For the first time, the FBI has identified fringe political conspiracy theories as a domestic threat.
In an intelligence bulletin acquired by Yahoo News, the FBI wrote that “anti-government, identity based, and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to engage in criminal or violent activity.”
It also notes that conspiracy theory-driven violence is not new but that the Internet and social media have changed how conspiracy theories “develop, spread and evolve.”
The memo mentioned the unfounded Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which claims U.S. Democrats held child sex slaves at a pizza restaurant. The memo notes that a gunman who walked into the restaurant in 2016 and fired his weapon was motivated by this rumour.
Practically every terrorist movement believes in “some conspiracy theory,” said Ottawa-based terrorism expert Stephanie Carvin.
“We’re starting to pay attention rightfully to the effects of these movements, the effects of social media creating echo chambers, and potentially polarization as well,” she said.
In Canada, such concerns are likely important for federal departments such as Public Safety Canada and Democratic Institutions, “which have a much broader mandate in understanding how these things affect the democratic discourse.”
“Because at the end of the day, the concern is that conspiracy theories help to undermine belief in democratic institutions and things like that,” Carvin said. “And if they’re promoted either by like-minded communities or foreign adversaries, that is a real problem.”
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Simply believing in a conspiracy theory doesn’t make one a threat, though.
“It’s when that belief then motivates you to engage in violence, and that’s going to be a far more complex thing than just believing that the CIA assassinated John F. Kennedy,” she said.
More attention is being paid to groups that have not historically received the same amount of attention as Al Qaeda, according to Carvin, who cited a recent CSIS report.
“If you look at the range of threats that they’re looking at, it is different,” she said. “They’re looking at things like the incel movement and white nationalism and things like that. We do know that these are movements that are largely driven by conspiracy theories.”
She said that while it would be “wrong” to say that Canadian security agencies are not paying attention, they have not “specifically identified conspiracy-driven terrorism in the ways the FBI has done.”
“I think you have to be careful of just mapping the American problem onto the Canadian environment, because our circumstances are somewhat different.”
According to terrorism expert Amarnath Amarasingam, research shows conspiracy theories have a “multiplier effect.”
“They do push people into further dark corners of the internet or echo chambers and do have negative effects,” he said.
But they’re not usually a cause for concern on their own, he added.
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“I think those kinds of beliefs, in conjunction with a whole host of other issues, the kind of push factors for radicalization, could eventually lead to violence and could push people into violence,” he said.
“But I don’t think they by itself lead to much violence.”