Politics

The Conspiracy Theory on the Far-Right Deep Web After the Trump FBI Raid

If you haven’t heard of the “war on dissidents,” you may soon.

Supporters of former US President Donald Trump gather near his residence at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on August 9, 2022. - Former US President Donald Trump said on August 8, 2022, that his Mar-A-Lago residence in Florida was being "raided" by FBI agents in what he called an act of "prosecutorial misconduct." (Photo by Giorgio VIERA / AFP) (Photo by GIORGIO VIERA/AFP via Getty Images)
Supporters of former U.S. President Donald Trump gather near his residence at Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, on Aug. 9. GIORGIO VIERA/Getty Images

The GOP’s meltdown after the FBI raided Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort was swift and fevered, with calls for investigations of the Justice Department and increasingly mainstream whispers of “civil war.” The right-wing corners of the internet mobilized in kind. The fertile far-right media ecosystem was more animated than it’s been in months, and the loose network of YouTube and podcast stars posted multiple shows filled with doomsday punditry within hours.

Stephanie Foggett is focused on the darker, seedier parts of that ecosystem. Foggett is the director of global communications at The Soufan Group, a national and foreign security consultancy, and she monitors the white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups on discord and Telegram channels. She’s watched the reaction to the Trump news in real time, and she sees warning signs flashing in several places. Over the phone, she told me what she’s seen in those spaces so far, and what she expects if a case against Trump really does proceed. She said she’s become especially alarmed by the short distance between rhetoric in extremist forums and Fox News. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.

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Aymann Ismail: What are right-wing extremist channels saying about last night’s FBI raid?

Stephanie Foggett: One big conspiracy is that the timing of all of this is meant to prevent Trump from running for president in 2024, bringing it back to stealing the election. There’s also lots of whataboutism, pulling from the years’ worth of talking points on Hunter Biden, Hillary Clinton, Bill Clinton, and the Clinton foundation, all the way back to Benghazi: “Why is the state going after Trump when all of these things that we’ve cared about for so many years never see the light of day?”

I’m also seeing posts like “There is no political solution.” One narrative that’s brewing, and this goes back years but especially over the past year, is that there is a “war on dissidents.” That term, dissidents, is really coming up a lot. There are so many Telegram channels. I follow lots of women, so there’s Dissident Housewives and Dissident Homeschooling, and all types of things. And today I’m seeing that this is a “war on dissidents”—that they’ve gone after a former president, and if they’ve been going after everyday citizens, and now they’re going after Trump, what’s gonna ever stop them from coming after you?

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What strikes me about that is that it sounds a lot like the run-of-the-mill messaging we’re seeing from more mainstream Republicans.

Correct. A big thing that my colleagues and I have been talking about is this laundering of messaging. Lots of these conspiracies have become mainstream. They start as fringe messages, then you see them on Fox News. And it kind of goes both ways, if there’s something mainstream that will serve these extremists. The gap between hardened extremists in their corners of the information ecosystem and the mainstream is getting smaller and smaller. Hardened extremists push the messaging that democracy doesn’t work: stop this steal, our elections are stolen, everything’s rigged, these institutions are against you. They really, really want people to lose faith in democracy. “There is no political solution” is a really, really common message that you’ll find among the more extreme and, to be frank, more violent actors of the group, because they want violence to be the solution. And when you have big politicians and big media figures laundering these types of narratives, especially from these alternative or conspiratorial news sources, it’s obviously very worrisome.

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Dataminr observed a big spike in posts mentioning “civil war.”

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That messaging is not coming from a vacuum. It’s come out of years’ worth of core messaging from these groups in these spaces. Hunter Biden’s been the big one the last few years, but before that, you had Clinton and the Clinton foundation and Benghazi. These conspiracies come up any time there’s investigations against the right or people deemed helpful to their movement. They have an arsenal to keep clouding the conversation so that people aren’t focusing and feel victimized. CPAC’s performance art of a political prisoner is a good example of this. The message is that they’re not being targeted for violence or for crimes, they’re being targeted for their ideas and their beliefs. There are lots of movements to write to Jan. 6 people who’ve been arrested and ended up in jail, and help them with commissary and keep up their spirits and get them books. The narrative is, “Hey, this could be you. You could be next.”

