Waukesha And The Machinery Of Right-Wing Disinformation

An analysis of social media and right-wing outlets in the wake of the Waukesha parade attack highlights how right-wing conspiracy theories are born and spread.
Lightburst, <a href="https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0">CC BY-SA 4.0</a>, via Wikimedia Commons

Lightburst, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jaclyn Fox is a Ph.D. candidate at American University, School of International Service, specializing in political violence and security. Her work explores the links between online rhetoric and offline violence across the far-right ecosystem.

On November 21, 2021, out on bail after violently assaulting an intimate partner, Darrell Brooks plowed his vehicle into a Christmas parade in Waukesha, Wisconsin, killing six people and injuring 62 others. Less than a week later, Wisconsin senators, Democrat Tammy Baldwin and Republican Ron Johnson, issued a joint statement warning against “outsiders” who may work to “exploit” the tragedy for “political purposes”. This warning proved prescient, as figures across both fringe and mainstream social media platforms sought to lay claim to the narrative of what happened at Waukesha.

While fringe message boards such as “patriots.win” promoted conspiracy theories about BLM and Soros, “mainstream” figures on Facebook were not far behind, stoking fears over “leftist” violence. Ultimately, narratives pushed out by fringe and mainstream actors proved to be more similar than different.

Fringe Narratives

To get a clearer idea of the narratives percolating on the fringe site patriots.win, I identified posts related to “Waukesha” from 11/22/2021 through 12/1/2021. In order to gather the most popular topics, posts were selected which had more than 1,000 upvotes (44 posts and all attached comments were included).

The key narratives of this platform were attributions of blame and elucidations of the full conspiratorial coalition around the attack. That is, the attack was not about the actions of a single individual, rather, they were the result of a coalition of actors: mainstream media, the democrats, BLM, globalists, Soros, and others, bent on the fracturing of society. Anxieties around critical race theory (CRT) and child trafficking were also incorporated into the narrative, joining together recent events into the overarching story.

While the conspiratorial web makes it difficult to lay blame onto specific actors, mainstream media channels, particularly CNN and MSNBC, appeared to draw the greatest ire from posters. Commenters posited that CNN’s coverage of the Rittenhouse trial was purposely trying to “incite terrorism.” Threats of violence followed for the news channel as posters demonized the outlet, referring to them as “ISIS” and the media broadly as the “enemy of the people.”

One popular post with 1137 upvotes was a screenshot of alt-right personality Mike Cernovich’s Twitter account where he asked:

“Did CNN’s dishonest coverage of the Rittenhouse trial accomplish its goal of inciting terrorism, or is Waukesha unrelated? We will soon find out.”

A comment on another post explicitly called for violence stating:

“Wherever the local CNN offices are in Wisconsin should be burned to the ground.”

While yet another poster remarked:

If Alex Jones can be sued over Sandy hook, then MSNBC can be sued over Waukesha. They’ve been peddling racist conspiracy theories for too long. It’s time CRT be tied to domestic terrorists.

However, mainstream media was just one piece of the puzzle. The Democrats were perceived as instrumentalizing its coverage — and the BLM movement — to stoke racialized violence by elevating “divisive rhetoric.” Patriots.win posters called the parade violence BLM “retaliation” for the Rittenhouse verdict and stated that BLM should be named a terrorist organization.

“If this was a racially motivated attack or retaliation for the Rittenhouse verdict, then BLM and Democrats need to be held accountable for their divisive, inflammatory rhetoric.”

“Premeditated BLM terrorist attack” “The Rittenhouse media circus, 24×7 extreme leftist programming and an WH administration that looks the other way when terrorists are any color than white have a hand in this. The terrorists are getting emboldened because it is “racist” to oppose them.”

The violence was explicitly framed in political terms, implying that it targeted Trump supporters specifically, and the Democrats (by way of BLM) were responsible.

