From Antifa to UFOs, One Joke Can Spawn a Thousand Conspiracies
What happens when a prank or spoof sparks a real belief?
If a radical movement is prepared to use violence, that real-world willingness can inspire wild rumors about the group's plans and alliances. We've seen that dynamic play out with movements ranging from the Black Panthers to right-wing militias. So when the militant anti-fascist network known as antifa started attracting new levels of attention during and after the 2016 presidential campaign, it was probably inevitable that it would trigger some bizarre conspiracy theories.
What might not have been as easy to anticipate was the role that jokes would play in the rumor mill.
Over the last few years, at least 375 fake antifa social-media accounts have appeared, posting over-the-top comments like "THIS IS WHY THE #SolarEclipse2017 IS BIGOTED AND RACIST." (The statement appeared alongside a picture of an American flag on the Moon.) The "Boston Antifa" feed greeted the news of Jerry Lewis' death with a video denouncing "unsafe humor" and declaring that the comedian "embraced the power of white supremacy." It doesn't take much digging to discover that these aren't actual antifa accounts, but several media outlets have mistaken them for the real thing. When a fake antifa group announced that there was "no room" in its city for "supporters of the US constitution," the Washington Examiner cited the post in an anti-antifa editorial. In Texas, an account convinced reporters that antifa was planning to protest a statue of Sam Houston and to beat up anyone who counterdemonstrated; the news inspired hundreds of people to come to a counterprotest against a rally that was never going to happen.
Coverage of these accounts often presents them as disinformation meant to sow confusion and make the movement look bad. And that's obviously a part of what's going on: During the sometimes violent protests that followed the police killing of George Floyd in May, for example, members of the white nationalist group Identity Evropa started tweeting as @ANTIFA_US, promising to "move into the residential areas…the white hoods….and we take what's ours." But many of the accounts are also clearly meant as entertainment. One of the men behind the Boston Antifa account, Brandon Krebs, has claimed the comedian Andy Kaufman as an influence, and he appears to have followers who take his work in that spirit. (As I write, the top comment below the Jerry Lewis video says, "This is one of the best comedy channels on Youtube right now.")
The accounts have fooled some mainstream outlets, such as Reuters and the Houston Chronicle. But the audiences that think the accounts are real, like the audiences that think the accounts are funny, tend to come from the political right. The people who maintain the feeds tend not to be very good at mimicking real antifa groups' rhetoric—they sound more like generic left-wing caricatures—so they're less likely to fool leftists.
Once memesters on the right started spoofing antifa, memesters on the left took to spoofing right-wing fears of antifa. Before long, the leftists found that their jokes were getting mistaken for reality too. In late 2017, for example, one @KrangTNelson tweeted this: "can't wait for November 4th when millions of antifa supersoldiers will behead all white parents and small business owners in the town square." Some rather unhinged stories were already circulating about an alleged antifa plot to launch a civil war on that day—a Maoist front group called Refuse Fascism was indeed planning a November 4 protest, and the rumors had spiraled from there—and the tweet went viral among people who took it literally. @KrangTNelson was soon suspended from Twitter. After another account repeated the joke, the conservative site Gateway Pundit ran an article headlined "ANTIFA Leader: 'November 4th […] millions of antifa supersoldiers will behead all white parents.'" (The site later added a postscript: "UPDATE: Far-left radicals now claiming it was a 'funny joke.'")
Sometimes left- and right-wing pranksters end up accidentally collaborating. In summer 2017, a rumor took hold that antifa was going to burn flags and desecrate Confederate burial markers at Gettysburg National Park. This didn't make much sense—there are no Confederate burial markers at Gettysburg—but the story nonetheless got picked up by Breitbart and other right-wing outlets. The Gettysburg hoax was pushed by people claiming to be affiliated with "Harrisburg Antifa," but the rumors also drew on an online invitation to a Gettysburg "Burn a Confederate Flag to Trigger Trump Fans Day." The event in the invitation wasn't real: If you tried to buy a ticket, you landed on the Southern Poverty Law Center's donation page. It had been posted by "Trolling Trumpsters," a lefty group dedicated to baiting people on the right.
As in Houston, the Gettysburg hoax inspired a counterprotest. At this one, a rallygoer accidentally shot himself in the leg.
