Consumers of news are likely aware that a number of persistent, and sometimes dangerous, conspiracies have crept into mainstream coverage recently, like the idea that John Podesta, the former Hillary Clinton campaign chairman, was involved in a pedophilia ring centered on a Washington, D.C. pizzeria (Pizzagate), or the Alex Jones lie that “antifa” is plotting a civil war on November 4.
Another such conspiracy—launched by the far right and supported by sympathizers of the white nationalist side of the melee that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia this summer—is centered around Heather Heyer, the anti-racist activist who lost her life after James Fields, a white, pro-Confederacy protester, rammed a car into a crowd of counterprotesters on August 12. The conspiracy, according to those who espouse it, is that the media, politicians and city and state law enforcement colluded to drum up the murder charges against alleged Nazi sympathizer Fields in an attempt to scapegoat their side for what happened in Charlottesville. What really happened, the conspiracists claim, is that Heyer was out of shape and died of a heart attack in the heat. They point out that the moment of impact during the car ramming was not visible on video.
The Central District Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Richmond, Virginia declared definitively to Newsweek that Heyer’s cause of death was no heart attack. Spokesperson Arkuie Williams said during a brief phone interview Tuesday that after more than two months of examinations, it was determined that Heyer died of “blunt force trauma to the torso,” and that her death has been ruled a homicide. Still, when Newsweek reached out to more than a dozen people who have been espousing the conspiracy theory online, all but one of them persisted in their beliefs about a coverup.
Many of those with whom Newsweek spoke demanded to see the medical report firsthand, for example. (Legally, the state cannot release the documents without a subpoena or a request made by Heyer’s family.) Others insisted that the government was lying about how Heyer died in order to tarnish the reputation of the man who allegedly murdered her.
A twitter user with the handle @DougMcCockin15, whose account is focused on white nationalist issues, Holocaust denial and other anti-Semitic conspiracies, pointed Newsweek to a graph showing declining faith in government, before implying that Fields simply acted in self-defense.
When asked why the state would lie about the violence in Charlottesville, a Twitter user with the handle @Tarleton_exe, writes back, “To create whatever narrative that organ of the states wants them to, they are PAID by the state.”
One user on Gab, a social network that is popular with many right wing extremists, including neo-Nazis, posited a deeply racist theory to Newsweek that African Americans working for the state may have played a role in doctoring the results.
The origin of the conspiracy can primarily be traced back to two publications on the far right: The first one is The Daily Stormer, a well-trafficked, millennial-targeted neo-Nazi propaganda website that has been through at least 10 different web hosts over the last two months, after initially being dropped by GoDaddy following a post by Editor Andrew Anglin, an outspoken misogynist, which viciously mocked Heyer’s appearance. The second is Occidental Dissent, which is run by self-proclaimed Southern Nationalist Brad Griffin, who frequently goes by the nom de plume Hunter Wallace. Griffin worked to build a timeline of the incident on his site in the wake of the violence, purporting to demonstrate why he was skeptical about the media’s portrayal of events.
Anglin of the Daily Stormer could not be reached for comment about the medical examiner’s report, but Robert Warren Ray, an avowed white supremacist writer for the site, tells Newsweek that he trusts his “own two eyes” instead of the information that was presented to him about the report. Griffin of Occidental Dissent (whose theories about current events have sometimes been proved to bear fruit) was the only person to express a willingness to accept the new information about Heyer’s alleged murder.
“I tend to believe it,” he tells Newsweek. “It’s sad what happened. I just wish we had a little more information on it.”
Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, who spoke to Newsweek last month about the degree to which Americans are forming conspiracies about news stories before they can be fully reported, calls a willingness to accept new information about news events “a basic sign of intelligence” in people.
Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and the author of a book about conspiracy theories in American culture, tells Newsweek that the theories surrounding Heyer’s heart attack are “completely sexist” and part of a self-sustaining narrative created by white nationalists who might be worried that the violence that took place delegitimized their cause.
“They’re holding onto this stuff because their beliefs are more important to them than the new information,” Fenster says, comparing theories about the Charlottesville violence to those of people unwilling to accept former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate as proof that he was born in America. “Once you get to this level of skepticism, you simply can’t be persuaded by hearing the truth.”
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