It’s absolutely critical to mention that the domestic terrorist attack in Waukesha happened at a Christmas parade in a majority white county that voted to re-elect President Trump by nearly 60%. (gab.com) ??️ VIOLENT LEFT ?️?

BLM are the Democrat’s #1 pet political tool. BLM good, Trump voters bad.

Democrats responsible for the Waukesha massacre.

But, in order for Brooks to be able to commit such a heinous crime (inspired, the narrative claims by the Democrats themselves) he had to be out on bail. Thus, falls the final piece of the puzzle, the “Soros-backed District Attorneys” who purposely let Brooks go free. As summarized by one poster explaining the theory online:

As far as I can tell, the latter. The way you come to the terror attack idea is that some Soros funded prosecutor let him out on a ridiculously small bail, after skipping bail, thus intending for his crimes to continue.

While the above specifically pertains to the Waukesha violence, another commenter takes a broader position on the conspiratorial narrative.

Yes, it’s important to sue them, and I hope Sandmann and Rittenhouse end up owning all of the CNN and MSNBC stock. But it’s not enough.

Because the people behind this are not the media. They are the people behind the financial system. They influence most corporations, they influence most governments, they run the world’s central banks.

They are behind the global push for the vaccines, as much as they’re behind the global push against white people.

They must be stopped.

Suing is good, but it’s not enough. They must be removed from their global positions of influence. And time is short because of what they have in stock for us.

In response to another post, one commenter took the blaming a step further into explicit antisemitism stating:

Missed one:

F*** blm. F*** the media. F*** the Jews who own the media.

These posts bring into the equation larger debates about vaccination as well as older, antisemitic tropes regarding global domination. The comments sections on the Patriots.win Waukesha posts overall are rife with implicit (as well as explicit) racism, antisemitism, misogyny and homophobic vitriol. Mainstream platforms, on the other hand, were geared more towards implicit narratives. However, they captured the same conspiratorial messaging.

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Into the Mainstream

While the highest patriots.win Waukesha post received 4491 upvotes, content spread through Facebook garnered significantly more attention. A search on CrowdTangle, a public insights tool owned and operated by Facebook, for the keyword “Waukesha” shows that November 22, 2021 was the day with the highest level of engagement, sparking 3.22 million interactions across 12.8k posts.

Per CrowdTangle, the top 20 posts by way of interactions were predominantly from conservative figures such as Ben Shapiro, Glenn Beck, Dan Bongino, Tucker Carlson, Fox News, and Newsmax. Ben Shapiro alone accounted for four of the top twenty highest engagement posts. Here the narratives were a bit more subtle, suggesting that the media’s response was suspicious, for instance. One Ben Shapiro post which garnered 129,668 interactions simply stated:

We don’t know the motive of the mass murderer in Waukesha. But the overt lack of interest in motive from the media — in fact, the anger that anyone would seek a motive — is incredibly telling.

The popular Facebook posts also incorporated discussions of bail reform which were rampant across Fox News and other media outlets. Posters named specific Democratic politicians as responsible and suggested that the media was purposely hiding information from the public. One key post pushing this narrative was from the Tucker Carlson Tonight Facebook page which garnered 62,518 interactions.

Horror in Waukesha, but the media ignore shocking new details about the suspect. Meanwhile, Rep Tlaib and friends want all prisoners released. Every last one of them.

Additionally, top posts engaged with on Facebook, such as the one below from “Fleccas Talks” repeatedly characterized the violence as “terrorism” and blamed media coverage.

Blatant hypocrisy displayed by the media just days after the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict following months of slanted MSM coverage. The terrorism we saw in Waukesha shows how dangerous the lying media truly is. This guy had issues and the media wound him up.

While Facebook and patriots.win have significantly different audiences and levels of reach, the core of the conspiratorial narratives being spread were surprisingly similar. Explicit racism, antisemitism, etc. may have been more apparent on the fringe site, but the tropes of media and elite control, underlie the same fears.

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