The most puzzling antifa jape might be a document that started circulating in mid-2017 called The ANTIFA Manual. Made up to look like a well-worn dossier, complete with a coffee stain on the front page, the file was purportedly found at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, the site of some infamous protests earlier that year. The manual was taken seriously in several quarters—it even got linked on Rush Limbaugh's Facebook page—but anyone familiar with antifa's largely anarchist membership would quickly recognize it as a fake. (Among other things, it announces plans to "vote pro-ANTIFA politicians into office" and to establish a one-world government whose "ANTIFA-approved regulators" would use microchips "to monitor the citizenry of the world.") The fact that it keeps referring to the movement as "ANTIFA," in all caps, is itself a clear sign that something screwy is going on. What isn't clear is whether this was originally intended to fool people or whether it was just a particularly hamfisted satire. And if it was a satire, was it supposed to be a satire of antifa itself or of the goofy rumors that swirl around antifa? Did this come from the left, from the right, or from someplace else?
One thing is certain: In addition to all the other ways that false conspiracy stories begin, from honest speculation to commerce-minded fraud, we need to appreciate the role of jokes. We can divide those jokes into three categories: pranks, accidents, and enigmas.
Pranks are deliberate hoaxes, like the plots promoted on fake antifa accounts. In some cases, these are essentially disinformation campaigns. But even then—unlike, say, the fake Black Panther literature the FBI planted in the 1960s, or the stories the KGB spread in the 1980s claiming that the U.S. government created AIDS—the aim is at least partly satiric. In many cases, the story's author intends to reveal the truth after a while, hoping to embarrass or illuminate the people who embraced the story. Such plans do not always work out as intended.
Accidents, by contrast, were not meant to be believed. Like @KrangTNelson's tweet, they are works of fiction that people unexpectedly mistake for facts. Not only do their authors not intend to fool anyone, but sometimes they are not even aware that they have fooled anyone.
Enigmas fall into the cloudy territory in between. As with The ANTIFA Manual, it's not clear whether they were supposed to trick people. Sometimes the author himself may feel ambivalent about his intentions.
The internet is infamously awash in disinformation, as intelligence agencies, clickbait sites, political campaigns, and freelance trolls spread deceptions. It is also filled with practical jokes, many of them devoid of any political content at all. Make a Venn diagram of those two categories, and the overlapping zone will contain these conspiracy pranks.
Take Christopher Blair, who used to post apocryphal stories at a site called America's Last Line of Defense. His headlines—"5 Liberal Terrorists Arrested At Capitol Planning To Assassinate President Trump," "Democrat Mayor BUSTED Working With Latino Thug To Sell Meth And Extort Sex From Young Girls," "Police Identify Monica Lewinsky's Killer"—sound like tales that might be spread by a dedicated Republican, and several of them went viral among conservatives who appear to have believed they were true. But Blair insists he's actually a liberal. A profile in The Washington Post described him writing a transparently false story about Michelle Obama and Chelsea Clinton giving Donald Trump the finger during the national anthem, then saying, "How could any thinking person believe this nonsense?" before hitting publish.
While disclaimers on his page identified the site as satire, Blair clearly got a charge out of fooling people. Yet he didn't intend to fool them forever: Part of the game was to jump in to tell them they'd been had. He "didn't have time to personally confront each of the several hundred thousand conservatives who followed his Facebook page," the Post reported, "so he'd built a community of more than 100 liberals to police the page with him. Together they patrolled the comments, venting their own political anger, shaming conservatives who had been fooled, taunting them, baiting them into making racist comments that could then be reported to Facebook." Nonetheless, many people continued to share the stories as though they were true.
This may feel like a uniquely internet-era phenomenon, but it goes back long before the age of social media.
Consider Gabriel Jogand-Pagès, a French journalist who tasted his first fame writing anti-clerical polemics under the pseudonym Léo Taxil. In 1885, Taxil made a show of converting to Catholicism and renouncing his earlier writings. He then published a series of exposés claiming that Freemasonry was controlled by a libertine and murderous Satanic cabal based in Charleston, South Carolina. He spent 12 years doing this, at one point even scoring an audience with the pope, before calling a press conference in 1897 to declare that this had been "the most grandiose prank of my existence" and to gloat that so many Catholics (and even some Masons) had swallowed his lies.
