The Disinformation Factory — Part I
Or why the world’s gone mad.
Any society relies on shared realities to be able to function, and lately ours has begun to fracture. A rift has appeared, and people are inhabiting entirely alternative realities, which makes it hard to get anything done. It’s a divide which has been steadily worsening over time, but seems to have lurched precipitously around 2016, and been blown wide open in 2020. So today we’re going to look at the people and the networks responsible for some of the lies that have caused so much chaos. In Part 1 we will cover the historical context of weaponised conspiracies, and the role they played in politics over the years, in particular leading up to the 2016 election, including who was behind movements like #pizzagate. Then in Part 2 we will cover what’s happened since then, including who was actually behind the Qanon movement, COVID conspiracies, the attempt to overturn the election, and the implications of it all for the future.
It’s a long and complicated story, with many streams and tributaries converging to create the raging waters before us. And like a hydrographer mapping out a river basin, we’re going to take the time to try and tell it properly. To save being lost in a fractal level of infinite detail there are parts we’ll only be able to touch on briefly, but by the end we should have pretty close to a complete understanding of how it all happened (especially if you follow all the hyperlinks). So let’s get right into it.
We begin in the Kingdom of Bavaria (now Germany), on the 1st May 1776, when a small group of thinkers founded a group dedicated to the ideals of the enlightenment. They questioned the traditional powers of the theocratic monarchy, promoted a more rational approach to public affairs, and gave themselves the exciting name “The Illuminati”.
The authorities outlawed them pretty quickly. But a few years later, and a few miles to the west, the French People overthrew their aristocracy in their infamous Revolution. And here we need to recognise what’s going to be a foundational element in all of this, which is that in times of turmoil, people tend to take comfort in simple explanations. Chaos is a deeply terrifying concept, and even the most evil of imagined villains is preferable to the rudderless, swirling complexity of existence. So when heads started rolling across the Place de la Concorde, the mysterious “Illuminati” became a perfect scape-goat.
Two books were written: “Proofs of a Conspiracy” and “Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinism”, which basically claimed that all the unrest was because of this sinister society that secretly controlled the world.
Around the same sort of time, but a little to the east, Russia was experiencing tensions of its own. Following the Partitions of Poland, many Jewish people came to settle in the western part of the country. They weren’t given land to work, so often wound up dealing in finance. Someone had a falling out with Jewish tax agents in their community, so (building on a deep tradition of anti-semitism), they started spinning stories of a secret Cabal of Rabbis, ~pulling the strings~ of the larger Russian state.
In 1902, these ideas were crystallised in a book called the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, which was a fictional transcript of the minutes of a supposed meeting of some Jewish elders, laying out their elaborate plans for world domination. (It actually plagiarised large sections of a book called “The Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu”, satirising Napoleon’s megalomania).
Automobile tycoon Henry Ford read it, and became such an avid fan that he printed half a million copies, at least one of which fell into the hands of Adolf Hitler, who used the narratives on his way to the holocaust. That’s Henry getting a Nazi medal in the photo above.
The “Illuminati” story and the “Protocols” story came together in 1920, when they both made their way into the mind of a young woman called Nesta Webster, who claimed to be the reincarnated spirit of a young socialite from the time of the French Revolution. She published a couple of books that effectively combined the Bavarian Illuminati with the Protocols’ Cabal, and used that to explain the Russian Bolshevik Revolutions. This was essentially the birth of what we know today as the modern “Conspiracy Narrative”, and it is the foundation we find at the root of most of this mess. This article is, in many ways, the story of that story. And when we look at the way it has spread and the nature of its impact, it is perhaps best described as a Virus.
To understand the way it has been used, by who, why, and how it’s been so effective, we need to go back a few hundred years, to the wake of the Industrial Revolution, when society was wrestling with the question of how to organise itself.
Life had been transformed by inventions like the steam engine and the cotton gin, and the extraction of explosive energy from fossil fuels. All of a sudden, wealth could be created on a previously unimaginable scale. A few made a fortune, in some cases rivalling or even eclipsing the ancient royal dynasties. Because they could do whatever what they wanted, without regard for any social responsibility. There were no child labour laws, no workplace safety regulations, no minimum wage, overtime or pensions. Just raw, undiluted, free market Darwinian Capitalism.
