Full episode
Transcript

671: Anything Can Be Anything

Note: This American Life is produced for the ear and designed to be heard. If you are able, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio, which includes emotion and emphasis that's not on the page. Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Prologue: Prologue

Ira Glass

Well, it's been a week of gloating. Some very emphatic gloating and I-told-you-sos, after Robert Mueller delivered his report saying that he could not establish collusion between the president and the Russians. As you've probably seen, the president and his supporters have been saying that's right. No conspiracy with Russia.

In fact, the real conspiracy is one where the Democrats and the media hyped this Russian stuff for two years. They're gleefully circulating videos of people like this guy--

Jonathan Chait

You know, you have to take seriously the possibility that--

Ira Glass

--New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait. He went onto MSNBC last year to connect the dots about whether the president has basically been a secret Russian operative all the way back since 1987.

Jonathan Chait

That is probably not true. But it might be that 1987 is when he went to Moscow. And he's feted by the Russians and tours Moscow. And then he comes back. Then he starts talking about running for president for the first time. And then he starts talking for the first time about how our allies are a bunch of freeloaders, and we should kick them to the curb.

Ira Glass

It's more or less a Fox News, Republican Party talking point now that the fact that there even was a Mueller investigation, the fact that it even occurred, was a result of a deep-state, media-led, Obama-Hillary-FBI conspiracy. Here's how President Trump described it this week to Sean Hannity.

Donald Trump

You look at, how did this start? How did it start? You had dirty cops. You had people that are bad FBI folks. I know so many. They're incredible people. But at the top, they were not clean, to put it mildly.

And then the money that was spent-- the millions and millions on the phony dossier, and paid for by Hillary Clinton, and paid for by the Democrats at the DNC-- it's hard to believe. If you wrote this as a novel, nobody would buy it. It would be a failure, because it would be too unbelievable.

Ira Glass

Of course, it's no surprise that the president has spun the Mueller report into a conspiracy theory of his own, because he's peddled lots of conspiracy theories, from the idea that George Soros is funding the caravans, all the way back to birtherism. Joe Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories and the people who believe them, says, this is actually an unusual thing about today.

It used to be people with no power in this country who were the ones pushing conspiracy theories. Now it's the President of the United States doing it all the time. Uscinski says that from the start, it seems like Donald Trump identified conspiracy-minded voters as a possible constituency.

Joseph Uscinski

So when he got into the Republican primary, there was 25 other candidates vying for Republican votes. He went after the underserved market of Republicans, which were conspiracy-minded Republicans. But he keeps them motivated. And he's got to keep going with this. He's dancing with the one who brought him to the prom.

Ira Glass

In fact, one of my coworkers, Zoe Chace, went to a couple of Trump rallies this fall in Chattanooga, Tennessee and Fort Wayne, Indiana. And she found lots of people who believed in the deep state and in other conspiracies. Zoe?

Zoe Chace

Hi, IRA.

Ira Glass

So?

Zoe Chace

So basically, I'd ask people a general and vague question, like, do you trust the government? And then almost everyone I talked to, all these conspiracy theories would come spilling out, like about George Soros.

Woman 1

--a Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, you know? People like that, they're behind the scenes, pushing this agenda.

Zoe Chace

The president tweeted this theory that Soros pays protesters. There's no evidence of that.

Man

Absolutely. You can go on the website, and he'll pay you $17. I wanted to ask these people holding signs, where do they get their check? All these people, they're getting paid. What if-- what if they're getting paid?

Zoe Chace

Old classics came up, like the Clintons are serial murderers.

Man

And now, this may be conspiracy theorist type stuff. But how many bodyguards that Clinton had in Arkansas are still alive? Vince Foster.

Zoe Chace

Vince Foster?

Man

Supposed to have been killed in the park.

Zoe Chace

I mean, he committed suicide. But you don't think so?

Man

Well, I don't think he did, no.

Zoe Chace

Pizzagate came up.

Woman 2

I don't believe there's, like, a basement in comet Ping Pong. But I do believe that there was a hacker that actually hacked into the system. And I think that the shooter going in was a false flag, because he shot one bullet right through the hard drive, destroying the evidence, so to speak. So I think--

Zoe Chace

I got this book recommendation that made a big impression on me from Paula. She and her partner, Steve, drove three hours from Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.