Despite his confession, Taxil's claims kept circulating in anti-Masonic conspiracy literature, from Edith Starr Miller's Occult Theocrasy (1933) to Pat Robertson's The New World Order (1991) to a Jack Chick comic called The Curse of Baphomet. Sometimes the conspiracist ignores the material's flim-flam origins; sometimes the writer argues that the revelation of the hoax was itself a hoax. Either way, it's a case study in how difficult it can be to put a falsehood back in the bottle.
Hoaxes have been common in the UFO subculture as well—not just crudely faked photos of flying saucers but prank phone calls, phony letters from government agencies, and other tricks. Some UFO writers delighted in playing practical jokes on the competition, as when Gray Barker and James Moseley got their hands on some U.S. government stationery in 1957 and decided to send letters to other ufologists. One of these, purportedly from "R.E. Straith" of the State Department's "Cultural Exchange Committee," informed the alleged alien contactee George Adamski that "the Department has on file a great deal of confirmatory evidence bearing out your own claims," though it "cannot publicly confirm your experiences." Adamski immediately started using the letter to promote himself, and the document continued to attract believers even after Moseley revealed the prank in 1985.
Then there's the Priory of Sion, an allegedly age-old order that was in fact founded in France in the '50s by a man named Pierre Plantard. He and a confederate, Philippe de Chérisey, deposited several fabricated documents in the National Library of France, then worked with the writer Gérard de Sède to use them as the basis for the 1967 book L'Or de Rennes. Other esoteric writers produced still more texts building on de Sède's supposed discoveries. In this way the Priory was linked to a hidden treasure, the Knights Templar, the Merovingian dynasty, and, eventually, a secret bloodline descended from either extraterrestrials or Jesus Christ, depending on which writer you asked. This mythos took off in the English-speaking world after Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh, and former Doctor Who writer Henry Lincoln worked it into their nominally nonfiction 1982 bestseller Holy Blood, Holy Grail. It got an even bigger boost after Dan Brown used it in his wildly successful 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code.
Not everyone who launched this legend necessarily saw it as a joke. Plantard in particular may have had a far-right political agenda, which perhaps included the notion that he would be recognized as the rightful heir to the Merovingians and crowned king of France. But de Chérisey was both a radio satirist and a surrealist, and de Sède was involved in surrealism as well. It's plausible, even likely, that they saw the project as a puckish sort of performance art.
Like Blair and Taxil and Moseley, de Chérisey eventually came clean about his hoaxing. Needless to say, that hasn't stopped stories about the Priory from spreading.
Finally, let's look at the Report From Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace. This bestselling book, published in 1967, presented itself as the leaked text of a classified report by an organization called the Special Study Group. Written in a parody of the prose one might find in a RAND Corp. white paper, the book argued that war is a social stabilizer: It allows planners to judiciously burn off excess economic inventory, it channels "antisocial elements" into "an acceptable role," it establishes "the basic authority of a modern state over its people," and it helps "preserve whatever quality and degree of poverty a society requires as an incentive." The book's comic peak comes when the Special Study Group ponders other ways to fulfill war's nonmilitary functions, including the creation of "fictitious alternate enemies."
It wasn't just a satire; it was a prank. Conceived by the journalist Victor Navasky and written primarily by his friend Leonard Lewin, the book was classified as nonfiction when it first appeared. Lewin admitted the hoax in 1972, but many people have continued to take it as an authentic leak. The right-wing Liberty Lobby even printed its own edition: As a government document, the group reasoned, it must be in the public domain. (Lewin sued.) In 1990, the Associated Press distributed a story about the history of Iron Mountain, the spot in New York state where the Special Study Group supposedly met. The article casually cited the book's claims as a part of the place's past. "After two years of meetings, the commission decided that permanent peace was a bad idea," the reporter recounted matter-of-factly.
Snopes and similar fact-checking websites are filled with viral stories that began on satire sites—not just outlets like America's Last Line of Defense, which actively hoped to fool people, but places that aim only to make people laugh. Many of these articles involve conspiracies: "Military Drawing Up Plans For Nationwide Gun Confiscations" (Duffel Blog), "Hillary Clinton Accidentally Posts Condolences For Tulsi Gabbard's Suicide One Day Early" (The Babylon Bee), "CIA Issues Posthumous Apology After New Evidence Clears Osama Bin Laden Of Involvement In 9/11 Attacks" (The Onion).