Naturally, society continued to evolve in response. It’s a wild world, but by working together, and helping each other for the good of the tribe, humans have been able to accomplish incredible things. We thrive as a social species. Care for the community is one of our greatest assets. Ultimately, we are strings of DNA, trying to get enough energy to replicate the code before we die. That’s the “Game of Life” we’re playing. Each new generation had slight variations, physically or conceptually, which would either help or hinder the chances of making the copy. The ones that survive, do, and the ones that die, don’t. Simple. Ruthlessly exploiting people and the planet is one strategy. Which, to be fair, has worked pretty well for a few of these individuals. Looking after our neighbours is another.
Progressivism emerged as a challenge to the power of these modern oligarchs. Government, with the ability to make and enforce laws that ensured quality of life for the people, became the bulwark. Environmental and Labour regulations were introduced, along with large scale public infrastructure that the private sector was unfit to provide. Free enterprise can be a great tool, but making “profit” the be all and end all of human endeavour is a recipe for disaster.
The Capitalists, naturally, saw all this as a threat. They could use their capital to “influence” the Government to do what they want anyway of course — it’s made of mortals, very few of whom are immune to corruption. But that wasn’t always enough.
In 1933, a small group of extremely wealthy individuals actually tried to overthrow the US government and install a fascist military dictatorship, in a startling scheme now known as The Business Plot. They approached a highly decorated retired general named Smedley Butler to lead it, who played along until he knew as much as he could, then went to Congress and blew the whistle. No one really got in trouble. Nothing came of it. There’s an actual conspiracy there for you.
In the aftermath of WW2, some countries came together to form the United Nations, as a way to hopefully have less wars, and work together on things that affect the whole Earth. Are we a species? Or are we simply seperate nations? If we are a species, should we not try to have a species-level form of government? Things happen between nations, how are we to regulate that? Who’s responsibility is it to declare Human Rights, for example, or protect endangered species of migratory birds? Surely the world needs some kind of “International Body”.
But again, that is a threat to the hegemony of these business titans. They’d spent enough money trying to control their own government thank you very much, they didn’t need to add some “global” thing into the mix. So they would make it their mission to undermine its legitimacy however they could. And as you can probably guess, the “conspiracy narrative” is going to play a big role in that.
It is against this backdrop that in 1949 we come to a guy called Joe McCarthy, who was voted the worst person in the US Senate, after defending Nazi war-criminals charged with massacring American soldiers in France. In 1950, he came out swinging, and held up a piece of paper with the names of 57 people in the State Department he said were agents of the enemy — who at the time was the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
It was a complete fabrication. But that is immaterial to the virus, and it was unleashed into the mainstream, deploying a panic that poisoned the discourse with devastating effect. A “Red Terror” gripped the country. Hearings were held, in which anything progressive could be accused of being an act of treason, by virtue of being “communist”.
The claims were ridiculous, the cases were thrown out, and the outbreak was largely contained. But the infection lingered. And in 1958, a retired candy salesman called Robert Welch Jr. got twelve of his rich mates together, and founded a group called the John Birch Society.
They picked up the spear of anti-communist sentiment left by McCarthy, tipped it with the powerful poison of Nesta’s “Conspiracy Narrative”, and turbo-charged it all for their American audience. Any policy they didn’t like — Environmental Regulation, Public Projects, International Cooperation, or Civil Rights — became part of a Sinister Globalist Plot by a Secret Cabal of Evil Communists. Whenever you hear the word “globalist”, you can translate it to “progressive”, since that is inevitably how it is being used.
The JBS were ferocious and relentless. They aggressively distributed pamphlets and other propaganda paraphernalia. They held networking dinners, sponsored a Speaker’s Bureau, and published a magazine called American Opinion. Members were told “Join your local P.T.A., get your conservative friends to do likewise, and go to work to take it over.”
It may not seem like it, but those envelopes contained the most sophisticated weapon the world had ever seen: The Conspiracy Narrative Virus. It enters the mind of the host through the eyes or ears, controlling their thoughts and hence their actions. And like all effective viruses, that included compelling the host to spread it. By the 1960’s, the JBS counted over 100,000 members.
To the credit of the American public however, when it came to elections, JBS candidates never really made it past the primaries. But the thing about the virus, is that it can spread regardless. Think tanks and networks and lobbying groups like the World Anti-Communist League, the American Liberty League, and the Council For National Policy began to emerge, well and truly infecting American politics. Even if they didn’t reference the narrative directly, people like Jack Singlaub, Phyllis Schlafly, Barry Goldwater, Richard Nixon, Pat Buchanan, Robert LeFevre, Jerry Falwell, Rupert Murdoch, Roger Ailes, and many more, were all able to draw upon elements of it to benefit their own anti-progressive political crusades.