Paula

What's the name of that book?

Steve

Oh, I can't remember.

Paula

Baby, look for it on my--

Steve

It's an older book.

Paula

--Amazon. It's an old, old book. But it's about how they've been trying to do this for many years in America.

Steve

Yeah, since the middle 1800s.

Paula

Yes. They've been--

Zoe Chace

Who's they, though?

Steve

The Illuminati, whatever you want to call them-- the World Order.

Ira Glass

The World Order?

Zoe Chace

Basically, the idea that a cabal of rich guys is trying to take over the world and create one world government-- like one currency, one army, no national borders.

Ira Glass

And these rich guys-- are these Jews, not to name a specific ethnic group?

Zoe Chace

Not necessarily. It's not necessarily the Jews. This is an old theory. Its roots are totally anti-Semitic. But to be honest, the people I talked to, I asked them about that. It just seemed like it wasn't about Jews anymore. It was just elites.

Ira Glass

OK, then.

Zoe Chace

Eventually, Paula finds the name of the book. It's The Unseen Hand,

Paula

There you go. You read that, girl. And I haven't read all of it. But I have a friend that's read it from front to back. But it's like really well read in it. And we talked about the Illuminati and all of these so-called higher-ups that think that they are over all of us. I got news for them--

Ira Glass

Did you read the book?

Zoe Chace

I tried. It's really hard to follow the book. I got through like 100 pages. I did talk to their friend who's read the whole thing, Jim. And his experience illustrates that thing the professor, Uscinski, said at the beginning of this about how Donald Trump mobilized conspiracy theorists during the campaign.

Ira Glass

Hm.

Zoe Chace

Like, take Jim. He hadn't voted for a while before 2016, because he believed both parties were basically working together for a secret cabal of elites.

Ira Glass

So he believed this conspiracy.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, the New World Order-- like, just rich guys, the Bilderberg group, George Soros, the Bush dynasty, the Clinton dynasty-- like, that they were all--

Ira Glass

All working together?

Zoe Chace

--to push this one world government, New World Order agenda in secret.

Ira Glass

OK.

Zoe Chace

And Jim believes Donald Trump ran for president in order to stop them.

Jim

I didn't have to read between the lines of what he was saying. He was openly saying, I'm not a globalist. I'm America first. And see?

Unless you know a lot of the stuff I know, most-- a lot of what he said would just go, pshew. And I knew he knew. I knew he knew about what he said. He knew who they were and what they were up to.

Zoe Chace

Talking to Jim, it was like seeing Trump all new.

Ira Glass

Huh.

Zoe Chace

Like, seeing him through Jim's eyes, seriously, everything kind of lined up for me.

Ira Glass

What do you mean?

Zoe Chace

So no borders-- Trump wants to build a border wall, right? Because the New World Order wants to erase all the borders. Trump wants to blow up all the trade deals. Like, trade deals lead to, you know, one world currency.

Ira Glass

Right. They're breaking down trade borders between nations.

Zoe Chace

Yes it's another kind of erasing-the-barriers thing. Trump wants to blow up NATO. You can kind of think of that as one world army with these different countries coming together.

Ira Glass

The NATO military, OK.

Zoe Chace

Right, the NATO alliance. Trump kind of alienates our allies, doesn't like to talk to Europe, because Europe-- that's the European Union. The European Union is the first step towards a global union, one big state.

Ira Glass

Oh, where all-- right, we're all one big country.

Zoe Chace

Yeah, one world government. And if you listen to Trump, it does sound like he believes in a cabal of elites behind the scenes, like Soros; obviously, Hillary Clinton; lately, the FBI.

Ira Glass

Right.

Zoe Chace

All the dots line up so neatly if you just think of them as part of Trump's battle against the New World Order.

Ira Glass

And do you think Jim is right that the president sees it this way?

Zoe Chace

No. But you can see how Jim would draw these conclusions. It makes sense.

Ira Glass

Well, today on our program, in this moment, when conspiracy theories seem to be right in the center of mainstream political everything-- like, for years, there was this idea that the president conspired with the Russians. Now, there's this idea that the Democrats conspired to create a phony investigation. When are we supposed to be connecting the dots? When are we not supposed to be connecting the dots?

