Just one week after a man shot and killed three Black people in a Florida Dollar General with a rifle he decorated with swastikas, numerous prominent right-wing online influencers seemed to agree: the neo-Nazi groups that demonstrated just two hours south of that murder scene must have been part of a “false flag” operation staged by the federal government to smear their otherwise righteous conservative movements.
At first glance, one might begin to wonder if these clickbait hawks could be onto something. The scenes that played out around Orlando, Florida, on Saturday were almost cartoonish, after all.
Dozens of individuals, most of whom wore face coverings to conceal their identities, marched while waving flags emblazoned with swastikas, throwing up single-arm Nazi salutes, and belting out their affinity for Adolf Hitler and hatred of Jewish people. A similar but separate group of neo-Nazis made scenes at the entrance to Disney World. They had their own swastika flags and pro-Hitler signs, and they made it a point to destroy a LGBTQ+ Pride flag for the people filming them.
At least five known neo-Nazi groups appeared to be active around Orlando this weekend and there was little, if any, notable resistance to their presence.
But for all the allegations that ostensibly mainstream conservatives make that these neo-Nazis and others like them are “feds” staging fake protests to sway public opinion or entrap conservative activists, they offer remarkably scant evidence to support their claims.
Most appeal to ignorance, encouraging their target demographic audiences to understand an assumed lack of personal experiences with right-wing extremists as a truism about the world at large. And like most good conspiracy theories, they often contain grains of truth that are spun to support other nonsense claims.
The neo-Nazis participating in these protests represented groups that extremism researchers like myself have been tracking for years. They are real, organized, and serious about what they are spreading: ideologies that inspire bloodshed and violence, often against minority communities.
The fact that they exist as a fringe, even among the far-right, says nothing about their capabilities to produce harm—especially when left unopposed.
The reflex to declare any assembling of right-wing extremists or violence committed by them a “false flag” has seemed to strengthen among conservative social media figures in recent years, which in turn has molded their audiences to do the same.
What was once the territory of prolific conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones is now a Pavlovian response among online right-wing audiences in the wake of realities they reject, including the threats posed by increasingly mainstream right-wing extremism.
Many of the same social media influencers who have encouraged others to reflexively believe right-wing extremists are actually performers straight out of “central casting”—part of a federal conspiracy—also fashion themselves to be free thinkers, seemingly unaware of the block that conspiratorial thinking has imposed on their curiosity.
After neo-Nazis demonstrated in Florida this weekend, the self-described liberal “intellectual dark web” figure Bret Weinstein retweeted a post from a person who self-identified as “adjacent to the corners of the dissident right from which stuff like this would come” (they were quote-tweeting a video clip of the neo-Nazis assembled in Florida) and who tweeted demonstrably false claims about said groups that just a few minutes of research could dispel.
This is how these conspiracy theories are mainstreamed, and how the right-wing convinces itself it doesn’t have a real “Nazi problem”—that it’s all part of a grand federal government and mainstream media-hatched conspiracy to make them look bad.
None of this is to say that false flags do not exist at all. There have been some confirmed instances of governments conducting false flag operations, particularly during times of war and conflict. By their clandestine nature, these operations are inherently difficult to detect and prove. But today the term is increasingly synonymous with conspiracy theories defined by their reflexive rejection and disinterest in reality.
In that way, false flag theories are unfortunately at home in the modern conservative movement, which has defined itself by its denials of reality, the most prolific of which was the widespread campaign to undermine public faith in 2020 election results and the resulting riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
It ought not be a terrible surprise that a mainstream political movement that denied realities about COVID-19 and vaccinations—and spent years declaring any fact that conflicted with their ideas as “fake”—has latched onto these unhinged, reality-denying theories.
Any healthy news media diet should contain a good amount of skepticism. But these theories are not that.
Instead, we should understand those who display the reflex to label right-wing extremist groups and events as secret federal law enforcement operations in the same manner that we understand 9/11 terror attack truthers and Sandy Hook massacre deniers.
There is nothing brave, noble, or truthful about a person who stares into the face of an ugly reality and decides to glue their eyelids shut.