The tragic irony of course is that internationally, whenever a developing country looked like they were even thinking about communism, America would swoop in to crush them by any means necessary, removing democratically elected leaders with devastating effect, destabilising entire regions and leading to the deaths of tens of millions of people. Again, plenty of actual conspiracies there for you.
One of the founding members of the JBS was an oil baron called Fred Koch. He made his fortune mining and refining fossil fuels, including for Hitler and Stalin. His sons, Charles and David, followed him into the family business — selling as much oil and gas and coal as they possibly could, and manipulating the public into thinking that any attempts to regulate them were part of a dastardly “globalist agenda”.
So it was that that in the latter part of the 20th century, people began to notice that the Green House Gasses released by burning fossil fuels were having an effect on the climate.
Scientists recommended that governments take action to try and collectively burn less fossil fuels, and maybe try and spill less of them while we’re at it too. To people like the Kochs and their friends in the fossil fuel industry, this was an unacceptable threat to their sacred profits. So naturally they used their vast resources and networks to basically bribe the politicians to legislate in their favour.
One feature of democracy however, at least in theory, is that when a politician deviates too far from the will of the people, the people will simply vote them out. The challenge, therefore, is to control the will of the people, and make them not want to take action on Climate Change, so they will vote for a candidate who calls it “all crap”. So the Kochs and co created the idea that it’s all just a hoax — a “Communist Conspiracy”. They set up Think Tanks to publish “papers” casting “doubt” on the Science, then broadcasted the biased reports through their network of media platforms.
And since what they were doing was an actual conspiracy in which they fudged data to create a narrative that would make them money at the cost of people’s lives, that’s what they projected on to the people calling for change.
It was the creation of an Alternative Reality, in which fossil fuels weren’t actually a problem at all. It was astonishingly effective, and persists to this day.
It works for many reasons, one of which is that we have a certain natural susceptibility to conspiracy theories. Telling people that there is an “evil plot to take over the world” is profoundly compelling, because taking threats seriously is how our ancestors survived, so we developed an endorphin rush that accompanies believing it.
The Human Brain is a fascinating machine. Sitting atop the pinnacle of 14 billion years of cosmic evolution, from quarks to consciousness, through stars and supernovae. All animals have brains, but around 5 million years ago, something interesting started happening between the ears of a few species of primate. It began to imagine. It could wonder. It could have ideas, communicate them, in detail, and make things. It could ask questions. Finding answers usually meant a better chance of survival to replication, so it produced pleasurable sensations to go along with the feeling of understanding. It emerged in multiple species of hominid over the last 2–3 million years, allowing our ancestors and great aunts and uncles to hunt and gather enough to survive and thrive, in a world red in tooth and claw.
200,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens arrive, and spend the next 190,000 years using its intelligence to cover most corners of the globe. Barely 10,000 years ago, we sowed the seeds of Civilisation with Agriculture, slowly but completely revolutionising life, over dozens of generations. And in just the last few hundred years, we have raced though the Scientific, Colonial, Industrial, Electric, and Digital revolutions, not just over a handful of generations, but often within lifetimes.
The brain, however, is still more or less the same humble organ that was roaming the prairie for those countless millennia. It is just not cut out to deal with all these dazzling digital displays, and is easily overwhelmed, so it pulls all kinds of tricks to avoid the discomfort of Cognitive Dissonance. And when faced with a towering hyper-object like Climate Change, it’ll gladly take a tidy conspiracy theory. Especially if it absolves us of having to bear any responsibility, or do anything ourselves.
Another reason it works is that fossil fuels can fund operations like i360, which uses deep volumes of data to clinically create the most manipulative content, and strategically target it for maximum effect.
But we’ll get more into the tools like that later. For now we’re still talking about the story of the Virus. Thanks to all of the above, over the course of the 20th century, the world of conspiracies was well established. A whole industry had been created, with a deep body of literature, and a lucrative public speaking circuit. People like Bill Cooper, Mark Dice, Jerome Corsi, Art Bell, Garry Allen, Eustace Mullins, David Icke, and many more, all made careers out of telling these stories, aided of course by governments and corporations that routinely did genuinely dodgy shit.
