OP-ED: Two years after Charlottesville, I’m fighting the conspiracy theory industrial complex
Monday, Aug. 12, will mark the two-year anniversary of the day a neo-Nazi came to my town, Charlottesville, Virginia, and murdered Heather Heyer in broad daylight.
Since that terrible day, the death toll from white supremacist terrorist attacks has continued to mount. Much has been written about how the online ecosystem of conspiracy theory websites and extremist message boards fuels the hate that manifested in Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, El Paso and beyond. Yet any real reckoning on the link between this ecosystem and the acts of violence it breeds is woefully incomplete.
This is no accident. Continuing long after the news cycle has moved on, this same ecosystem works to obscure its connection to this violence through weaponized misinformation campaigns, a critical part of which is the harassment and discrediting of victims and witnesses so that the truth is obscured or silenced.
I know this because I was one of those witnesses.
Internet trolls sprang into action
I attended the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville equipped with only a cell phone. I happened to be filming counter-protesters as Heyer’s murderer gunned his engine down 4th Street. As the killer and his motive were mischaracterized in the hours after the attack, I feared that others might be in danger and I shared the video to give people an unobstructed eyewitness view: Heyer’s murder was an intentional act, full stop.
But I had no concept at the time of the conspiracy theory network that was about to be ginned up to maximum effect against me and others already traumatized by the events in Charlottesville, including Heather’s own mother. This online community has a terrifying capacity to warp perceptions of an event and mangle it into something unrecognizable, while also inflicting lasting damage on the victims of a heinous act and the bystanders who document it.
Alex Jones and InfoWars comprise perhaps the most powerful conspiracy factory of them all. Pointing to my work with the State Department, they and other online conspiracy theorists militantly propagated a narrative through their online channels that I was a CIA operative. They said I was part of a plot to orchestrate the Charlottesville events, and convinced untold numbers of people.
As a result, my family and I were doxed and I was incessantly harassed online and even in person, in what has become a sadly predictable pattern for online targets.
Every day since, I have had to worry if any one of the countless death threats streaming into my inboxes would materialize into actual violence. These worries are not frivolous. In May of this year, the FBI identified fringe conspiracy theories as a domestic terrorist threat for the first time, in recognition that these dangers do not remain online.
My lawsuit can only be the beginning
The conspiracy machine that targeted me pursued a clear political agenda in the aftermath of Charlottesville: Steer the conversation away from the fact that a white supremacist had committed terrorism. If the public focused on this truth, all Americans would have had to face the reality that the resurgence of violent white supremacy was fueled by the kind of hate-filled politics promoted by Alex Jones and his ilk.
In this scenario, we might have used the Charlottesville tragedy as a pivot point to begin to seriously address white supremacist terror, which has since devastated communities across the country. But instead of this reckoning, conspiracy theorists continue to willfully blur the picture while indoctrinating their audience with dangerous propaganda and bigotry.
Jones’ broadcasts in the aftermath of the white supremacist terror attack at a Walmart in El Paso followed the same playbook used against me, suggesting that the shooting was a false flag attack. In no small way, outlets like Infowars give their audience a “get out of cognitive dissonance free” card. If their viewers believe Charlottesville and El Paso are hoaxes, there is no need for them to come to terms with their own role in furthering white supremacy and its intrinsic violence. Too many Americans, including prominent politicians, are all too willing to play that card.
We can, and must, fight back. I have sued Jones, InfoWars and other conspiracy theorists for defamation, and earlier this year a federal judge rejected their efforts to have my case dismissed.
I hope we will succeed in holding them accountable, but one favorable ruling will not come close to stemming the tide of weaponized disinformation. We need stronger laws and policies governing our ever-expanding digital lives, better legal protections for victims of online threats, and targeted education efforts for children and adults alike on recognizing and combating misinformation and propaganda, similar to what Finland has recently introduced. Most urgently, we need to treat white supremacist terror as a national security priority and redirect intelligence and law enforcement resources accordingly.
The role of the conspiracy theory industrial complex’s role in perpetuating violent acts of white supremacy, and in confusing the post-tragedy narrative of those acts, must not be obscured.
Heather Heyer stood for truth two years ago as she peacefully and powerfully pushed back against the violent racists who descended on our city. We cannot continue to allow Alex Jones — or any other conspiracy theorist — to hurt people while trying to make the world believe otherwise.
Brennan Gilmore is the executive director of Clean Virginia, a non-profit leading anti-corruption efforts in Virginia state government. He served for 15 years in the U.S. Foreign Service and is currently on leave from the State Department. In his lawsuit against Alex Jones, Gilmore is represented by Constitutional Accountability Center and Georgetown Law’s Civil Rights Clinic.