Because, friends, there are a lot of dots. And they are so close together. And we want to connect them, because we want something to explain the world that we're in.

Today on our program, we have stories of people struggling with whether they should be connecting the dots or not, and as you might expect, coming to very different conclusions. From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Stay with us.

Act One: Show Me State of Mind

Ira Glass

Act One, Show-Me State of Mind. So many people who believe in conspiracy theories, you know they're talking about secretive groups that are basically far away-- rich and powerful people they're never going to run into. But what about when the conspiracy looks like it's happening all around you-- like, has an impact on your actual city, on your actual neighborhood? And you're worried that you could be its next victim. New Yorker writer Jelani Cobb heard about a conspiracy theory that is more along those lines.

Jelani Cobb

It's been more than four years now since Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, outside St. Louis. You probably know the basic facts of the case. He was 18, black, unarmed. The officer who shot him, Darren Wilson, is white.

Of course, the shooting and a grand jury's decision not to indict Officer Wilson led to waves of chaotic protests in Ferguson-- tear gas, arrests, fires, looting. It was the first time you heard the chant, hands up, don't shoot. But here's something you might not know.

In the five years since Michael Brown's death, about a half dozen people connected to the shooting and its aftermath have themselves turned up dead, including high-profile protesters and activists. And in at least a few cases, the circumstances under which they've died have been questionable, if not eerie, which has led to the belief that those deaths are part of a larger, coordinated effort-- in short, a conspiracy.

I had already visited Ferguson about a half dozen times, met a lot of people, and wrote several articles. But that was three years ago. I decided to go back and ask some of them whether they believed in the conspiracy. I was interested in who did, and who didn't, and why.

One place that I spent a lot of time was Cathy's Kitchen-- sort of a hub for reporters, as it was only about 100 feet from the police department and a few miles down the road from where the shooting happened. One of the co-owners, Jerome Jenkins, was wiping down the counter when I walked in.

Jerome Jenkins

Hey, how you been?

Jelani Cobb

How you doing? How you doing?

Jerome Jenkins

You been doing good?

Jelani Cobb

Yeah, just I didn't know if you were gonna remember me.

Jerome Jenkins

Of course. How would I forget?

Jelani Cobb

You came at a never-forgetful time in our lives, Jerome said.

Jerome Jenkins

--a never-forgetful time in our life.

Jelani Cobb

Yeah, that's true.

Just then, his wife, the Cathy in Cathy's Kitchen, came over.

Jerome Jenkins

There's Miss Cathy.

Jelani Cobb

How are you doing?

Cathy

How you doing?

Jelani Cobb

How are you doing?

Cathy

Good to see you. How you been?

Jelani Cobb

Good to see you. Good, good.

Cathy

Pleasure, pleasure. How are you?

Jelani Cobb

The place has a vintage feel-- a long bar with leather and chrome stools and a checkerboard tile pattern on the floor. It didn't surprise me when Jerome said that customers sometimes discuss whether they think the deaths are connected. He suspects they are.

Jerome Jenkins

It's hard to say it's a coincidence. And it doesn't seem like there's a big investigation into it. At this point, to me, it seems like, you know, raised eyebrows. And--

Jelani Cobb

Raised eyebrows. Almost all the people we talked to who gave credence to the conspiracy used that phrase. It's perfect, because it doesn't commit you to tinfoil-hat-level conspiracy. But it does point you in the direction of something being afoot.

Jerome Jenkins

You got a suicide. You got a burning in a car. You got a homicide. You have all these strange things coming from one thing that all these people have in common, you know? You know, they're all people that are activists, that are standing up, you know, trying to say, hey, we want to make this better. We want this. And they all are dying in some weird form.

Cathy

Just doesn't add up.

Jerome Jenkins

To me--

Jelani Cobb

But do you think, is it something that's coordinated? Is it the fact that we have, like, homicide rates that are terrible in many of the cities? Like, how do we distinguish between those two?

Jerome Jenkins

I understand our community. I understand our suicide, homicide. I understand those rates. But let's look at it a different way. If five African-Americans die in the NBA, and they all have one thing in common, they all play for the Lakers, it would be an investigation. It would be, because you had this one thing in common, we would all go, it's too many.