Eris cried havoc, and let slip the dogs of Discord. Projects like Operation Mindfuck and the “Illuminatus!” trilogy blurred the line between satire and reality, breathing life into the goddess of chaos.
The fruits of all can be seen in the images below. On the left, are the UN’s Global Goals for Sustainable Development. In the middle is how they can look in action. And on the right, is how they look through the lens of the Conspiracy Narrative Virus.
Most effective disinformation is built on a grain of something that has some connection to reality. So it’s important to understand what that actually is, and how it is twisted. The “kill 7.3 billion people” thing comes from these things called the Georgia Guidestones. They were large stone pillars with inscriptions that offered several instructions, including one that says “maintain humanity under 500,000,000”. In context, it’s talking about rebuilding civilisation after an apocalypse. In conspiracy world, however, it is the NWO announcing their evil plan to murder everyone, like a Bond villain. It doesn’t make any sense. How would that even work? Who would carry out these executions, and how would they maintain their lifestyles afterwards? It all falls apart under the slightest scrutiny. And therein lies the problem. Because it is not getting the slightest scrutiny. We are witnessing a crisis of epistemology.
Another example is the phrase “you will own nothing, and you will be happy.” A blog post by a Danish economist exploring 8 ways the world could look in 10 years, including the implications of the growing “sharing economy”, has been twisted into evidence of the evil elites trying to take over the world. If borrowing things is so scary maybe we should retroactively ban libraries, since they seem like the start of a slippery slope to socialism.
Then we come to Bill Gates and his support for vaccines. Diseases like Diphtheria, Tetanus, Measles, Tuberculosis, Yellow fever, Hepatitis B, Meningitis, Polio, Whooping cough, etc, kill hundreds of thousands of children every year. Saving their lives with vaccines is good for those kids of course, but it’s also good for the parents, because it gives them more control over their reproductive choices. Basically if you’re not sure if your children are going to survive infancy, you end up having more kids to make sure some do survive, which leads to unsustainable population growth. So at a talk in 2010, Bill says “The world today has 6.8 billion people. That’s headed up to about nine billion. Now, if we do a really great job on new vaccines, health care, reproductive health services, we could lower that by, perhaps, 10 or 15%”. He’s not talking about killing anyone. He’s talking about giving parents confidence that their kids will survive childhood. But in the halls of the Disinformation Factory, fuelled by years of bad-faith lies from people like Andrew Wakefield, this becomes part of a “satanic depopulation agenda”.
The fact that this can happen to one of the richest men in the world while he’s literally trying to save lives should be alarming. Imagine what they can do to a 16 year-old girl who protests politicians.
The ultimate point of all of it all is, it must be remembered, to undermine the legitimacy of any challenge to the power of these rich white men. “The Factory” is just one of their weapons, and the conspiracy narrative is just one of its preferred products. And it doesn’t have to produce all this content directly of course. It creates a fertile environment through which the Virus can spread organically, and get its hosts to create the content themselves.
In the late 1970’s, it made its way from the John Birch Society, through two of its most devoted members, David and Carol Jones, and into their son Alex. And thus the Virus found its super-spreader.
It’s a sad point in the story where we have to reckon with the fact that a big part of this mess boils down to what is essentially a dietary supplement sales strategy, but that’s where we are I’m afraid. Jones’ fast and furious rants about the New World Order Info Wars built a sizeable audience, from whom he made hundreds of millions of dollars by selling them supplements.
His stories are obvious nonsense that, again, fall apart under the slightest scrutiny, which only one brave correspondent and his trusty sidekick bother to reliably provide. So a shocking number of people actually believe a shocking amount of what he says. Naturally, this presents a tremendous opportunity for any political operatives who might want to create a narrative.
And this is where we need to meet our next character, a piece of work called Roger Stone. His mind was made by reading Barry Goldwater’s seminal work “The Conscience of a Conservative”, and he volunteered for Barry’s 1964 presidential campaign, at the age of 12. His life then essentially became a series of operations to elect whichever candidate he felt would do the most to preserve that power of Rich White Men. A guy called Arthur Finkelstein had developed a new style of smearing, which Roger used to attack his political opponents, such as George Soros.
