Covering Coronavirus: United States of Conspiracy




DONALD TRUMP: It's not a birth certificate, Candy, and people are trying to figure out why isn't he giving his birth certificate? It's not a birth certificate. 


JESSE VENTURA: What exactly happened on 911? How did they know who did this so quickly like they did Lee Harvey Oswald? 


ALEX JONES: The official story of Sandy Hook has more holes in it than Swiss cheese.


SEAN HANNITY: Tonight we start with proof the deep state is real in America.


RANEY ARONSON: Conspiracy theories have taken center-stage in American politics today.


DONALD TRUMP: But then, we noticed a virus.


ALEX JONES: This is a planetary takeover plan. Fauci and Bill and Melinda Gates own the virus, they patented it a few years ago.


UNNAMED ‘WHISTLEBLOWER’: When you’re tested, it gives them the opportunity to contaminate you. 


RASHID GUTTAR: This is a false flag event to then mandate mandatory vaccines.  


DONALD TRUMP: You've heard three or four different concepts as to how it came out. 


ARONSON: When the coronavirus pandemic hit America, FRONTLINE filmmaker Michael Kirk was already working on a film investigating the role of political conspiracy theories and our democracy.


MICHAEL KIRK: There's been a concerted effort, now that everything is moved from the fringe to the center to knock down knowledge-based information. And all of the sudden, a large number of Americans simply do not believe what they're being told. And that's where we find ourselves now. 


ARONSON: In this episode, Michael Kirk on how fringe conspiracy theories have become central to understanding the nation's response to the coronavirus outbreak. I'm Raney Aronson, and this is The FRONTLINE Dispatch.


FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation, committed to excellence in journalism, and by the WGBH Catalyst Fund. Support for The FRONTLINE Dispatch also comes from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Early detection is key to catching and treating many cancers. You can learn more about the innovative programs at mass-general-dot-org-slash-cancer. Mass General Cancer Center: Everyday amazing. 


ARONSON: So Mike, you and I are so used to sitting across the table and just talking. And today we're talking remotely, which is, of course, a sign of the times. But thanks for joining me on the Dispatch. 


MICHAEL KIRK: It's absolutely my pleasure, Raney.


ARONSON: Over the years, you and I have long talked, I mean, this is now going on almost a decade, talked about conspiracy theories, how they take hold, how they spread. And, you know, we've always wondered what the right timing was for a big film, on conspiracy theories. So I want you to talk to us about why now?


KIRK: Well, I think one of the things we've discovered Raney, in all the years of making these things about Washington and the White House and the presidency is the extent to which, to try to come up with a sort of unifying explanation of why what is happening in American politics, and what's happening, especially when we experienced in the 2008/2009 time period, the rise of the Tea Party in America, and we've wondered how does something like that get started? How does it grow? How does it influence our politics? And, and as you know, from our earlier discussion of whether we should make this film or not, we came to the belief that the conspiracy theories are central to America's politics right now, for sure, and had been growing that way through the Obama administration and up to now. They've been with us forever. But they are central now to I think what's happening in our politics. 


ARONSON: You're a director who loves to tell a story through people. So Mike, who’s been central in your character portraits?


KIRK: Well, the way we're telling our story is through the rise of Alex Jones. 


ALEX JONES: It is Monday, May 18, the year is 2020 and this is emergency transmission to the pro-human future. And we have a great responsibility here on the broadcast to really lay out the enemy plan. And I dare say you choose to accept this mission. You have an incredible responsibility. Because we have a real chance at stopping the New World Order. 


KIRK: His rise is the rise of conspiracy theory in American politics. You watch him starting back towards 9/11, and moving to this moment now where he has literally gone from the fringe right into the Oval Office. Many people in this film call President Trump the conspirator-in-chief because he does have a conspiratorial mindset and has had it all of his career. But Jones and Trump are connected in 2015/2016 by Roger Stone, who becomes the sort of second major character in the film, and all of whatever they talk about, in that incredible summit is amplified by Vladimir Putin and Russia and it is all in the service of Donald Trump and Trump's presidency. We get the left in there pretty substantially after Trump is elected. But in these incredibly important years, it is through Jones, that you can watch the growth, the power, the reach of the modern political conspiracy. 


ARONSON: So Stone, Jones and Trump. What is that moment? When is that? What happens? What goes down? 


KIRK: So, Alex Jones is once upon a time a fringe, late night access TV guy in Austin, Texas.