That last one was temporarily reprinted at Yahoo! News. The site's editors probably realized it wasn't true—they posted the piece under the "Entertainment" header—but you can't assume every casual browser understood that. A 2019 study by R. Kelly Garrett, Robert M. Bond, and Shannon Poulsen, a trio of researchers based at Ohio State University, found substantial numbers of readers willing to describe various headlines from The Onion or The Babylon Bee as either "definitely" or "probably" true. The Babylon Bee itself commented on such confusions with a story headlined "Reality Criticized For Not More Clearly Distinguishing Itself From Satire."
This phenomenon also goes back long before the birth of the internet. Indeed, it helped produce one of the most infamous and influential conspiracy theories of the last two centuries.
In 1864, the French attorney Maurice Joly wrote The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu, a book protesting Napoleon III's authoritarian regime. In Joly's satire, Machiavelli explains the ways a modern despot can manage public opinion. "I would assign a dedicated organ to each opinion, in each party," he declares at one point. "I would have an aristocratic organ in the aristocratic party, a republican organ in the republican party, a revolutionary organ in the revolutionary party, an anarchist organ—if need be—in the anarchist party. Like the God Vishnu, my press would have a hundred arms and these arms would place their hands upon all the nuances of opinion throughout the entire country. One would be of my party without knowing it. Those who believe they speak their language would be speaking mine; those who believe they were acting in their party would be acting in mine; those who believe they were marching under their flag would be marching under mine."
Several decades later, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a notorious forgery that claims to be a Jewish plot to rule the world, would include a strikingly similar passage. "All our newspapers will support different parties—aristocratic, republican, revolutionary, and even anarchical—but, of course, only so long as constitutions last," it declares. "These newspapers, like the Indian god Vishnu, will be possessed of hundreds of hands, each of which will be feeling the pulse of varying public opinion. When the pulse becomes quick, these hands will incline this opinion towards our cause, because a nervous subject is easily led and easily falls under any kind of influence. If any chatterers are going to imagine that they are repeating the opinion of their party newspaper, they will in reality be repeating our own opinion, or the opinion which we desire. Thinking that they are following the organ of this party, they will in reality be following the flag which we will fly for them."
That wasn't the only place where the anti-Semitic text mirrored the anti-Napoleonic text: A fifth or more of the Protocols originated in Joly's book. (Joly himself may have done some "borrowing" as well: Umberto Eco has argued that Dialogue in Hell includes "no less than seven pages that are, if not plagiarized, at least laden with generous and unconfessed quotations" from the conspiracy novels of Eugène Sue.)
Norman Cohn and other historians have traced the chain of transmission: The Prussian writer Hermann Goedsche had plagiarized heavily from Joly's Dialogue when he wrote his 1868 conspiracy novel Biarritz, with Machiavelli's confessions now attributed to a cabal of rabbis meeting in a cemetery; that standalone sequence was later published as a pamphlet that claimed to be based on a true story; and so one text followed another, until at last it evolved into the Protocols. Joly—a liberal-minded satirist whose Dialogue in Hell included just one passing reference to Jews—had accidentally planted a seed for a document used to justify pogroms in Russia and genocide in Germany.
In addition to satires that are simply mistaken for factual accounts, some satires are recognized as fictions but nonetheless construed as thinly disguised truths. This has happened frequently to the libertarian novelist Robert Anton Wilson.
Wilson conducted his share of outright hoaxes: He was a member of the Discordians, a group of pranksters who introduced the idea of the Illuminati to the counterculture in the 1960s and '70s by dreaming up facetious conspiracy theories, planting articles about them in the alternative press, and sending letters about them to various public figures. Wilson and one of his confederates, Robert Shea, eventually transmuted the Discordian mythos into a comedic science fiction trilogy, Illuminatus!, that was published in 1975. Rumors immediately began to circulate that the books were more than just fiction. Conspiracy Digest reported that while many of the digest's readers believed Wilson "was an Illuminati agent attempting to lampoon and discredit conspiracy theories," others thought he was trying "to slip the truth past Establishment censors by disguising the truth as a titillating parody"; still others took the books as "a reliable guide to the inner doctrines of the hidden world of the secret societies alleged to control the conspiracy."