At the 1970 convention of Young Republicans, he met a guy called Paul Manafort. They recognised a ruthlessness in each other which would go on to form the basis of a life-long partnership. In 1980, they founded a firm called Black Manafort and Stone. Together, they basically invented the “Industrial Lobbying Complex”, which brought unprecedented levels of corruption to Washington. They used a big bag of dirty tricks do whatever it took to get candidates elected, and then shamelessly charged people for access to the politician afterwards.
Their clients included foreign warlords and dictators like Jonas Savimbi, Ferdinand Marcos, Oleg Deripaska, and Viktor Yanukovych, all of whom paid them vast amounts of money to influence the American political landscape in their favour. Again, plenty of genuine conspiracies there.
One of their long time clients lived closer to home, in New York — a dodgy realestate developer named Donald Trump. In the early ’80s, Trump was in trouble for discriminating against African American tenants in his properties, and facing competition from Native Americans in his Atlantic city casino. Roy Cohn advised him to meet with Manafort and Stone, who in turn advised him to basically be an arsehole in all cases, which Trump unfortunately seems to have taken to heart. Despite refusing to pay taxes and contractors, he had a litany of failed businesses, and by the late 90s was doing cheesy fast-food commercials, when along came a man called Mark Burnett, who used the magic of a television production set to completely rehabilitate his image, and cast him as a slick and successful businessman.
He essentially embodied the idea that Rich White Men should be able to do whatever they want. To women, to the environment, to the economy. In the wake of progressive ideas like Civil Rights, Feminism, and Environmental Responsibility, society had gradually become marginally kinder and more inclusive over the years, and conservatives felt forced to mask their greed and bigotry, which was a concession they deeply resented. Then Trump came along, and showed you could tear the mask right off, to the kind of rapturous applause not seen since Goldwater’s speech at the 1964 RNC. While many considered that kind of rhetoric toxic to civil society, Stone saw an opportunity, and began to explore a potential path to the White House.
Before 2008, it might have been impossible. But during the presidency of a charismatic bi-racial “progressive”, who had the audacity to float the idea of maybe not letting health insurance companies rip people off quite so much, people like the Kochs and their conservative capitalist mates got so freaked out that they had to mobilise a response, which became the Tea Party. It created a tectonic shift in the political landscape. The gloves came off, and the conspiracy virus came right out to spit on people’s faces, truth be damned.
Still, Trump was a stretch. He bragged about committing sexual assault on a hot mic, and lived in a literal gold tower. While a character like that does have a lot going for him in certain circles, getting him over the line in a general election was going to require a Herculean feat of propaganda — the creation of an entirely Alternative Reality, in which his enemies were evil, and he was the righteous hero.
And thus the team began to assemble. Paul Manafort was Campaign Chairman. Roger Stone was Special Advisor. He brought his social media strategist Jason Miller, with his Twitter amplification app Power10, and began regularly appearing on Info Wars to weaponise Alex Jones’ disinformation cannon. Steve Bannon was Campaign President and then CEO, after being brought along by his buddy David Bossie of Citizens United, who became deputy. He also brought The Mercers, Breitbart, Kellyanne Conway, and Cambridge Analytica, fresh from the battlefield of Brexit. Mike Flynn was National Security Advisor, and potential VP. Brad Parscale and Dan Scavino did digital communications, working closely with Jared Kushner. Peter Thiel and Erik Prince continued to deploy their resources behind the scenes, as did the entire network of groups like the Council for National Policy. Exactly how much Russia was involved is perhaps a conversation for another day, but it certainly wasn’t nothing. Once the Evangelicals and other Establishment Republicans knew that he would give them their judicial nominees and Supreme Courts Justice, they gave him their full support as well.
There is a lot to say about the various sets of skills and experience that each of these people and networks all brought to the campaign. Let’s start with Michael Flynn, a highly trained former military General and Director of National Intelligence, with a deep understanding of Special Operations and Irregular Warfare.
After being nominated Director of the Defence Intelligence Agency by Obama in 2012, he attended an event called the Nowruz Gala in 2013, hosted by a guy called Bijan Kian. Shortly after, he started getting weirdly close to Russian contacts, acting strange to his staff and superiors, and being racist, so was fired in 2014.
He quickly started his own lobbying company with Kian, called Flynn Intel Group, selling consulting and advisory services to foreign businesses and governments, mostly Turkey and Russia. They would pay him to write articles in The Hill, for example, to influence American opinion towards their favour. To understand the implications of that, we need to jump forward a bit for a minute — When Obama announced retaliatory measures for Russia’s interference in the election at the end of 2016, Flynn went behind his back to the Russian ambassador, and then lied about it to everyone. 10 days before Trump’s inauguration, the US was poised to execute an invasion of Raqqa using Kurdish Troops. Flynn’s friends in Turkey weren’t too happy about it, and he told then-National Security Advisor not to proceed.