And these are people-- don't live that far from each other. That's a large number. So that's what makes it enter into the world of--

Jelani Cobb

It raises an eyebrow, uh-huh.

Jerome Jenkins

It raises an eyebrow, you know?

Jelani Cobb

Uh-huh.

Here are the six deaths that raise suspicions in and around Ferguson. In September of 2016, Darren Seals, a very visible activist in Ferguson, was found shot in the head inside a burning vehicle. He was 29, outspoken, and had mentioned he was being harassed by police in the months before his death.

Pictures from the murder scene went up on Twitter shortly afterward, apparently showing that after police investigated, there were still bullet casings littering the parking lot. The suggestion was that police were incompetent and possibly even complicit in Seals' death.

One person replied, "You better believe those KKKops were involved." The word "KKKops" is spelled with three Ks. A spokesman for the St. Louis County Police Department says all evidence pertinent to the case was processed.

Two years earlier, Deandre Joshua, 20 years old, was reportedly found the same way, inside a burnt-out vehicle, with a gunshot wound to the head. Joshua was friends with someone who'd witnessed Michael Brown's shooting. And his death is also often linked to the death of Shawn Gray, a 23-year-old who disappeared that same week and was later found drowned in a branch of the Mississippi River.

The rumor was that they'd both been killed for testifying before the grand jury in Michael Brown's case. But the list of grand jury witnesses has never been released. And with both men, their friends and family insist that they had nothing to do with the case. The county prosecutor confirmed that Joshua had not been a witness.

And then there's Edward Crawford, possibly the most visible person associated with the protests. You may have seen a famous photo of him wearing an American flag t-shirt and hurling a tear gas canister back in the direction of police. In 2017, he died from a gunshot wound while sitting in a vehicle with two women, one of whom was his sister. Police concluded it was a suicide. Crawford's father thinks it was an accident. Crawford was 27.

The most recent death that's gotten a lot of attention is that of Danye Jones. Last year, Jones was found hanging from a tree in his backyard. He was 24. Police have investigated Jones' death as a suicide, too. But Danye's mother, Melissa McKinnies, had been prominent in organizing the protests. She believes he was lynched to send her a message.

She says she found his packed bag nearby, suggesting he was going somewhere with someone he trusted. Also, she said the sheet he was hanging from didn't come from the house. And he didn't know how to tie those particular knots.

The deaths have become something of a set piece, not simply in the minds of people who live in the area, but in the media as well. You'll see headlines like "Ferguson, Missouri Activists Are Dying, And It's Time to Ask Questions" and "Are Ferguson Protesters Being Killed?"

People in those articles and in our interviews and online have pondered all kinds of possible culprits, from white supremacists, to local and federal law enforcement, to armed militia members who were seen standing on the tops of buildings during the protests. The articles didn't come to any conclusions or investigate the deaths. And you're not going to hear me do that either.

But I was interested in the narrative that had attached itself to those deaths and what it could tell me about how people were processing what was happening around them. I talked with five people who believed the conspiracy to some degree, including Jerome and Cathy Jenkins at the restaurant. And again, nobody I talked to went full "NASA faked the moon landing" conspiratorial.

But what you did get were clusters of suspicion, brushfires of doubt about the official narratives of what was happening around them. The conspiracy wasn't present in the words they spoke. It was tucked into the ellipses between them.

The sixth thing that tends to come up in these discussions is Bassem Masri. He was a Palestinian-American activist and close to many of the organizers in Ferguson. He died of an apparent heart attack aboard a city bus.

A 31 year old dying of a heart attack is the kind of thing that might raise suspicions, and yes, eyebrows, even outside the context of other people dying in quick succession, except we got a copy of the medical examiner's report. And while, yes, Masri was in cardiac arrest when he got to the hospital, the official cause of death was a fentanyl overdose. He had struggled with heroin addiction prior to this and was open about it.

And there are other ways in which the conspiracy narrative doesn't hold up. St. Louis proper has one of the most alarming homicide rates in the country. In 2017, it was the most alarming, having the highest murder rate, according to an analysis of FBI data. By comparison, Chicago was number nine. So lots of people get shot in St. Louis.

