With everything we’ve learned about the ability of Russian bots to grossly amplify the reach of #FakeNews, we shouldn’t be all that surprised by this week’s revelation that the 2015 Jade Helm conspiracy theory was an early triumph of this toxic technology.
But before we make our jokes about tin foil hats and move on, we should recognize how such cyber chicanery can have a very real impact.
This part barely made headlines here, likely because it involved wingnuts in North Carolina. But in August 2015, the feds arrested three men who were building bombs, stockpiling guns and preparing to attack our government because of Jade Helm.
Back then, we were all busy rolling our eyes at Gov. Greg Abbott tasking the Texas State Guard with monitoring the U.S. military training exercises happening that summer in Bastrop County, while similar special ops training was held in several other states. But the notion of a martial law takeover by the U.S. military was not an obvious hoax to Walter Eugene Litteral, Christopher James Barker and Christopher Todd Campbell — then 50, 41 and 30, respectively.
According to arrest affidavits, these men gathered the materials to make pipe bombs and explosive tennis balls covered in nails. They had dozens of guns, military-issue Kevlar helmets, body armor vests and handheld radios with throat microphones. They planned to ambush U.S. soldiers on a 99-acre camp in Clover, S.C., a town not far from Charlotte, N.C.
“According to (Campbell),” the warrant stated, “he and Litteral intend to booby-trap the camp and draw government’s forces into the camp and kill them.”
Thankfully that showdown never came. The owner of a military surplus store where the men bought their gear learned of their plot and alerted the FBI, according to the Washington Post.
Of course it’s possible Litteral, Barker and Campbell would have planned their attack even without the involvement of Russian bots. After all, the bots simply spread the conspiracy theory that was already out there. It was a real person, right-wing provocateur Alex Jones, who conjured the fever dream in March 2015 that Jade Helm, the multi-state military training exercise planned for that summer, was somehow something sinister.
But as the conspiracy theory spread online with lightning speed, with a flurry of comments and shares that suggested legions of alarmed residents, real people took notice. And a handful of elected officials pandered to the paranoia.
U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Tyler, issued a statement in May 2015 saying “true patriots” had cause to be “legitimately suspicious.” That same month, U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, then making his run for president, demanded answers from the Pentagon because “the federal government has not demonstrated itself to be trustworthy in this administration.”
I know Republicans had major differences with the Obama Administration. But I think we can agree Gohmert and Cruz didn’t exactly nail this one.
In providing this week’s revelation about the Russian bots, former CIA director Michael Hayden helped us understand how the clearly ludicrous Jade Helm conspiracy theory spread so far and wide, and how the success of this operation paved the way for Russian meddling in the social media chatter around the 2016 presidential campaign. And that’s troubling enough. But let’s not lose sight of the life-or-death stakes in this realm of Internet mischief.
Just over a year after the foiled Jade Helm counterstrike in North Carolina, a gunman walked into a Washington, D.C. pizzeria, convinced it was harboring a child sex ring.
Fake News. Real danger.