiling point under the Trump administration. Between 2016 and 2020, old conspiracies were repackaged into such concepts as “the Deep State,” QAnon, migrant caravans, COVID-19 Chinese bioweapons and the “Stop the Steal” narrative.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump openly engaged, reaffirmed and even helped establish popular conspiracy theories as valid ideas worthy of mainstream discussion. With aid from longtime conspiracy theorists, Trump and his supporters were able to cast a blanket of doubt regarding the legitimacy of government institutions, elected officials and electoral procedures, leading to a crystallization of distrust and anger in the minds of his loyal followers. The result of four years of politically charged antigovernment messaging was an attack on our current political system and served as the catalyst for the Jan. 6 insurrection.

In 2021, Trump fanatics continued pushing the false narrative that the 2020 general election was stolen. Right-wing propagandists continued advancing the idea that China released COVID-19 into the world as a bioweapon to cripple the economy. Conspiracy theorists incorporated anti-LGBTQ+ falsehoods and targeted school curriculum and teachers. Conspiratorial ideas about the existence of antifa as a communist violent organization underpinned some groups’ actions. QAnon-related conspiracies about sex trafficking and the return of John F. Kennedy Jr. were prominent in 2021-22. Distrust also spread concerning the virus’s origin and the COVID-19 vaccine. Antigovernment extremists once again embraced old fears around FEMA concentration camps, and unproven claims around the COVID-19 vaccine increased vaccination hesitancy.

KEY ORGANIZATIONS

Infowars – Founded by longtime antigovernment conspiracy theorist and supplement salesman Alex Jones, the site has become a one-stop shop for an ever-growing list of uncorroborated stories. From atrazine in drinking water turning frogs gay, to gorilla-pig chimeras, to voter fraud conspiracies, Jones has managed to branch out Infowars into a propaganda outlet specializing in mobilizing his loyal base to go after anyone he doesn’t agree with. Harassment campaigns stemming from conspiracies shared on his platform have targeted grieving families, elected representatives, government agencies and advocacy groups across the political spectrum. In December 2021, Jones sued the House Select Committee to block subpoenas and withhold his testimony and records pertaining to the Jan. 6 insurrection. Jones was a major figure in attendance that day and used his platform primarily to rile up Trump’s base before the Capitol was stormed. In 2022, a Connecticut jury ordered Jones to pay nearly $1.5 billion in compensatory and punitive damages to those affected by the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, which he publicly claimed to be a hoax.

WorldNetDaily – Founded in 1997 and the product of Joseph and Elizabeth Farah, WorldNetDaily is a conspiracy-fueled online outlet that is inundated with theories ranging from antigovernment fabrications to anti-LGBTQ+ misinformation and anti-Muslim falsehoods. The site was one of the prime propagators of the Obama birther conspiracy as well as a frequent producer of end-of-the-world theories. Most recently, the site has focused on spreading anti-vaccine narratives and blasting liberal movements and politicians as agents working to undermine the interests of everyday Americans.

John Birch Society (JBS) – Founded in 1958, the JBS gained notoriety after the group dedicated much of their resources to pushing out anti-communist messaging. Since then, the group has mobilized around several issues, including supposed FEMA concentration camps, the New World Order, Agenda 21/2030, the “Deep State” and COVID-19, among many others.

The JBS has been instrumental in keeping alive antigovernment conspiracy theories rooted in the racist Christian Identity movement, with philanthropist George Soros being a frequent target of their campaigns. In line with their belief system, the group today has widened their anti-communist platform to also include anti-socialist, anti-Marxist and anti-anarchist messages.

At its peak, the JBS had between 60,000 and 100,000 members with national chapters across the U.S. Today, the JBS has been relegated to the fringes of mainstream politics, although its messages continue to be dished out by factions of the far right. JBS was particularly active in 2021 as schools became a primary focus of antigovernment activity.

Outline map of US states with number of Conspiracy Propagandist groups.

2023 CONSPIRACY PROPAGANDIST GROUPS

View all groups by state and by ideology. 
*Asterisk denotes headquarters

Alt-Market
Eureka, Montana

America’s Survival Inc.
Owings, Maryland

American Freedom Network
Johnstown, Colorado

Connecting the Dots
Chicago, Illinois

Genesis Communications Network
Dakota County, Minnesota

Infowars
Austin, Texas

Jeremiah Films
Los Angeles, California

John Birch Society
Mobile, Alabama
Mesa, Arizona
Prescott, Arizona
Norwich, Connecticut 
Barnesville, Georgia
Rexburg, Idaho
Iowa
Ravalli County, Montana 
New Jersey
Albany, New York
Saratoga Springs, New York
Lancaster, Pennsylvania
Rhode Island
South Carolina
Fort Worth, Texas
Pacific County, Washington
Pierce County, Washington
Skagit County, Washington
Thurston County, Washington
Appleton, Wisconsin*

Liberty Hangout
Auburndale, Florida

Liberty RoundTable
American Fork, Utah

Liberty Tree Radio
Dexter, Michigan

Medical Kidnap
Huntsville, Alabama

Natural News
Cody, Wyoming

Now the End Begins
Jacksonville, Florida

Prophecy Club Resources
Topeka, Kansas

Redoubt News
Priest River, Idaho

Republic Broadcasting
Round Rock, Texas

Righteous Army
Miami, Florida

Rule of Law Radio
Austin, Texas

Silver Bear Cafe
Garland, Texas

Silver Shield Xchange
Cleveland, Ohio

Stand Up America U.S.
Bigfork, Montana

Texans4Truth
Georgetown, Texas

Texas Eagle Forum
Dallas, Texas

The America Project
Sarasota, Florida

The Healthy American
San Clemente, California

The Post and Email
Canterbury, Connecticut

TruthRadioShow.com
Hope, Rhode Island

Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children
Sarasota, Florida

United Network News
Durango, Colorado

What Really Happened
Santa Claus, Indiana

Women Fighting for America
Jacksonville, Florida

WorldNetDaily
Washington, District of Columbia