How Conspiracy Theorists Have Tapped Into Race and Racism to Further Their Message
A screengrab from the FRONTLINE documentary "United States of Conspiracy."
The claim making the rounds was false: That Barack Obama, elected in 2008 as America’s first Black president, had not in fact been born in the United States.
That didn’t stop the smear from gaining traction, in an effort fueled by people including hard-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones of InfoWars — and by future president Donald Trump himself, who fanned the “birther” flames in 2011 as he advanced in the political arena.
According to Trump’s longtime associate Roger Stone, it was an effective strategy: “Trump understands among Republicans there’s a very substantial majority who have questions about Obama’s origins and how he just pops up out of nowhere to become a national figure and whether he was, in fact, eligible to serve as president,” Stone told FRONTLINE in 2016.
Jones, Stone and Trump have all vigorously denied allegations of racism, with Jones saying he has protested against the KKK; Trump saying, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body!”; and Stone pointing among other things to his opposition of “the racist war on drugs.”
But the success of the false theory embraced by Jones and Trump has been found to be correlated to racial grievance. One academic study found that “among white Americans, birther beliefs are uniquely associated with racial animus”; another indicated that belief in “birtherism” is “a function of both partisanship and racial resentment.”
Experts FRONTLINE spoke with echoed that assessment.
“In ‘birtherism,’ what you see is a group of Americans who resent the fact that there is an African American president in the White House,” reporter Yamiche Alcindor of PBS NewsHour says in the FRONTLINE documentary United States of Conspiracy. “And Alex Jones and all sorts of other people hand them this excuse that it’s, well, he wasn’t born in this country, this is really all a lie, and he is actually not who he says he is.”
Anna Merlan, a journalist who has covered conspiracy theories and misinformation for years, is blunt. “The conspiracy caught fire because people were uncomfortable with the idea of a Black president, and they were eager to believe any number of racist smears against him,” says the author of Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power. “I mean just plainly, it was racism.”
“Birtherism” would not be the first or last time conspiracy theorists like Jones — whether wittingly or not — tapped into aspects of race or racism to further their message. Described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “almost certainly the most prolific conspiracy theorist in contemporary America,” Jones has at times stoked fears about racial conflict and the spread of Islam while making his primary argument that global “elites” are part of a secret conspiracy that controls the world. Jones has also made false claims about the LGBTQ community.
Additionally, critics say Jones has fanned anti-Semitic flames as part of his conspiratorial worldview. He has tapped into stereotypes about Jewish people, though he denies that he is an anti-Semite. The term “globalist,” heard often on his programs, has complex roots and has been described in some use cases as an anti-Semitic dog whistle.
“He’s been able to mobilize people based on their fears. And based on — for some, for many — their ignorance,” says Christina Greer, author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream.
Sometimes, Jones has been forced to apologize. That’s what happened as part of a settlement after he published a video that falsely said the yogurt maker Chobani, which makes a point of employing refugees, had been “caught importing migrant rapists.” But Jones’ claims have found an audience.
“I think that Alex Jones is able to tap in to some real deep, dark fears that white Americans explicitly have about the future of their country, who’s in it, who’s controlling it, and their placement in it,” Greer says.
In the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, Jones and InfoWars have pushed conspiratorial narratives warning that Black people are violently targeting white people. Another InfoWars host, Owen Shroyer, described the “Floyd circus” as a “total hoax of police brutality, and then riots and protests, and then an empty casket.” Jones has denied that he is racist. He also claims that the media, leftists and Black Lives Matter are stoking racial tensions as part of a George Soros-funded plot to control humanity.
On his July 13 show, he said, “I don’t sit here and say that I care about brown people, Black people, pink people, polka-dotted people, speckled people — humans — because I’m some virtue signaler. I genuinely want to see humanity work together. I genuinely want to see us all use our skills together to go to the stars and beyond. I hate watching the really Satanic, pedophile Satanists at the top play us off against each other, and I’m really tired of it.”
In the same episode, Jones claimed that when he was younger, he “got in over 100 fights with Black people, and almost every time, they initiated it,” and said that, “I guarantee you, there’s no Black people out there that have ever had 100 white people start fights with them.”
The conspiratorial worldview promoted by Jones has served as a “gateway drug” and an “entry point” for the radicalization of white supremacists, Reveal reported in 2018. That’s in part because “seeing the whole world as a massive conspiracy is a foundational part of the white nationalist mindset,” Reveal’s Aaron Sankin and Will Carless wrote. The story Jones tells his audience about the world and their place in it “requires an oppositional ‘other’ and, often, that ‘other’ is defined by racism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia,” they wrote.
In an interview conducted with FRONTLINE during the making of United States of Conspiracy, a former InfoWars staffer spoke out about his experience working with Jones. Josh Owens, a former InfoWars video editor, says he was sent by the host to report on a community of Muslims in the U.S. that Jones believed was training extremists — and that when Owens found nothing sinister, he felt pressured to post a false story anyway.
“We posted headlines that were made up, that Sharia law was in America, that this was a training camp, that these people were extremists,” Owens said. “And none of it was true; it was all fabricated, it was all made up … it was built on a foundation of Islamophobia.”
Calling it “wrong” and “reprehensible,” Owens said that experience was part of what spurred him to eventually leave InfoWars. “I will probably carry that guilt with me the rest of my life. So there is no excuse for it. And Jones is not to blame for that entirely; I’m also to blame because I was the one there doing it.”
Conspiracy theories have long existed. “They help disenfranchised ordinary people talk about systems of power that exclude them,” Anna Merlan says. But as the FRONTLINE documentary United States of Conspiracy explores, conspiracy theorist thought made fresh inroads into the American political mainstream when Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative, began appearing on Jones’ show — and when he brokered an appearance by then-candidate Donald Trump.
Earlier this month, Stone himself came under fire for appearing to dismissively refer to a Black radio show host who was pressing him on President Trump’s commutation of his prison sentence as a “Negro” with whom he didn’t feel like arguing. Though it was heard live, Stone denied making the remark, said there had been technical audio difficulties, and said in a statement that any person who knows him “knows I despise racism!” He has used the term in connection with insults of other Black figures in the past, for which he has apologized.
As conspiracy theories — some reflecting bigotry — have spread, the internet and social media have helped to fan the flames.
“We all know of conspiracy theorists from the days before Twitter or Facebook. And those people were sort of isolated and shunned, and everybody felt like they had their number,” Elizabeth Williamson of The New York Times tells FRONTLINE. “But with social media and the internet, they find each other. And they push that message to millions of people.”
Though Jones and InfoWars have been banned from platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, he has still successfully harnessed the internet’s power to unite people who have a shared “anti-elite” ideology that sometimes intersects with — and thrives on — bigotry.
“The interesting thing about the Internet is that it builds community” — for good or for ill, Greer says. “And so, you can find support groups if you’ve been through a tragic situation. You can also find people who feed in to your negativity or your fears or your bigotry. You can become radicalized because you can find a community … who can groom you in a lot of ways to sit in your feelings where you believe that they are correct and that they are okay. And so, that’s what Alex Jones has been able to do.”