These sorts of reactions continued for decades afterward. The Rev. Ravi Holy, today an Anglican vicar, was an anarchist and occultist in his youth. Back then, the British journalist Damian Thompson has reported, Holy accepted Illuminatus! as "truth lightly clothed as fiction." When he was born again in a Pentecostal sect and created a conspiracist website, he "carried out only minor adjustments to this narrative." (Holy now describes himself as a "recovering conspiracy theorist.") The same sort of thing has happened to some of Wilson's other novels. In a 1992 tract called Dark Majesty, for example, the conspiracist Texe Marrs writes that Wilson's Masks of the Illuminati "purports to be fiction" before declaring that "there is little doubt that it contains much insight and many hard facts about the Secret Brotherhood."
It isn't just satiric texts that work their way into conspiracy theories. Satiric acts can be misconstrued by people unaware of the context that originally gave them meaning. In the 1950s and '60s, for example, it was common for conservatives to mock politicians they deemed soft on communism by bringing umbrellas to their public appearances. It was a sort of guerrilla theater: The umbrellas represented Neville Chamberlain, and Chamberlain represented appeasement. So when President John F. Kennedy came to Dallas, Texas, on November 22, 1963, a man named Louie Steven Witt arrived with an umbrella, even though it was a sunny day, and raised it as a protest. Witt has said that he wasn't accusing Kennedy of appeasement so much as he was trolling him, having heard that the umbrellas were "sort of a sore spot" for the president.
Kennedy was killed that day, and Witt's bumbershoot entered American folklore. You can see it in Abraham Zapruder's film of the Kennedy assassination, and if you Google "umbrella man" you can read some of the conspiracy theories that emerged around the parasol once the initial context that gave it meaning had receded from public consciousness. (Usually the umbrella is assumed to be a signal to the assassins, but some of the more outré theorists have suggested that it was used to target the president with a dart.) In 1978 Witt came forward to explain himself, but that didn't stop stories from circulating—I can attest that I first heard of the allegedly inexplicable umbrella more than a decade after Witt's testimony, and I didn't hear about his explanation until more than a decade after that.
I'll close out this section with a note on birtherism, the idea that Barack Obama was secretly born in Africa and thus was not eligible to hold the U.S. presidency. The most compelling investigation I've read into the origins of this story suggests that it began when someone saw a hypothetical question in a comment thread at a legal blog and mistook it for a statement of fact. In "The Secret Origins of Birtherism," published online, Loren Collins traces the trail of rumors back to a perfectly benign blog post by Eugene Volokh, a law professor at UCLA. Volokh's post discussed the debate over whether John McCain's birth in the Panama Canal Zone rendered him ineligible for the presidency. A commenter piped up and proposed, "just for grins and giggles," that they "change the hypothetical." The reader then offered a series of scenarios involving Obama, including one where he was "born in a third country, and…immediately taken to the United States." A little more than a day later, Collins reports, someone on the right-wing FreeRepublic web forum was describing that very scenario as a fact he had just learned. From there it made its way into the 2008 presidential election.
There is an online adage known as Poe's Law. Its original formulation, by one Nathan Poe, went like this: "Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is utterly impossible to parody a Creationist in such a way that someone won't mistake for the genuine article." It was soon applied far beyond the debates over Creationism, becoming a general warning about how easy it is to confuse spoofs with sincerity.
Even when you're sure that someone is making something up, it isn't always easy to tell what her intent is. Was The ANTIFA Manual supposed to fool people, or was it supposed to mock the sort of people who take documents like The ANTIFA Manual at face value? Was it written in the spirit of those fake antifa Facebook accounts, or was it written in the spirit of @KrangTNelson's tweet? I don't know, and on a certain level it doesn't matter. Even if its authors assumed that everyone would recognize their creation as a joke, there were readers who took it as The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Antifa. And even if it was meant to trick people, there were readers who instantly laughed at it.