But back to where we were in the timeline. He returned from his international dalliances (definitely free from any undue influence) to meet the Trump Team in the summer of 2015, and immediately joined the campaign. He famously gave a fiery speech at the Republican convention, leading to the now-infamous chants of “Lock Her Up”.
Helpfully, the week after their election victory, he can’t help but brag about exactly how they accomplished it:
After his gross invasion of the personal space of the woman introducing him, and some maddening meandering, he gets to the point:
“We have an army… as a soldier and as a retired general… we have an army of Digital Soldiers. Because this was an insurgency folks. This was irregular warfare at its finest. We have what we call Citizen Journalists. […] The American people decided to take over the idea of information. And they did it through social media”
He found a way to connect to the internet. And so we enter the next phase of our story.
To make sense of this, the first thing we need to acknowledge is that people lie. Because that’s something that genuinely doesn’t occur to a lot of people. The idea that someone would just lie. Because they’d never do it. But unfortunately some do. They have done for a long time, but the internet presents a whole new level of opportunity. Anyone can say anything, not just with individual posts, but whole websites which look like legitimate news platforms. Armies of bot networks can then amplify the messaging across multiple channels, spreading it all around the world with a snap of the fingers, for next to nothing, all while being virtually untraceable. The upshot is that entire galaxies of disinformation can be created, waiting to be explored by people told to “do their own research”.
Obviously, this is a landscape ripe for exploitation, and opens the door to unprecedented levels of Cognitive Warfare.
“Psychological Operations” have been around for a while. They have a certain conspiratorial connotation, but at the end of the day, it’s basically just guerrilla marketing. Every ad campaign is effectively a Psy-Op. Physical force is just one arcane and labour intensive way of controlling people. Mentally manipulating them is far more efficient and effective.
In the past, they had to resort to literally dropping leaflets from helicopters, or blasting messages from a PA on a Humvee. Now, they can plaster the message across the digital landscape, reaching vast swathes of eyes and ears with the click of a button.
Not only that, but they can mine the mountains of Big Data to get the deepest possible understanding of different demographics and what makes them tick. Companies like Cambridge Analytica (SCL/Emerdata), Gloo, and Palantir use those vast volumes of information to tailor specific content, and target it in just the right place. They know exactly what buttons to push, and how to push them. They have deployed that power with devastating effect in countries all around the world for over 10 years, and we have yet to come to terms with that.
The headline from the Cambridge Analytica scandal was the data harvesting from the “This is Your Digital Life” app on Facebook. But what seems to have been largely overlooked is the fact that they then use that data to create campaigns specifically to influence elections. They are a Behaviour Change Agency.
One tactic is what’s called “Memetic Warfare”. The concept is simple enough: distill the message into its most basic visual form, and fire it out into the world to do its thing. The term seems to have been coined by a pro-Trump agitator and Peter Thiel associate called Jeff Giesea, who himself seems to have been drawing on the ideas of a notorious troll called Chuck Johnson. He published a paper called “It’s Time to Embrace Memetic Warfare”. In context, it was pitched as a way to fight ISIS. In practice, it would become a key part of the Trump Campaign’s strategy.
Unsurprisingly, there is now an entire commercial industry serving this space. Psy Group, WikiStrat, and Black Cube, are all companies founded by an ambitious young Israeli Australian named Joel Zamel. They specialise in offering manipulation campaigns for governments and corporations alike, through online perception management, opposition research, honey traps, and even clandestine on-the-ground activities. (You may remember Black Cube as being the company that was enlisted to try and salvage Harvey Weinstein’s reputation.)
Zamel was introduced to Micheal Flynn by Bijan Kian. According to the Daily Beast: “Zamel wanted Flynn to be a member of the firm’s advisory board. Zamel spoke with him about it on multiple occasions around the time Flynn was forming the Flynn Intel Group. “Flynn took a real shining to Joel.”
Joel also worked with some of Manafort and Stone’s other clients, like Oleg Deripaska, and also signed a memorandum of understanding with Cambridge Analytica.
In April 2016, during the Republican primaries, Trump official Rick Gates asked Psy Group for a proposal. They responded with a quote for $3,125,000 plus media costs, and promised to make it virtually untraceable.
