In the hours after the Las Vegas shooting, conspiracy theorists wasted no time heading to internet enclaves of misinformation to weigh in.
Commenters on Twitter, YouTube and certain internet forums variously asserted that gunman Stephen Paddock was a far-left activist or an Islamic State soldier — and that he “looked Jewish.” A string of YouTube videos even claim that the whole shooting, which has claimed 59 lives and injured over 500, never happened at all.
Alongside those familiar hoaxes, a more specifically anti-Semitic conspiracy theory was gaining traction. It claimed that Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Las Vegas casino magnate, could benefit from the bloodshed by selling billions of dollars worth of security screening equipment.
The unfounded theory formed on 4chan, an anonymous online forum famous for memes, child pornography and Gamergate. Beginning with a cryptic post from weeks ago, commenters formed a theory of Jewish economic control that has spread to corners of Reddit and Voat, two sites with forums dedicated to conspiracies. Like other conspiracies of the internet age, the Las Vegas theory blends centuries-old anti-Semitic tropes with false evidence and a healthy dose of groupthink.
“What’s considered valid and not is sort of subject to the hive mind,” said Jared Holt, a research associate with Right Wing Watch. “There’s no one fact checking these people except each other. And they’re all on the same page: that nothing is real and everything is a conspiracy.”
Conspiracy theories that gain traction after a major news event like the Las Vegas massacre serve an important role in feeding extremist narratives because the attention of millions of people are focused on them, watchdogs say.
They also give new life to anti-Semitic biases that might otherwise wither away or seem outdated — and now often find wide audiences on a growing stable of far right wing media outlets.
By Wednesday, the Las Vegas theory — which also implicates Michael Chertoff, the Secretary of Homeland Security under President Bush — was hinted at by Alex Jones, who runs the InfoWars site, in a widely shared Facebook video containing several unverified theories about the shooting.
The theory began with the re-posting of messages apparently left by an anonymous 4chan user on September 11, 2017. The commenter, who referred to himself as “john,” warned of an upcoming attack in the Las Vegas area.
“look i feel bad for some of you on this website. so i’ll let you in on a little secret. if you live in las vegas…stay inside tomorrow,” the initial post read.
The commenter went on to describe a purported plot involving Adelson and Chertoff, currently the executive chairman of the Chertoff Group, a security consulting firm in Washington, D.C.
“they want to make the american public think that places with extremely high security aren’t safe,” the user said. “they are trying to create more regulations.”
Without providing any evidence, the commenter described how OSI Systems, a company that makes security scanners, could use security regulations passed in the wake of a mass shooting in a public place to merge with Chertoff’s Washington D.C. consulting group and “make billions” off the sales of X-ray scanners and metal detectors.
“this is my last message for now. don’t expect me to return anytime soon,” the post concluded.
The 4chan comments were picked up by so-called “New Right” media figures who often report misinformation gleaned from sites like 4chan, YouTube and Reddit as reliable news.
On 9/10, an anonymous user on /pol/ predicted a shooting in Las Vegas and discussed the reasons behind it. #LasVagasShootingpic.twitter.com/p9zuUgZGAH— Mike Tokes (@MikeTokes) October 3, 2017
Chertoff, who like Adelson is Jewish, has been a bogeyman for anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists since he became the Secretary for Homeland Security in 2005. He was embroiled in a minor scandal in 2010 when he revealed that his firm was receiving payments from Rapiscan, another maker of X-ray screening technology.
On 4chan, commenters quickly revived the anonymous comments from earlier in September to help explain the Las Vegas shooting, even though it came weeks later and not the next day as the poster had predicted. Many have pointed to Sheldon Adelson’s October 3 meeting with Trump — at which he reportedly discussed gun control — as somehow backing up the theory.
Some commenters also noted the fact that none of the people killed in the shooting appear to be of Jewish descent.
The only so-called “evidence” that commenters have put forth to buttress the theory is that the stock OSI Systems — the makers of security screening machines — has risen since September 11. (In fact, the company’s stock has been rising steadily since it announced its acquisition of a smaller X-ray technology company in June 2016).
Marilyn Mayo, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, says that one thing that many internet conspiracy theories have in common is their obsession with the purported role of Jews or Israel in major tragedies.
“The basic trope is that Jews control world events,” Mayo said. “Whenever there’s a catastrophic event in the world, somehow anti-Semites blame Jews for it.”
Analysts of far right media and fringe internet sites say that 4chan, the site that birthed this theory, is home to anonymous self-styled “researchers” who take it upon themselves to learn the “truth” behind major events.
“They find one sort of thing they think is an inconsistency, then all bets are off, and everything comes into question,” said Holt.
Chip Berlet, an independent researcher of right wing populist movements and white supremacy, said that anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have always present in American culture. The strain of theories that assert that Jews are complicit in a plot to dominate the world, he says, were introduced to Americans by Henry Ford, when he disseminated hundreds of thousands of copies of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in the 1920s.
“All the internet and social media have done is they have allowed these classic, discredited theories to gain a much larger audience,” he said.