Also, neither Deandre Joshua nor Shawn Gray was an activist. And even if they did testify before the grand jury, Joshua and Gray were both found dead after the decision not to indict Officer Wilson, meaning they'd have been killed for testimony that had not even convinced a grand jury to issue an indictment

I talked about all of this with Ashley Yates, a prominent figure in the Ferguson protests. Of all the people I spoke with for this story, she most epitomized the equivocal belief in the idea of a conspiracy, parsing the difference between what is provable and what is likely.

Ashley Yates

Can I say that right now, in this moment, there is a conspiracy against activists? No, because again, I don't have the hard, concrete evidence. Can I say that it is likely? When I take into account my experiences, the experiences of people around me and those before, absolutely.

Jelani Cobb

Even at the same time, I wonder if it's possible, with Mr. Joshua and Mr. Gray, if they're-- it's possible, do you think that there really is a conspiracy, but they're just not part of it?

Ashley Yates

I mean, anything's possible. Again, I don't have-- you know, I don't have thorough investigations. I don't have the answers. I didn't murder them. I wasn't there, you know?

So only the people that were there can tell us completely what happened. So of course, it's possible that there is a conspiracy and that they're not a part. It's possible that there isn't a conspiracy, and all of these deaths are unrelated. Like, again, I hold all possibilities. And I try to go towards the most likely one.

Jelani Cobb

Mm-hm.

Ashley Yates

But I'd say that to-- to say that there is something normal about a person being shot and found in a burned-out car one time, let alone two, three times-- you know, I don't want to accept that and say that that's just a likely outcome for anybody.

Jelani Cobb

And I should say, technically, it wasn't the outcome for Deandre Joshua. I only learned this after talking to Ashley and the others. But according to the St. Louis County Medical Examiner's Office, Joshua was not found in a burned-out car the way everyone thinks. His body was partly burned, but the car was not.

This may sound like a small point, except the supposed similarity between Darren Seals' death and Deandre Joshua's death is a load-bearing pillar in the structure of the conspiracy. And it wasn't just spread word of mouth. It's been widely reported in the media as fact. Though, of course, even though it's not true, the deaths could still be connected.

Jelani Cobb

Do you have ideas about who might be responsible for the-- for these deaths?

Ashley Yates

Other than, like, the government and the police?

Jelani Cobb

I understood why someone could suspect the police. I've covered a lot of protests over the years. But the cops in and around Ferguson were notably casual about violence.

I saw an officer point an assault weapon mounted on a tripod at a group of demonstrators that included elderly people and small children. Before another demonstration, one that I didn't cover, one cop texted another, quote, "It's going to be a lot of fun beating the hell out of these shitheads once the sun goes down and nobody can tell us apart." He was later charged with assaulting a protester, who was actually an undercover cop.

When This American Life reached out to the St. Louis County Police Department for comment, the spokesman emailed back saying that there were roughly 52 police departments in the St. Louis area, which employ about 2,700 officers, essentially saying that you can't categorize all of them the same way. And he said the officer with the assault weapon on a tripod was trying to locate an SUV that reportedly had several assault weapons in it and that the people in the vehicle were threatening to kill law enforcement.

But there's a broader context to this conversation. When I taught African-American history courses, I'd often begin with a series of questions. What if I told you that a person was killed in front of hundreds of witnesses, but no one raised a finger to stop it or even report it?

And what if I told you that crowd viewed the murder as entertainment and packed lunches to watch the spectacle? And what if they ritually cut body parts from the deceased to keep as souvenirs? And that this happened not dozens or hundreds of times, but thousands?

Each question is like plotting a point on a probability graph. And the likelihood of all of them happening together seems vanishingly small. But all this really happened.

Talking to people in Ferguson, the history of outlandish truths, like the Tuskegee experiment, in which physicians in Alabama failed to treat a group of black men infected with syphilis, essentially to see what would happen, or the FBI's counterintelligence program, which surveilled and harassed black leaders in the 1960s, none of this was ever far from the surface. How do you sift between plausible and paranoid when the past looks like this?

As Ashley Yates told me, it would be ahistorical for her not to think that there's something larger at play, something coordinated. Apart from that history, though, there are much more personal reasons that some people in Ferguson suspect a conspiracy. Those people who believe someone wants to kill them-- they've been regularly getting messages from people who apparently want to kill them.