Three months later, Blackwater mercenary Erik Prince arranged a meeting in Trump Tower between Zamel, Donald Trump Jr., and George Nader (an emissary for two wealthy Arab princes). Nader then paid Zamel $2 million.
Shortly thereafter, an Alternative Reality began to emerge, and an alarming number of people became completely consumed with the idea that Trump’s political opponents were engaged in such horrific practises as ritualistic sacrifices, and drinking the blood of tortured children harvested in tunnels deep underground.
It’s not an original story. Accusing your enemies of hurting kids is one of the oldest tricks in the book. “Blood Libel” is a trope about people murdering babies in the woods which goes back hundreds of years, and has historically been used to justify persecution of Jewish people.
But while in ancient times they had to wait for word of mouth or the printing press to spread the narratives, these days of course we have the wonders of the internet, with anonymous message-boards like 4Chan. So now it’s time for a little bit of internet history.
A surprisingly important factor in this saga basically boils down to moderating decisions of various online forums. Something Awful, for example, was one of the first to come on to the scene in 1999, and allowed a whole host of questionable content. But they decided to draw a line at some kinds of anime. This upset an anime-loving kid called Chis Poole (aka Moot), and so he made his own forum called 4Chan, where posts would be even more anonymous, and almost anything would be permitted. (That “almost” will become a critical qualifier later on, when basically the same thing happens again, leading to the creation of 8Chan).
For now though, it’s enough for us to know that 4Chan was, and is, a relatively lawless frontier, where pretty much anything goes. Like many message-boards, it provided a community for people who may have been otherwise ostracised from mainstream society, and gave them an opportunity to connect with similar souls, and express themselves creatively, in ways they never could before, for better or worse. Much of what we now know of as Internet Culture — from LOLcats to Rickrolling — originated there. And sadly, the same can be said for a lot of the hardcore racism and misogyny. Not having to put your name or face to stuff allows people to say some pretty horrible things, especially when “edginess” is encouraged and rewarded with engagement.
The political utility of all this was well known to people like Steve Bannon, and he actively and openly began using it as a recruiting ground for his alt-right revolution.
One of their many traditions was known as “LARPing”. The term stands for Live Action Role Playing, which is where people dress up as characters from a film, book, game or series that they like, and go out and enact the story lines.
Online, however, you don’t have to sew a costume and go outside. You just need a keyboard and an internet connection to make a thread. People could pose as anyone they wanted, from time-travellers to government insiders. What these threads created, in essence, was a portal to an alternative reality. You can create whatever narratives you like, in whatever world you want, and give them a way to enter this one. Which presents a valuable proposition for a propaganda campaign.
And so we come to the 2016 Presidential election. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton battling it out in the general. Unfortunately for Hillary, her use of a personal email server was under investigation by the FBI, which the Trump campaign was obviously eager to exploit. But unfortunately for them, the case was pretty dry.
On the 2nd of July 2016, some posts began appearing on 4Chan, by someone claiming to be an “FBI agent with intimate knowledge of the inner workings of the Clinton case”. They said the mainstream media wasn’t telling the whole story. There was actually far more sinister stuff going on — including human trafficking, arms deals, black magic, etc. It was exciting stuff. The inside scoop to an international criminal conspiracy. Top Secret “Intelligence”, which they could use to potentially swing an election, and literally change the world, right there on their message board. In keeping with the nomenclature of 4Chan users being called “anons”, they came to be known as FBIanon.
It looked like a LARP, and fit right in on the forum, but it opened the door to a dangerously different world, and carried a particularly potent strain of the Conspiracy Narrative Virus. Given what’s followed, it’s worth having a good look at who or what it actually was.
Beneath all the fluff, the key message was to “focus on the foundation”. Which is exactly what Steve Bannon was pushing in the book “Clinton Cash”. And he understood the value of tailoring the message to an intended audience. The purpose of book was to break through to the mainstream, so he says he consciously chose to omit the wilder accusations. Which is a suspicious thing to have to explicitly specify.
On 4Chan of course, there were no such constraints. The whole point of the LARP is to be as wild as you can. Let those crazy ideas into this world, and never underestimate people’s credulity. “Flood the zone with shit”, as Bannon likes to say. The LARP has the same goal and the same focus as the book, just with a different style, on a different medium.