ARCHIVE: And now live from Austin, Texas. Alex Jones…. 


JONES: Well, I've been warning you about it for at least five years. All terrorism that we've looked at from the World Trade Center, Oklahoma City to Waco has been government actions. They need this as a pretext to bring you and your family martial law.


KIRK: His fame is accentuated by the fact that he has figured out how to use the internet. He was the first one to use the internet to connect fringe people. Otherwise, you've always had conspiracists, and they were out there passing mimeograph letters back and forth. Once Jones figures out how to build a network, from Facebook, to Instagram to YouTube, all the ways that you can spread a conspiracy and connect people who believe in them, suddenly, he's the guy, the big, powerful force on the fringe. What he discovers is that he has to get more and more sort of outrageous, and the conspiracies have to get bigger and bigger. At this time, he's primarily an entertainer, and a salesman of supplements, body armor for the coming Armageddon that will come because the world government is going to take over.


ARCHIVE: Forget everything you’ve been told about long-term food storage… Hemp U.S.A. has a revolutionary wonder food for detoxing the body… talk about gold IRAs. They’ve been available since 1986… You really can lose weight while you’re sleeping. Guaranteed… Alex and his staff have used these pure soap products for years… This is Alex Jones and I want to tell you about the silver lungs generator. Now you can produce… Hi, this is Alex Jones. Did you know that the global elite are now storing hybrid seeds… Genesis control freaks adding poison to your water and laughing as you get sick and die. Start purifying your water with Pro Pure. My friends, I’ve done a lot of research…. 


KIRK: But by 2012, he realizes that he's got to ramp it up more and more and more. Along comes Newtown, 


NEWS ARCHIVE: The latest on the deadly shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, the Sandy Hook school and it is turning out to be worse than anyone could have… 


KIRK: And he becomes famous for saying this is a false flag operation that was actually not a shooting in Newtown but a government sponsored way to get your second amendment rights abrogated. Take your guns. So that's the sort of kind of thing and it's really outrageous, what he says. It gets him in a little bit of trouble, but it's, trouble is his middle name. By now he's making a tremendous amount of money and his audience is huge, but it's on the fringe. And he needs if he wants to get into politics, you know, he needs a politician who needs him and needs his audience. Roger Stone, an outrageous figure by his own account, I just interviewed Roger. He's a true character in American politics, a powerful one. 


JONES: And let me give you Roger Stone’s bio just so you know who he is in case you don't. Roger Stone’s a veteran of nine Republican presidential campaigns serving Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Senator Bob Dole, to a subsequent regret both George Bush 41 and 43. Stone’s a New York Times bestselling author, and Donald Trump called him a patriot and a tough cookie. Mr. Stone, Thanks for coming on with us. 


ROGER STONE: Alex. Thanks once again for having me. 


ALEX JONES: You bet. Where do you want to go first? Let's talk about the media savagery of Donald J. Trump. I must tell you, not since I saw Richard Nixon... 


KIRK: You think of him because of some of the things that he says and does as maybe a really marginal kind of person a little bit like you would have thought of Alex Jones. But absolutely, he's been there since the very, very beginning. And he has a very close personal relationship with Donald Trump in 2015. And he knows what Trump knows. And Trump knows that in order to break out of the pack of all the establishment Republicans, he needs to activate fringe, angry people who have probably not been in politics before. So by joining up, by deciding to joining up with Alex Jones, who needs political juice and cred to keep his audience going and is interested in American politics. He hasn't been that political, rather than fearing world government. He hasn't picked a candidate ever. So all of the sudden Roger Stone appears on Alex Jones’ program, they hit it off. They have a countless number of appearances. And finally, Jones secures what he wants, and Trump secures what he wants, which is an interview on the Alex Jones program.


ALEX JONES: Donald Trump is our guest, ladies and gentlemen for the next 30 minutes or so and obviously he is a maverick. He's an original. He tells it like it is. Doesn't read off a teleprompter. Neither do I. He's self made, this whole media operation that reaches 20 million people a week worldwide, conservatively self made. That's why I'm so excited. And he joins us from Trump Tower in New York City. He is the leading 2016 Republican presidential contender, Donald, thank you for joining us. 


DONALD TRUMP: Thank you, Alex. Great, great to be with you. 


KIRK: And that moment, is the moment that Alex Jones A: falls in love, and B: Donald Trump knows that he's going to be able to start to activate all the people who have been with Alex Jones, and it's never really been people who voted before.