Everyone I spoke with still receives death threats or some sort of hate-filled communication more than four years after Michael Brown's death. Jerome Jenkins of Cathy's Kitchen showed me a fake ticket someone mailed him offering free passage back to Africa. In 2017, Reverend Darryl Gray, who's been involved in social justice efforts in Ferguson, learned of a suspicious package left on the floor of his locked rental truck. It contained a live 6-foot-long python. There were no arrests made in the case.

I also spoke with an activist named Ohun Ashe about what's been going on. She told me she's always hypervigilant these days moving around in St. Louis. She says the people threatening her are not subtle about it.

Ohun Ashe

I have been told that they want to slit my throat and throw me in the Mississippi River. I have read that one several times, that--

Jelani Cobb

On social media?

Ohun Ashe

Yes. I have read on social media as well that back in the '60s, they would have just threw us in the Mississippi River by now.

Jelani Cobb

Ohun's a small woman, but stands out in a crowd. She wears her hair in braids that go past her shoulders and shirts with slogans like "black men smile too" and "black girls are the purest form of art."

Ohun Ashe

I've been followed by white vans. I have had letters that said that I was an atrocity to the city, I deserve to be dealt with, that they want to silence me for good. So when you have a list of names of people who are known, and they are dying in this mysterious way, as an activist or as a person that people deem active, you wonder, are you next?

You wonder, who really is around me? You wonder, am I crazy for thinking that, why is this car parked outside at the same time every day? Or who is this new person that's on the block that I didn't recognize before?

Jelani Cobb

I noticed something else when I started talking to people in Ferguson again. Many of the people I met when I first went there no longer live there. Ashley Yates told me she left St. Louis partly because she needed to heal. And another activist told me she moved to Washington, DC after getting what she took to be credible threats on her life. That sense of alarm is clearly what the people making death threats are after. Whether there's an actual conspiracy or not, there are certainly people who want the activists to believe there's one.

Of all the activists I spoke to about the conspiracy, there was one whose position wasn't ambivalent at all-- a rapper named Tef Poe. When I arrived in Ferguson four years ago, person after person directed me to Tef, saying he was the guy to talk to if I really wanted to understand what was going on there.

In the years since Michael Brown's death, he's become a more prominent voice nationally. He's currently a fellow at Harvard University. We did a panel there together. Anyhow, his perspective on the idea of a conspiracy was a little different.

Tef Poe

The conspiracy theory, to me, is some unicorn stuff.

Jelani Cobb

Meaning he doesn't believe it. Bassem, the Palestinian activist who died on the bus, had formerly been Tef's roommate. And Danye Jones, who was found hanging in his backyard, was Tef's cousin. He knew Darren Seals, one of the activists shot in a car, just not through activist circles.

Tef Poe

--we never know what could happen.

Jelani Cobb

That soft clinking you might hear as he's talking-- Tef wears a necklace with three charms that spell out the name "Allah" in Arabic.

Tef Poe

So I can't connect what happened to Seals with what happened to Bassem. I can't connect what happened to Danye with what happened to Bassem. I have to look at each situation for what it is.

And somebody like Darren wasn't an activist. He was-- I would consider him a street revolutionary. So his constituency is a lot deeper than just folks who are going to go to the next rally. We're talking about from rival rappers to people who didn't like-- don't like the fact that he survived his original shooting and so forth.

Jelani Cobb

And so he'd been shot prior to the time that was fatal.

Tef Poe

Yeah, and he survived. Yeah, yeah.

Jelani Cobb

That shooting had nothing to do with the protests or Michael Brown. It was street stuff.

Tef Poe

We live in a city where guns are everywhere. Violence is at large in our city. And I think a lot of people that seek to add a conspiracy to it aren't really living in the circumstances where they have to see the violence and interact with the violence. So they have to create a Puff the Magic Dragon theory about what happened.

Jelani Cobb

And is that really true, though? I mean, from the very point of, like, Ferguson, or St. Louis, or Chicago, Gary, Philadelphia, New York, any of the cities we talk about, nobody who lives in a black community is really isolated from violence. It's one of those things that can happen to anyone, anywhere.