But obviously anyone could have read Bannon’s book and cribbed the idea. So we need more information. And when we read the rest of the posts, a directive begins to emerge. They didn’t just tell the stories, they urged people to spread the narratives, with very specific instructions (spread out over hundreds of posts and condensed here):
“The task is this: unleash every meme, image, and horrible story about HRC that you can muster… In order to be effective, you must proselytise… For example: Start a website aggregating the images/facts and then try to get it linked to Drudge. Shove the images down every news anchor/journalists throat. Push out to people who you normally would have nothing to do with… Why don’t you invade their circles? … We should be spreading memes to subs on Reddit.… blitz Twitter, Tumblr, and all social media with memes on the Clinton Foundation tonight, the last night of the DNC… We need TrumpGen with us, and the meme division blasting the Tumblr tags. Bring up the old methods that /b/ used to use during their Tumblr raids… We’re going to war tonight …Repeat something often enough and it becomes the truth. Repeat after me: ‘Hillary is evil and will destroy the planet.’…”
It’s an unusual amount of dedication and professional panache for someone who’s not being paid. Still, it’s possible that a passionate volunteer had the same skills and singular devotion to getting Trump in office as someone in the camp of Steve Bannon or Roger Stone. We know that plenty of people on 4Chan hated Hillary, and Trump’s trollish-ness was obviously appealing enough for them to want to make him president.
But. In July, FBIanon also says:
“More leaks will come. The time is not right yet. Expect an October Surprise.”
Which sounds a lot more like a confident claim than a lucky guess. It gives us a strong indication that they did in fact have inside knowledge. Not of the FBI case, but of the shady back channel to Wikileaks that Roger Stone boasted about:
Sure enough, on October 7, 2016, (30 minutes after the Access Hollywood tape came out), Wikileaks began releasing thousands of emails from the account of Clinton’s Campaign Manger, John Podesta. He’d been hacked by a Russian team called Cozy Bear and/or Guccifer 2.0, who gave them all to Wikileaks to “publish”.
It’s important to remember here that Julian Assange had no love for Hillary Clinton, after her State Department had treated him poorly. So he was quite happy to help derail her campaign by dumping the emails. Which one can argue for or against in the name of journalism or transparency. But Wikileaks also took part in framing them, with Julian even going so far as to suggest that Seth Rich was the source. At which point it stops being journalism, and becomes propaganda.
Ok, so the emails are out. Never going to be a good day when that happens, but surprisingly enough, there wasn’t anything particularly incriminating in there. The closest they got was an invitation to an event by acclaimed performance artist Maria Abramovic.
But if you change some of the words, and tell people it’s sinister, you can make something out of nothing. And on October 17, FBIanon says:
“When you are reading Podesta’s e-mails, remember that the Clintons deal in weapons, drugs, and people. Some terminology in use is far more nefarious than many of you suspect.”
This is the seed that would go on to spawn the notorious phenomenon of #Pizzagate, and serve as the foundation of multiple campaigns to traumatise and then radicalise millions of people, all around the world, into thinking that anything progressive was the work of elite satanic pedophiles.
4Chan wasn’t the only entry point for these narratives of course. They were coming in on any platform they could — from behemoths like Twitter and Facebook, far-right blogs like Daily Wire, disinformation agents like Jack Posobiec and Mike Cernovich, Fox personalities like Hannity, and notably, leftish hippy woo woo platforms like Stillness in the Storm and Collective Evolution (which we’ll come to again later).
Out front leading the charge were Roger Stone, Mike Flynn and Erik Prince. 3 guys who absolutely spend their time reading 4Chan, falling for its pranks, and basing their strategy on them, and definitely not dabbling in any dirty tricks or political influence operations themselves.
Flynn also touted a group called MAGA 3X, organised by Peter Thiel, who approached the situation with literal military style organisation. Below we can see what appear to be drafts of their strategy documents, which give a pretty chilling insight into their operation:
But the biggest voice by far was Alex Jones. He was literally screaming about it all, live on air, for hours on end. The front page of the InfoWars website was wall to wall coverage of every angle of the narrative.
In November it all came together, and Trump went on to stun the world by winning the seemingly impossible election.
Of course, that’s not the end of the story. At the time of writing that was six years ago, and if you think that the influence campaigns stopped there, well, they didn’t. Because now, they had the White House. The podium gave them an unprecedented amount of power and control over the narratives, which is what we will explore in Part II.