Confusing matters still further, people who call themselves satirists are not always what they seem. Many "satire" websites are filled with stories that do not make an attempt to be funny and do not appear to have a satiric point. They're clickbait operations whose business model depends on readers believing their articles (and then sharing them, thus generating ad revenue), but they try to cover themselves by tossing in a this-is-satire disclaimer somewhere on the site. Alas, it's not always easy to tell these fake satire sites from what are merely bad satire sites.
The enigma factor is magnified when more than one person is involved in constructing a story: As with the Priory of Sion, different participants may have different motives. Consider the sprawling "QAnon" mythos, in which an anonymous figure called Q claims to be a government insider leaking information about Donald Trump's battles with a vast pedophilic deep-state conspiracy. Q's tidbits usually take the form of gnomic clues that are open to multiple interpretations. There have been speculations that Q was a leftist prankster winding up Trump fans, but that's far from certain; some evidence suggests that Q's posts have come from people who have simultaneously solicited donations over a QAnon-themed YouTube channel, which would suggest a motive more mercenary than satiric. But set that aside. What's important for our purposes are all the other participants in the QAnon world.
The Q narrative is built by multitudes trying to interpret Q's clues in the light of the news and to interpret the news in the light of the clues. "QAnon has a canon, but the canon is basically this coded language of the drops," the podcaster Jake Rockatansky has argued. "The tapestry of the story is done by these amateur researchers….It's decentralized storytelling, like thousands of different fanfic threads going on at once with very little to chew on at the center." It is close to certain that some of the people participating in these discussions are trolls rather than sincere believers, but it is not always certain which participants are which. In QAnon as elsewhere, Poe's Law applies. Perhaps future scholars will have more luck discerning which ideas that caught on in the Q subculture were proposed with a straight face and which were suggested with a smirk.
Sometimes, of course, even the person proposing an idea might not be fully sure of whether he believes it. Just as one can say something "as a joke" while in fact meaning every word, irony can mask a sort of half-belief; you say something facetiously while suspecting that some version of it is true. This applies in the conspiracy world as much as anywhere else.
Like pranks and accidents, enigmas predate the internet. They are especially common in the UFO literature and the broader world of anomaly hunting inspired by the paranormal writer Charles Fort. To read a certain sort of Fortean writer is to be constantly unsure about when he's being serious, when he's pulling your leg, and when someone is pulling his leg.
On that last note: The UFO literature is also filled with another sort of enigma—stories told by people who might be pranking us or might sincerely believe what they're saying. In 1961, a plumber named Joe Simonton told the world that a saucer had flown to his home in rural Wisconsin; a man allegedly exited the spacecraft, asked for some water, and then gave Simonton some pancakes. I'll go out on a limb and say that I doubt this really happened. But I'll be damned if I could tell you whether Simonton thought it happened.
Is This a Joke?
In Pranksters, his impressive history of political put-ons, the media scholar Kembrew McLeod argues that even the Rosicrucian manifestos—a series of 17th century manuscripts that have launched hundreds of conspiracy theories—are best understood as a prank: a "joke with a serious objective" written to "encourage people to be more accepting of new ideas." The authors, he reports, "lost control of the narrative, and the resulting furor ended up obscuring their intended message."
Whether or not you accept that gloss on the Rosicrucian pamphlets, it definitely describes a recurring pattern in the genesis of conspiracy rumors. A document or comment or gesture falls out of its original context, and the original author loses control of the message. Christopher Blair, Léo Taxil, James Moseley, several people involved in the Priory of Sion hoax, and the authors of the Report From Iron Mountain have all confessed their deceptions, yet many people refuse to believe their confessions. And on a certain level, you can understand that: Once you declare yourself a liar, you invite people to wonder what other lies you might be telling.
Two lessons leap out. One is a warning: Don't assume that you can reel back in a story you've released into the wild. If a belief fulfills a need, people can find all sorts of rationales for believing it, even if you go out of your way to tell them you made it up. Genuinely creative pranks and satires enrich the world, and it would be a tragedy if social-media moderators tried to enforce an order of flat earnestness. But any prankster would do well to think hard about the worst-case scenario before pressing send. Anything you say runs the risk of being believed forever, even if you plan to come clean next week.
Lesson two is about the importance of media literacy. When context is missing, we need the skills required to try to reconstruct it. At the very least, we need to understand that context might be missing in the first place. We'd have much more resilient readers if people would get in the habit of asking themselves, Is this a joke?