Tef Poe

That's true. That's true. And I do agree with that. But while it does affect everyone, all of us don't have the same experience.

Jelani Cobb

Mm-hm.

Tef Poe

I'm talking about the reality of the stone-cold streets. And a lot of the individuals-- for example, my friend, Bassem, who I loved dearly, a brother of mine-- I helped bury him when he passed away. I know-- and I can say this because Bass is like blood to me-- we refuse to attach a conspiracy theory narrative to Bassem's death.

When he passed away, people said, well, what happened? Well, what happened was, he was still in the ghetto. Like, this is the reality of the circumstances. And I'm pissed off about the fact that I keep having to bury people. And people are acting like Santa Claus is coming down here killing folks.

So like, if I walked outside the studio right now, and somebody shoots me, it's going to be all over the internet. Another Ferguson activist killed, another da-da-da-da-da, avoiding the fact that I come from a family of gangbangers, avoiding the fact that prior to this, I had some enemies.

Jelani Cobb

And you mean enemies who are not connected to your work as an activist.

Tef Poe

As an activist, yeah, yeah.

Jelani Cobb

It didn't surprise me when Tef pointed out that he keeps a firearm nearby when he's back home. Missouri is an open carry state. I also asked him about the militia group who stood on the roofs with guns during the protests. I wondered what Tef thought about the idea that they might be involved in the conspiracy. He laughed at that. They had their guns, he said. But so did a lot of his friends.

Tef Poe

And that's where I'm going with this. This is not a city of sitting ducks, where, like-- like, if this was going down, like, the conspiracy aspect of this was really, truly a thing on that level, I just believe that a lot of us would be rocking out a hell of a lot different, man.

Jelani Cobb

Mm-hm, mm-hm.

Tef Poe

I mean, y'all saw Ferguson, man. I mean--

[LAUGHS]

They don't have to send a firing squad into the apartment to kill you. Now, all they gotta do is leave you in North St. Louis to die. And that serves the same purpose. You're silenced and ostracized from the rest of the world. You're shadow banned on Twitter.

And you're still there with the killers, thieves, dealers, and the rapists, and the murderers. And the odds are that you will be a victim of that same fate. I mean, for me, that is where the conspiracy comes into play here. It's not with the boogie man that's going to get me when I leave from this interview.

Jelani Cobb

This brings me back to something that had begun rattling around in my mind when I first started talking to people in Ferguson again. What do we actually mean by the word "conspiracy"? Need it be hatched in a dark room hazy with cigar smoke? Or can it be the slow accretion of small decisions, each of which makes life a little bit more difficult, a little bit more dangerous, and opportunities that much more scarce?

The problems Tef talked about exist to some degree or another in thousands of communities across the country, most of them far from the site of protests about an unarmed black 18-year-old fatally shot by a white police officer. Conspiracy theories typically explain actions that have been taken. But what kinds of theories explain the failure to act?

Those are the questions that the skeptical journalist in me raises. The numbers fluctuate. But maybe 70% of me dismisses the idea of the deaths being orchestrated by a single individual or group. But there's another part of me, the 30% part, that remembers when I first went to Ferguson and thought, I have no idea what the people on the other side of these protests are capable of.

Skepticism is fundamental to journalism. But it only works if you can recognize the times when you need to be skeptical of your skepticism, too.

Ira Glass

Jelani Cobb-- he's a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine. Coming up, a guy who believes in conspiracies follows him closely and then decides to sign up. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio when our program continues.

Act Two: The Red Menace Hits the Crimson Tide

Ira Glass

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Today's program, "Anything Can Be Anything." In this very conspiracy-minded moment in our country, where even the President of the United States is spreading conspiracy theories, like, all the time, we have stories of people who see the dots and can't help but connect the dots and then have to figure out what to do with their conclusions. We have arrived at Act Two of our program. Act Two-- The Red Menace Hits the Crimson Tide.

So now, we turn to a guy who is upset about the conspiracies to tamper with the US elections in 2016, the stuff the Russians did. He was outraged about that. But he had a strange way of dealing with it. He decided, I'm going to try that myself in a big political race in 2017 and one of the reddest states in the country, Alabama. Ben Calhoun tells us what happened.

