the conspiracy theory trap
One morning in Houston, David Lopez-Zuniga had just left his house for his job as an air-conditioner repairman, with the lunch his wife prepared on the seat next to him. As usual, his day was getting started before sunrise, so the lights of an SUV following way too closely behind him were glaring. Suddenly, the SUV hit Mr. Lopez-Zuniga’s small truck on the passenger side, forcing him off the highway. Mark Aguirre, the driver of the SUV — a former Houston police captain turned “private investigator” — pointed a gun at Mr. Lopez-Zuniga and ordered him to get on the ground.
Class, welcome to Conspiracy Theory 101! In the past, conspiracy theories lived largely on the fringes of society, believed only by kooks and the tinfoil hat crew who steadfastly insisted the earth is flat and that Area 51 exists, as do extraterrestrials and UFOs. Back then, for the most part, conspiracy theories were isolated and fairly harmless.
After 9/11, conspiracy theorists seemed to ratchet things up. Many claimed things like the U.S. federal government was involved in the attack, and that the World Trade Center was destroyed not by international terrorists, but “controlled demolition.” Then came the theories that the fatal mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut never happened, nor did the high school shooting in Parkland, Florida. Plus, one of my favorites, that forest fires in California were caused by Jewish space lasers.
Unfortunately, conspiracy theories have not only come roaring into the mainstream from the fringes, but they have now made their way into the U.S. Capitol and, at least during the Trump administration, the White House.
Back to our story in Houston, where we last left Mr. Lopez-Zuniga on the ground with a gun pointed at his head. Mark Aguirre, the man who had his gun pointed at a completely baffled Mr. Lopez-Zuniga, was convinced he would find in the truck 750,000 mail-in ballots from the 2020 presidential election, signed by Hispanic children with untraceable fingerprints. (This story is 100% true, we promise. We'll say it again, we could not possibly make this s#@# up. It would kind of be funny if it wasn’t completely undermining our democracy).
What was actually in Mr. Lopez-Zuniga’s truck and on his property, both of which he allowed the police to search, was air conditioning equipment. Which makes sense since Mr. Lopez-Zuniga is, after all, an air-conditioner repairman. Mr. Aguirre was indicted and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for his efforts.
So, here’s the backstory. The Liberty Center for God and Country — a nonprofit organization started by a man named Steven F. Hotze, a well-known anti-LBGT crusader and donor to the Texas Republican party — paid almost $300,000 to 20 private investigators for a six-week undercover “investigation” into what they were certain was illegal ballot retrievals in Houston. It's unclear exactly why members of The Liberty Center for God and Country targeted Mr. Lopez-Zuniga, but he was certainly not the only one who experienced their vigilante “justice.”
This episode is a perfect example of the real-life implications of these demented conspiracy theories. Other examples will just break your heart. QAnon is the preposterous conspiracy theory group that believes Donald Trump is saving America from a cabal of Satan worshipers and child sex traffickers. Yes, that was a member of QAnon, known as the Q Shaman, inside the Senate chamber on January 6th, shirtless and otherwise dressed in some sort of fur getup. In August 2021, a California father and QAnon follower killed his 2-year-old son and 10-month-old daughter because he believed they had “serpent DNA” and were “going to grow into monsters.” Killing them, he said, “was the only course of action that would save the world.”
Sadly, QAnon’s destruction started years before this devastating event. In early December 2016, Edgar Maddison Welch left his home in Salisbury, North Carolina and headed to Washington, D.C. He had heard Alex Jones — the host of the far-right Info-Wars, who started the “Sandy Hook Elementary massacre didn’t happen” conspiracy theory — say that Hillary Clinton was sexually abusing children as part of satanic rituals in the basement of a pizza restaurant there, and he was horrified.
The Alex Jones’ rant he heard went something like this: “When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped . . . yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children.”
When Mr. Welch arrived at Comet Ping Pong, the scene of the “crime,” with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, a .38 handgun and a folding knife, he went through the restaurant room by room, looking for children to rescue. He never got to the basement because the restaurant doesn’t even have one. This incident has come to be known as Pizzagate. The first Pizzagate message was posted on October 29, 2016 by a user named Carmen Katz: “My NYPD source said its much more vile and serious than classified material on Weiner’s device. The email DETAIL the trips made by Weiner, Bill and Hillary on their pedophile billionaire friend’s plane, the Lolita Express. Yup, Hillary has a well documented predilection for underage girls . . . We’re talking an international child enslavement and sex ring.”
