The modern era of the Internet has given us a seemingly never-ending bounty of farfetched conspiracy theories. Some of the loudest of those fringe movements have become pervasive enough and serious enough to qualify as domestic terror threats, the FBI says.
Yahoo News today published an internal FBI document it obtained warning of “conspiracy-theory-driven domestic extremists.”
The memo, dated May 30, describes “anti-government, identity-based, and fringe political conspiracy theories” as likely to motivate extremists “to commit criminal or violent activity.”
In the memo, the FBI says the document is the first bureau product to explicitly discuss the future threat from domestic extremists driven by modern conspiracy theories.
Conspiracy theories of some kind or another are nearly as old as communication itself, but the always-online era has accelerated their growth and broadened their spread.
“Although conspiracy theory-driven crime and violence is not a new phenomenon,” the memo continues, “Today’s information environment has changed the way conspiracy theories develop, spread, and evolve.”
In the FBI’s assessment, the bureau warns, these conspiracy movements “very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace over the near term, fostering anti-government sentiment, promoting racial and religious prejudice, increasing political tensions, and occasionally driving both groups and individuals to commit criminal or violent acts,” especially as we move into the 2020 election season.
The FBI, later in the document, defines “very likely” as a greater than 80% chance of something occurring.
Not just a hypothetical
The memo explicitly cites both Pizzagate and QAnon as examples of modern “fringe political” conspiracy theories that have already been implicated in violence.
The “Pizzagate” theory came to a head in 2016, when a devotee marched into a DC pizzeria with an AR-15 and started making threats.
The theory claimed—falsely—that high-ranking Democratic Party officials were operating a child sex ring out of the basement of the pizza shop, which received hundreds of threats. The shooter took it upon himself to “self-investigate” and was ultimately sentenced to four years in prison on weapons and assault charges.