ALEX JONES: One minute left, Donald Trump, what do you have to say about what's coming up? 


DONALD TRUMP: I just want to finish by saying your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down. You will be very, very impressed. 


ALEX JONES: I hope well, I'm impressed. I mean, you're saying you're fully committed. You know, there's no future and we don't take this country back. Donald Trump, thank you so much sir, you will be attacked for coming on, and we know you know that. Thank you. 


DONALD TRUMP: Thank you very much.


KIRK: Now, they're interested, they get interested by listening to Stone and Jones, and more importantly, they're listening to Trump. And Jones is very big on saying that he often says things to Stone on the show. And not very long after that, Trump tends to repeat them in arena performances during his campaign. 


JONES: As we’ve been saying for three years, Hillary is the founder of ISIS along with Obama.


TRUMP: President Obama. He is the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. And I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.


KIRK: So suddenly, Alex Jones, all the way from the fringes has landed right at the heart of the United States presidential election enough so that some people we've talked to in the interviews have said, ‘You can attribute Trump's victory to that alliance between Jones, Stone and Trump. 


ARONSON: That is such an untold story in terms of our political history. Especially the contemporary chapter of this history. So I was curious, Mike, I mean, obviously, these guys are sharing stories that are resonant. They're talking about things that people are worried about, anxious about. Can you tell me? What are they talking about? What kind of conspiracy theories are they spreading and what's the content and those ideas? 


KIRK: Now there's two fundamental things that are happening. So Stone has had a sort of second life as a conspiracist when he writes a book about the Kennedy assassination and says, ‘There's no way John F. Kennedy was shot by a single gunman, you know, in a Texas School Book Depository.’ He also has written lots of articles and the book about the Clintons, and Bill Clinton's alleged rapes and Hillary's compliance with that. So the Kennedy assassination and the Clinton hatred and hatred of the Bush administration as well. This is a big anti-elite movement that he's bringing to the Jones show, and Jones of course, spends his whole career very concerned about World Government, internationalism, globalism. And the idea that big government, the Clintons, Bush's, and others, are just waiting for the right moments to institute something that will take guns away from people and get people locked up. And that runs the whole gamut from vaccines to almost all of it, including and where Jones and Stone come together, health problems of Hillary Clinton. And when they raise, in the summer of 2016, the conspiracy that Hillary Clinton is ill that really wakes up on Facebook. 


JONES: She was in a hospital for almost a year. She had a bunch of brain surgeries folks that kept her medical records secret. She looks like hell. But I mean what's really going on with Hillary, what's the inside Intel Roger? 


STONE: Her health is not good. Bill's health is also not good. She either had a small stroke, or she has had some other disorder. She seems to be, to have no stamina whatsoever.


KIRK: And guess who's paying attention at that moment to that? That's Vladimir Putin and his internet research agency in Moscow. And the way that that goes, according to lots of people we talked to is they are the Russians are in the business to amplify the things that people like Jones and Stone talk about.


ARONSON: Right. So I was curious, before we get to coronavirus, the specific conspiracies around that. You're making a big documentary, you're sharing in part, conspiracy theories. How do you walk that fine line of not amplifying this, but also trying to understand and get underneath this movement in a way that isn't just adding more of this into the universe of our media world? 


KIRK: You're right about that, Raney. How did we walk the line between actually just talking about it and making it somehow true? I think it's very clear from the very beginning: what's at work here, what the nature of the conspiracy is, why people believe in conspiracies. We have two very good and experienced authors who have written about this in some detail. And of course, we've talked to the people who had been victimized or impacted by the conspiracies themselves, especially around Newtown. It'll be pretty clear in watching the film, what's going on here. And when you ask the fundamental question, which I've asked of the 30 or so people we've interviewed for the film: why do people believe this? And the answer is: we're all looking for answers that are proportional to the event. When we talk about the death, the murder of John F. Kennedy, the reason so many conspiracy theories grow up around that, according to the experts we talk to is because the proportions are wrong. ‘One guy, all that havoc, the death of the President of the United States? Oh my god, the entire changing America. One guy did that? No way. That's the C.I.A. That's Russia. That's a massive conspiracy. Right?’


ARONSON: Right. 