From there, the lie sprinted its way through social media, eventually getting the attention of a Twitter user named @DavidGoldbergNY, who retweeted Katz’s post twice, adding: “I have been hearing the same thing from my NYPD buddies too. Next couple days will be interesting!” Just one of those tweets was retweeted 6,369 times.
Rolling Stone magazine reported that, “according to a sample of tweets with Pizzagate or related hashtags provided by Filippo Menczer, a professor of informatics at Indiana University, Pizzagate was shared roughly 1.4 million times by more than a quarter of a million accounts in its first five weeks of life — from @DavidGoldbergNY’s tweet to the day Welch showed up at Comet Ping Pong.” “At least 14 Russia-linked accounts had tweeted about Pizzagate” and “at least 66 Trump campaign figures followed one or more of the most prolific Pizzagate tweeters.” The clip of Alex Jones claiming Hillary Clinton raped and murdered children had already been viewed on YouTube more than 427,000 times.
The pandemic unleashed a torrent of batshit crazy antics. A group of doctors wearing white medical coats, calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors,” openly spewed falsehoods about, among other things, coronavirus vaccines, treatments and masks — all while standing on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. After Donald Trump promoted their video on social media and Donald Trump Jr. declared it a “must watch,” views of the video went through the roof.
Social media platforms finally removed the video, but the damage was already done. By that time, versions of the video had been seen millions of times across social media platforms. One version was viewed on Facebook over 16 million times alone. Donald Trump was perplexed by the removal of the video. “For some reason the Internet wanted to take them down and took them off. I think they are very respected doctors. There was a woman who was spectacular in her statements about it, that she’s had tremendous success with it and they took her voice off. I don’t know why they took her off. Maybe they had a good reason, maybe they didn’t.”
It is unclear exactly which woman Trump thought was “spectacular in her statements,” so let’s take a closer look at two of the possibilities. Simone Gold, the founder of America’s Frontline Doctors, has been sentenced to federal prison for her participation in the January 6th insurrection (her medical license was also suspended). Stella Immanuel is a registered physician in Texas. To say this lady is a wackadoodle is an insult to wackadoodles. The Daily Beast reported that “she has often claimed that gynecological problems like cysts and endometriosis are in fact caused by people having sex in their dreams with demons and witches.”
The article continues, “She alleges alien DNA is currently used in medical treatments, and that scientists are cooking up a vaccine to prevent people from being religious. And, she has said that the government is run in part not by humans but by ‘reptilians’ and other aliens.” Well, that part may actually be true. : )
But wait! There’s more. The Daily Beast again: “In sermons posted on YouTube and articles on her website, Immanuel claims that medical issues like endometriosis, cysts, infertility, and impotence are caused by sex with ‘spirit husbands’ and ‘spirit wives’ — a phenomenon Immanuel describes essentially as witches and demons having sex with people in a dreamworld…They are responsible for serious gynecological problems. We call them all kinds of names — endometriosis, we call them molar pregnancies, we call them fibroids, we call them cysts, but most of them are evil deposits from the spirit husband. They are responsible for miscarriages, impotence — men that can’t get it up.” That’s some church.
Those are all interesting examples, but for the best illustration of just how crazy and convoluted this has all gotten, meet Adam Rahuba. He is a food-delivery driver and DJ who lives on his friend’s sofa. Adam is a self-described democratic socialist and Bernie Sanders supporter who has taken homegrown trolling to an entirely new level — targeting conservative extremists, commentators, and media outlets.
Most of Adam’s hoaxes incorporate something having to do with MAGA supporters and use antifa as bait. For example, he once created a meme that showed photos of the crowd at a Trump rally that said, “Know any MAGA parents? Child Services will investigate any anonymous claim even without proof. Child Service agents tend to be liberal” — insinuating that people on the far-left were going to unlawfully take the children of Trump supporters away from their families.
