FRONTLINE: United States Of Conspiracy
Stream now or tune in Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 at 10 p.m. on KPBS TV + Thursday, Oct. 1 at 10 p.m. on KPBS 2
Friday, September 25, 2020
Credit: Courtesy of REUTERS/Callaghan O’Hare
How did trafficking in conspiracy theories move from the fringes of U.S. politics into the White House?
In “United States of Conspiracy,” as the coronavirus pandemic continues, America reckons with racism and the 2020 election looms, FRONTLINE’s acclaimed political team investigates the alliance among conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, longtime Trump associate Roger Stone and the president — and their role in the deepening battle over truth and lies.
“Our new documentary reveals how conspiracy theories have come to play an outsize role in American politics, and what that means for our democracy in this critical moment,” says FRONTLINE filmmaker and veteran chronicler of U.S. politics Michael Kirk ("The Choice 2016," "America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump").
Drawing on interviews with Stone, former staffers from Jones’ InfoWars site, political insiders, people who have been victimized by conspiracy theories, and experts in how misinformation spreads, the documentary examines how once-fringe conspiracy theories came to be wielded as a tool at the highest levels of American politics.
A key player in that trend is Jones — who for years had been pushing a message that “elites” and “globalists” are part of a secret conspiracy that controls the world. The documentary pinpoints a pivotal moment in the mainstreaming of conspiracy theorist thought: then-candidate Donald Trump’s appearance on Jones’ “InfoWars' show during the 2016 campaign, a move that was brokered by frequent "InfoWars" guest and longtime GOP operative Stone.
“It was a signal to Jones’ literally millions of followers that Trump was the man to support in the Republican primary,” Stone tells FRONTLINE.
The calculation paid off for all three men: “Roger delivers legitimacy to Alex Jones, and Alex Jones delivers to Trump disaffected voters that Trump needed to bring to the polls, in order to win,” says Morgan Pehme, co-director of “Get Me Roger Stone.” “And that is what I think is the difference maker.”
As "United States Of Conspiracy" reports, the three men built a template for American politics relying on chaos, conflict and conspiracy. Jones’ messages and methods came to be echoed by Trump in campaign speeches and interviews: “I mean, sometimes it was, like, verbatim — like, really Trump, really? You’re taking his word for it?” says former "InfoWars" staffer Rob Jacobsen.
The film explores the role of the internet and social media in fanning the flames: “We all know of conspiracy theorists from the days before Twitter or Facebook. And those people were sort of isolated and shunned. And everybody felt like they had their number,” says Elizabeth Williamson of The New York Times. “But with social media and the internet, they find each other. And they push that message to millions of people.”
As the film reports, the popularity of false claims among large audiences can produce serious real-world consequences. Lenny Pozner, father of a child, Noah, killed in the Sandy Hook shooting, today lives in hiding due to harassment from Jones’ supporters who claim the massacre was staged.
In another disturbing instance, a man brought an assault rifle to a D.C. pizza shop where Jones claimed that Hillary Clinton and other “elites” were running a Satanic pedophile ring.
“These conspiracies, some may think, ‘Well, they’re harmless.’ But then we have somebody who shows up at a pizza establishment with a weapon,” says Daniel J. Jones, a former Congressional investigator. “I mean, people will act on these things. We will see violence from this sort of stirring up of hatred and division.”
And now, with the country in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, conspiracy theories have spread like the virus itself — causing people to disregard the warnings of public health experts even as the death toll grows.
Gripping and revealing, “United States of Conspiracy” is the story of how three men helped to lay the foundation for conspiracy theories to take center stage in America’s national conversation, how the idea of truth itself became part of America’s divide, and what it means for the future of our democracy.
“Conspiracism has become a recognized and accepted way of exercising political power. It creates a polarization in the population that’s much deeper than partisan polarization — it’s a polarization about what it means to know something,” says Nancy Rosenblum, co-author of “A Lot of People Are Saying.” “I think it’s likely to spread across the political spectrum. And whether it returns to the fringes or not I think will depend on whether people in office can resist using it.”
Tune in or stream:
Watch the broadcast premiere Tuesday, July 28. The film will also be available to watch in full at pbs.org/frontline and in the PBS Video App starting that night at 7/6c. It will premiere on YouTube at 10/9c.
Join The Conversation:
A FRONTLINE production with Kirk Documentary Group, Ltd. The producers are Michael Kirk, Mike Wiser and Philip Bennett. The producer and reporter is Jim Gilmore. The writers are Michael Kirk and Mike Wiser. The director is Michael Kirk. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath.
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