KIRK: But the same becomes true for almost everything that comes down the line. How can you explain coronavirus or how can you explain almost any of the issues that come forward without saying, ‘It cannot possibly be. It has to be bigger than that. You mean you're telling me that this thing that's destroying the world is the result of one little act somewhere? No, no, it's got to be bigger than that. It's got to have an intention to it.’ And what people like Alex Jones, Roger Stone and Donald Trump and conspiracists on the left are able to do is they're able to connect the dots for people with what feels like a coherent answer to a problem that makes them feel powerless if they don't have some kind of an answer.


ARONSON: I’ll be back to talk more to Michael Kirk after this quick message.


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ARONSON: So Mike, I want to shift to the Coronavirus itself and so you're producing this film well before and you know, I can remember vividly before we all had to leave the offices, our conversations around this film and how urgent it felt at the time. Then Coronavirus hits. What's going through your mind, were you looking to see when would conspiracy theory start to bubble up? And what did you see? 


KIRK: Well, there was really no doubt. We were shooting in New York a series of interviews. We had shot and it was basically the week of March 12. So we're in New York, we're shooting interviews about conspiracies about all the things you and I have just been talking about, and with experts, and people who do it and all kinds of things like that, and we keep hearing news reports and we keep hearing about this rising crisis and that it's coming and we've been talking about it before but we're in New York now and we start hearing there's going to be a lockdown. In other words, very early in the coronavirus conspiracy is uttered in our presence. And people say and people were starting to come to do interviews with gloves on and you know sanitize, sanitizers with them, and they were looking at us. These are people who are in the middle of the conspiracy world and they were saying, ‘The Chinese have released a bioweapon in the United States of America. It's going to take over in New York, and it's going to shut New York down. You guys better get out of town. And we said, well, the better part of valor is for us to, to get out of here. We rented a car, wiped it down, and drove back in the middle of the night, and started to invent a new way to shoot so that we could finish the film and certainly began to research what's going on with the coronavirus conspiracies. 


ARONSON: So I mean, it's interesting that they came in with the conspiracy theory that this was being spread by China, and there was a conspiratorial aspect to that, but the idea that New York would shut down, if they start to spread that idea, and then New York shuts down. What happens to people listening to those conspiracy theories, do they believe it more? I mean, this is what I'm trying to get underneath. Like so does that mean then people start to think, ‘Well, they were right.’? 


KIRK: Yes. I mean, the beauty of big powerful conspiracy theories is that they often seem to be right. We all remember Watergate. You know, we all remember information about WMD. We all remember that those were conspiracy theories. At one moment, people were saying, ‘Wait a minute, the Bush administration doesn't have any proof for this.’ And a lot of people, progressives, said, ‘Yeah, that's right.’ But it was viewed as a really crazy thing to assert at the moment. So enough things happen that come from conspiracy theories that people do believe them, especially a certain cohort. And in this case, you had a large group of Americans who already are used to having stars like Jerome Corsi, who's in the film, Alex Jones, and others who they know, these people are the sort of rock stars of conspiracies and they know and trust them. And when they start to say, especially in the very beginning, ‘This is not just a virus that’s going to come. This is a media hoax.’ And it's a desire to blame President Trump, a lot of people who were his supporters and in his base, really, of course, believe that, especially when Fox is heralding it, and it's a desire to shift the blame to Trump is what they all said. And a lot of people believe that. When the virus itself started to show up, and people started to die and broke out in Seattle and was on its way to New York, that's when the message that coronavirus was intentionally spread by Chinese operatives got going and a lot of people needing an explanation for what was happening began to believe that.


ARONSON: Right, so is that the top conspiracy theory? Is that is that the one that's gotten the most traction?


KIRK: No, no, no.  


ARONSON: Tell me what's the one that's gotten the most traction? 


KIRK: It gets better than that. So early you have the left and the media hoax to blame Trump. Then it's, ‘coronavirus is intentionally spread by Chinese operatives,’ that makes a comeback a little later. But at the time, that was everything. Then, right around that time, another group of people, the anti-vaxxers were very big on the idea that the virus is being acted on, because of, as a result of population control efforts by Bill Gates. And Bill Gates becomes the new George Soros of this particular issue. The idea that he wants to plant, that they want to plant, that the Gates Foundation wants to get into vaccines, but it also wants to plant devices in people's microchips. That becomes a huge part of, ‘Wait a minute, we don't we don't want anything from that.’ Then of course, that morphs into the deep state plot to eliminate freedom which is a lot of what you're seeing now. 


