The origin of nonsense: the hidden influence of conspiracy theories on the campaign of Donald Trump

The emergence of fake news stories lead to a lot of debate during and after the presidential campaigns of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Wild claims were made by the campaign team of Donald Trump and by Trump himself. While it occasionally seemed like these claims were simply made up by Trump’s team themselves on the spot, a careful analysis of the ecosystem of right-wing fake and/or conspiracy news websites show that Trump was actually repeating quite some stories circulating in this ecosystem.

In this article, we will take a closer look at this ecosystem. By zooming in on three major claims made by Trump we will show exactly where he got these ideas from. We will first show and explain the ecosystem and discuss the major players within this network to then show how claims made by conspiracy websites were repeated by Trump during press conferences and debates.

Mapping the ecosystem of American fake news websites and conspiracy theories

In order to get a full understanding of the websites involved in spreading wild claims that are either unsubstantiated or opinionated speculation, we will first have to map what news websites are involved and what the connections between these websites are.
In order to do so, we compiled a seed list of fake news websites. To create this list, we looked at existing lists of fake news websites and combined these to get full grasp of all the websites involved. We did a manual check on these websites just to ensure we did not include real websites that were chosen because of the subjectivity of the creator of a list.
We applied the criteria for fake news websites provided by the academic Melissa Zimdars.

After having created this list, we mapped the relation between these website using an interactor analysis.

Cluster analysis:

A: Speculation and conspiracy.
B: Anti-liberal, pro-conservative. Mostly consists of highly subjective/bias articles criticising/demonising liberal figures (both political and nonpolitical e.a celebrities)
C: Satirical. These websites admit being satirical or ‘for entertainment purposes’ only on their ‘About’ page.
D: Click-bait. Consists of general clickbait articles with exaggerated or invented headlines and news stories. Another vague connection between the sites is fake science news.
E: All these websites refer to Newlo.com, a fake news generating website. Isolated from other clusters.
F: Openly satirical websites (on their homepage). General satire: both liberal and conservative satire in addition to general satirical news content.

Cluster A is the most relevant for the topic of this article. What the data visualisation shows is that Infowars.com is a key player in this cluster. Almost all the websites link to this website while infowars.com only has one line towards another website (activistpost.com). This website consists of general conspiracy theories about the American government and all the ‘classical’ conspiracy theories (such as that 9/11 was an inside job, the moonlanding was fake and claiming the existence of aliens). The main person behind this website is Alex Jones, a radio-show host that has gained a lot of popularity in the conspiracy scene. He has gained more mainstream attention after his controversial appearance on the CNN talk-show ‘Piers Morgan Tonight’ in January 2013.

This self-proclaimed conspiracy theorists has stated that he received a phone call from Donald Trump himself thanking him for helping him win the election. In addition to this, and more relevant for our current article, Alex Jones has stated the following on his radio show on the 11th of August 2016: “it is surreal to talk about issues here on air and then word-for-word hear Trump say it two days later”. As we now shall demonstrate, this statement is certainly not far from the truth.

1. Mexico.

They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.”
– Donald Trump, 
June 16, 2015

One of the videos that Alex Jones published in October 2014 goes about all the problems the United States is importing from Mexico. The rhetoric Alex Jones is using is actually very similar to the type of rhetoric that is often heard in the Netherlands. According to Jones we are inviting people from Mexico and give them, among many things, free guitar lessons or free baby nursing to illegal Mexican immigrants. Jones links the exploding crime rate and the increased amounts of killed cops in the United States with the influx of immigrants.

2. Founders of ISIS.

ISIS is honoring President Obama. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS. And I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton. Co-founder. Crooked Hillary Clinton.”
– Donald Trump, August 11th, 2016

Trump is known for having linked Obama and Hillary with the insurgence of the Islamic State. This time the origin doesn’t lie at Infowars, although they did publish an article after his speech with the headline: ‘Trump Is Right: Here’s Proof Hillary and Obama Founded ISIS‘.

However, Breitbart did publish an article around the 14th of June under the headline: ‘Hillary Clinton received secret memo stating Obama admin ‘support’ for ISIS‘. It’s about an allegedly leaked classified intelligent document that states the Obama administration was actively supporting Al-Qaida in Iraq. According to Breitbart the Al-Qaida Iraq branch eventually evolved into ISIS and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were somehow involved.

3. Clinton has health issues.

“She took a little short-circuit in the brain—she’s got problems. Honestly, I don’t think she’s all there.”
-Donald Trump, August 2016

Paul Joseph Watson posted an influential video on the 4th of August. The video is a rather bizarre five minute diagnosis that tries to explain Hillary’s ‘weird’ behavior. Watson relies on short and decontextualized clips and completely anonymous experts that diagnose Hillary with ‘high function autism with attendant sociopathy’. This statement is accompanied by a photo in which a very pale Clinton is yelling at something. According to Watson this explains the extreme expressions which are used to compensate ‘emotional illiteracy’. This video has reached a large audience (around five million views) and was also shared on Infowars.

Trump uses very similar rhetoric in his speech.. At a rally last August he mentioned that Hillary ‘took a little short-circuit in the brain’. To which he added ‘Honestly, I don’t think she’s all there’.

In conclusion, it is clear that Trump makes use of existing conspiracy theories for his claims. He rarely cites these sources as his source. The network analysis makes clear that either he or his personnel are reading the websites that are in our fake news cluster. As most people know, one of the people working for Breitbart News was Steve Bannon who quikly joined the campaign team of Donald Trump as chief executive officer. His connections with the right-wing internet ecosystem are thus very clear and the influence should not be too surprising. What is surprising is the seemingly highly influential role of conspiracy theories in Trump’s campaign. Furthermore, what becomes apparant in our research is that Trump tends to pick those conspiracy theories that fit his (current) narrative. If we were to fantasize that the campaigns would go on for a couple of months, we could make predictions about the wild claims that Trump would make simply by looking at the dominant theories on the websites within the described cluster.