Founder and former editor in chief of the far-right Big League Politics website, Patrick Howley, retweeted the post to his 42,000 Twitter followers, adding, “Self-identified ANTIFA operatives are filing false reports on Trump-supporting parents. Lots of sources say this is happening — don’t let them say this was a joke.” Which, of course, was exactly what it was.
For a July 4th ruse, Adam announced that antifa was having a flag burning “to peacefully protest for abolishing police nationwide.” The event was to take place at the Gettysburg Cemetery in Gettysburg, PA. Conservative media outlet Breitbart News reported on the story: “Should members of the ‘antifa’ movement carry out their plan to desecrate the graves of soldiers who fell at Gettysburg, they will join the Taliban, ISIS, and Turkish Islamists who have launched a campaign to destroy historic sites and desecrate graves of their enemies.” The Fox News website reported “possible disruptive or even violent actions by the militant left-wing group antifa at Gettysburg National Park.”
Before Adam announced the antifa-organized July 4th flag-burning event, he published an Internet phone number to make it even more fun. The Washington Post published several of the recorded messages he received: “Y’all going to get to real … surprised in Gettysburg. I cannot wait to participate, you n------loving f---s.” “I hope someone shoots every one of you motherf-----s. I pray to God in heaven for someone to shoot everyone involved in that event.”
Sixteen local and federal law enforcement groups were activated to help monitor the event. They all gathered at a local middle school that had been turned into a command center. There were 100 Pennsylvania state troopers, mounted officers, and a helicopter. Hundreds of armed counter protesters, including militiamen and White supremacist groups, showed up to stop the flag-burning madness. When the antifa crazies never showed up — because, of course, there never really were antifa crazies coming to this fake event — the counter protesters felt victorious, with many believing their very presence at the event frightened the antifa flag burners away.
According to Adam, he does this just to screw with people for his own amusement, calling his hijinks “performance art.” He told The Washington Post, “I’ve found myself very annoyed with the rise of right-wing populism. So, I thought I’d do my own thing to push back against them. The message here was that any idiot on the Internet can get a bunch of people to show up at a Union cemetery with a bunch of Confederate flags and Nazi tattoos on their necks that just make them look foolish.”
This tactic is quickly becoming a trend among the Gen Z set. For example, billboards claiming “Birds Aren’t Real” have started to pop up in several major American cities. Birds Aren’t Real followers have a strong presence on social media, plenty of merchandise for sale, and have even protested outside the Twitter headquarters, demanding that the company change its logo (which, of course, is a bird).
On the surface, the Birds Aren’t Real people — and its leader, twenty-three-year-old Peter McIndoe — seemingly believe that regular ‘ol birds are actually drones the U.S. government uses to spy on the American people. However, behind the scenes, the movement freely admits that it is nothing more than a parody, created to shine a light on the absurdity of modern-day misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Claire Chronis, a twenty-two-year-old Birds Aren’t Real organizer from Pittsburgh, puts it this way: “It’s a way to combat troubles in the world that you don’t really have other ways of combating. My favorite way to describe the organization is fighting lunacy with lunacy.”
1. Shawn Boburg, Dalton Bennett, Neena Satija and Ken Hoffman. “Ex-Cop Hits Truck Thinking It Held 750,000 Fraudulent Ballots, Police Say. It Held Air Conditioning Parts.” Washington Post. 21 Dec 2020
2. Shaila Dewan and Kay Nolan. “Pharmacist Accused Of Tampering With Vaccine Was Conspiracy Theorist, Police Say.” New York Times. 4 Jan 2021
3. Amanda Robb. “Anatomy Of A Fake News Scandal.” Rolling Stone. 16 Nov 2017
4. Sheera Frenkel and Davey Alba. “Misleading Virus Video, Pushed by the Trumps, Spreads Online.” New York Times. 28 July 2020
5. Will Sommer. “Trump’s New Favorite COVID Doctor Believes in Alien DNA, Demon Sperm, and Hydroxychloroquine.” Daily Beast. 28 July 2020
6. Shawn Boburg and Dalton Bennett. “The Troll: A Fake Flag Burning At Gettysburg Was Only His Latest Hoax.” Washington Post. 17 July 2020