ARCHIVE: Take a look behind me here, they are still lining the streets they are still blaring the horns, many with signs saying that essentially liberty and the governor’s executive order have little to do with each other...a lot of frustration out here on the streets, they wanted gridlock and they are getting Pennsylvania hundreds rallied in the state capitol against the governor’s stay-at-home orders...after telling governors they quote “call the shots” the president is now telling some states to quote “liberate”...look at what they’ve done in Virginia with respect to the second amendment, it’s just a horrible thing, they did a horrible thing, the Governor…*inaudible protest noise*...


KIRK:  It's this idea that the governors, not the President, but the governors are shutting down your constitutional opportunity to be free of movement, to be happy, to work. And that's really what you're feeling now. You're feeling people who are angry, who are being told their guns are going to be taken away, they have to stay home, they don't have freedom of movement. So it's all become a civil rights issue argument now and a gun rights argument.  And when people are hearing that their freedom is truly under threat, and that they should prepare to fight, that's a combustible mix, Raney, from what I can tell.


ARONSON: I was not surprised but alarmed at how the movie ‘Plandemic’ that was on YouTube and then taken off and then spread around the universe, how quickly that took hold. Can you just talk briefly about that?


KIRK: People are hungry to know something, to have it explained, to have the inexplicable explained to them in a coherent way. And even if everything about it is debunked, is seriously ridiculous, is outrageously wrong, if it makes a kind of sense to them, and especially if elites and knowledge-based institutions, and sadly people like Tony Fauci, say this isn't true, this can't be true, that in a way blesses it.


ARCHIVE: A slew of COVID-19 misinformation has been going viral on social media, one video making the rounds the so-called ‘Plandemic’…conspiracy theory now floating about which alleges coronavirus was engineered to increase vaccinations and make people rich...the ‘Plandemic’ video went viral on a wide range of platforms, including Facebook…known as ‘Plandemic,’ it makes some very controversial claims about the COVID-19 pandemic leading critics to call it simply a mashup of conspiracy theories put together in one video...


KIRK: This is the bind journalism is in. This is the bind universities are in. This is the bind experts like Fauci and Redfield are in: how do you convince people who just simply don't believe it, and for years have been conditioned not to believe experts? So when a pandemic like coronavirus hits, people want, expect a big reason why it's happening, a huge reason what's going on, a way that it can be explained. And if somebody can put together a 10 or 12 or 20 minute video, and have a story that involves all of the other elements that always exist, big government, elites, rejection by powerful people, an effort to keep information away from the little guy, in a way that really feels, ‘Oh, yeah, that's what they're doing alright.’ And should Facebook, should they shut that down? Knowing that it's wrong? It's, you know, nonsense. Should they shut it down just because of that? Well, who's playing God here? I think it's a legitimate argument in a democracy. What do you do about that?


ARONSON: For years now, you've covered politics or economy, national security. I'm just curious, how do you weigh this moment, especially regarding truth and the infodemic that you described, how do you weigh this up against the other threats that you've covered before? 


KIRK: This is the coming together of all of the things we've reported for decades now. This is, take them all, take W.M.D., take torture, take a war in Iraq, take 9/11, go back to things that happened during the Clinton/Bush administration, the first Gulf War, take all of it, all of it, and put in the social upheaval in the society. The financial collapse in 2008, just list them, boom, boom, boom, all the things we've reported on for all these decades. This feels to me and the team I'm working with as the big moment. This is where it all comes together. And conspiracies are at the heart of it, of course, because they've all grown out of all those other events. It really is the fundamental moment from my point of view for everybody, the people who are living through it especially, but those of us who are trying to tell the story and sort out what is truth, what is a fact you can believe in. In these times, it is an extremely important and I think daunting task.


ARONSON: Thanks for talking. It's always one of my biggest pleasures and I can't thank you enough for coming on the Dispatch with us and helping us understand some of these really big issues. 


KIRK: Well, thank you, Raney. It's always great to talk to you and especially to work with you on these important things. 


ARONSON: Thanks, Mike.


ARONSON: You can read more stories from FRONTLINE’s coverage of the coronavirus pandemic at FRONTLINE dot org.


This podcast was produced by Max Green and James Edwards. 


Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan. 


Additional production help from Brooke Nelson.


Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 


Pam Johnston is FRONTLINE’s senior director of strategy and audience.


Our senior editors are Lauren Ezell and Sarah Childress.


Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Music by Stellwagen Symphonette. 


The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at WGBH and powered by PRX.


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