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Is anyone making threats? Do any of those threats seem legitimate to you?

I just see this FBI raid as another high-profile example for them to add to their narrative. They’ve been warning about school teachers and the “everyday people” who were arrested after Jan. 6. And now, it’s “Look! they’ve even gone after a former president! We’re not safe!” It’s a way to expand and add some more weight to that narrative.

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And what happens when there’s more weight to their narrative?

It creates paranoia and confusion. The FBI isn’t going after these people because of their beliefs. In fact, working in counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, we are engaged in the pre-crime space. How do you address people taking on these ideas? Or writing things? It’s only once they’ve crossed a line that law enforcement can come in. And these narratives make it so that there’s less focus on the crimes that were committed and more focus on blurring what’s going on and making it about them being attacked or imprisoned because of their ideas and beliefs.

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Groups that we monitor in the white supremacy, neo-Nazi, and other far-right spaces really do believe that a collapse is coming. “Accelerationism” is the strand of thought that the current system is so corrupt that they should speed its demise through any form like violence and acts of terrorism, or celebrating natural disasters like power grids going down, because it contributes to making the state harder to govern. Making yourselves ungovernable is a strong message in these spaces. They want to weaken the status quo as much as possible so that it collapses and a new political order can be born that aligns with their worldview for how things should be. By increasing mainstream paranoia, people start to question whether they’re safe. Anything from crime to banking to the economy, anything that makes people start to think that things really aren’t in a good place. They will tap into any narrative by saying “Hey, we told you so. We knew this was coming. Which side do you want to be on?” Upcoming civil wars and collapse is really, really common in the more hardened spectrum of this space.

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We don’t know much about the FBI raid yet. All we know so far is that it relates to boxes of presidential documents Trump may have improperly taken to Mar-a-Lago. The current head of the FBI was appointed by Trump himself. Are those facts breaking through in those channels at all?

I definitely saw that today, that Wray was appointed by Trump and things like that. But then they add the caveat, “you shouldn’t trust them or you shouldn’t trust the system. They’re conspiring against you.”

What happens when these ideas get to everyday people?

A lot mainstream and powerful figures spouting a lot of this stuff without thinking about the consequences. These groups are trying to mainstream their neo-Nazi views, their white supremacist views, and make them more palatable. “Red pilling” is taking a normal person and bringing them into this worldview. And I see lots of chatter about strategies, like “Swastikas are too hard. Let’s start with softer things,” and tap into more popular grievances and slowly pull people in. They’ve been trying to clean up their image, and obviously when it’s laundered by somebody in the mainstream, that adds rocket fuel to getting these ideas out to everyday people who aren’t really embedded in these movements.

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They tie in people using everyday grievances that the average person has. If your car has been broken into a few times, and you’re thinking, “Wow, why does this keep happening?,” these people want you to frame your answer through their ideology. When that was harder to find, in the harder-to-reach spaces of the internet, that meant that the average person wasn’t really going to see that. But now there are thousands of channels that are constantly moving and migrating between platforms. The way that this content has been able to breach the mainstream, that’s where it starts to get concerning.

What do you think will happen if Trump is found guilty of something?

With conspiracy theorists, new information doesn’t change their worldview. They’ve already got these responses like “It’s just part of the plan.” They just conveniently manage to find ways to keep it going. I actually saw something earlier today, they were like, “Whichever way it goes, it’s gonna cause chaos. And that’s good for our movement anyway—to undermine democracy and its institution.”
I think the focus should be on making sure that this doesn’t reach mainstream audiences, and making sure that the vast majority of Americans can explore what’s going on without algorithms on social media platforms pushing these types of alternative news channels and spaces on them. If you are Googling Mar-a-lago today, are you actually being driven to sources of information that are going to help you understand what’s going on? Or are you being driven to places that are going spiral you into these conspiratorial places? That’s what concerns me, the proximity of these ideas to regular people who aren’t necessarily seeking it. They might be trying to just understand what’s going on, and then they spend six hours down a conspiratorial rabbit hole reading some nonsense.

It’s only been hours since the raid, and more people just tapped into longstanding things that have been there for months and years now.

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