Ben Calhoun

I met up with Matt Osborne outside his parents' house in a place called Florence, Alabama. It's this beautiful little city in the northern part of the state.

Matt Osborne

Now, this street that my folks live on--

Ben Calhoun

It was on this street, Matt told me, 2017, he steps out of his parents' house. He looked one way, looked the other. Whoa.

Matt Osborne

Every house up the street to the corner had a Doug Jones sign.

Ben Calhoun

At the time, remember, Doug Jones was a Democratic candidate for US Senate in Alabama. Matt was seeing Jones lawn signs up and down his parents' street, where usually, Matt says, people have signs for Republicans.

Matt Osborne

Folks who would ordinarily have been attracted to voting for a conservative, who were willing to vote for Doug Jones, are enthusiastic about voting for Doug Jones. And that told me it was possible for him to win.

Ben Calhoun

Were you-- were you expecting that at all?

Matt Osborne

I was floored by it, to be quite frank. I had never seen anything like that for a Democrat, not since I was a kid, not since George Wallace's last run for governor.

Ben Calhoun

If you're a Democrat, you know you're in trouble when the last big success story you can remember is the man who said, "Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever." But so back to all these Jones lawn signs. Matt was excited, because Matt was a bitter and disaffected Democrat in one of the reddest parts of one of the reddest states.

2016 sent a lot of Democrats over the edge, of course. And Matt was among them. Matt obviously knew Trump would win Alabama. But he'd gotten pretty obsessed with the dirty tricks he saw online during that election.

In the 2000s, he'd started writing about shady political tactics he'd spotted on the internet. He wrote about that for sites like Huff Post and Crooks and Liars. Matt actually has an investigator's background-- five years in radio intelligence with the army, after that, a few years as a private eye.

Matt was onto some stuff kind of early. Like, he was talking about Twitter bots as early as 2010, writing about Cambridge Analytica two years before most of us had heard of it. So Matt was paying close attention in the 2016 election when he started seeing what he thought were shifty tactics being deployed to help Donald Trump-- accounts that look fake on Twitter and Facebook, doing things like stoking divisions between Sanders Democrats and Clinton Democrats.

Ben Calhoun

And like, how did you see that?

Matt Osborne

You know, if you get into a rabid debate with somebody who's just, you know, Bernie, Bernie, I'll never vote for Hillary, you know, start looking at their profile. And you say, that-- that doesn't look right.

Ben Calhoun

This Twitter handle doesn't look right, because it's got 12 random numbers in it. So it seems like a computer-generated account. Or this person looks weird, because they've tweeted 1,000 times, but they haven't put up a profile picture. That was a lot of it. Who is this weird profile? Who are the administrators of this suspicious Facebook page?

Matt Osborne

Who are the admins of this mysterious page that's got all this anti-Hillary Clinton propaganda? Click on the Admin. So I'm looking at a profile now that is striking me right away as fake. All right, it's got 25 friends, who appear to be real people. And none of them are related to each other.

Ben Calhoun

When you were having that experience, what was the feeling that you had? Like, outrage, anger? Was it irritation? Was it worry?

Matt Osborne

Deep foreboding. Deep foreboding, deep foreboding. And the closer we got to the election, the more I felt like something was wrong.

Ben Calhoun

We've all heard about what was wrong now. It's confirmed-- the Russian meddling and propaganda, phony accounts designed to sow divisions among Americans and demoralize voters. Matt had had it. For him, from what I can tell, 2016 was like a tipping point of bitterness.

Matt's bitterness had been piling up for years. Like, he remembers kids in grade school talking about how they were for the Confederacy, which Matt could not understand.

Matt Osborne

And I'll never forget the kid next to me who was talking the most about it. When I saw him again, when I got out of the Army in 1999, and I came home, I ran into him at Walmart. And in the first 60 seconds of our conversation, he was telling me how much he hated immigrants. So I guess maybe part of my problem is that my values have always contradicted the place where I was.

Ben Calhoun

So imagine Matt after he left the Army with an injury. He's on partial disability, in chronic pain, searching for direction, spending a lot of time reading the internet and writing about Democratic politics. He's like a blue dot in a red ocean.

Matt describes the last 10 years of his life as him being "radicalized." That was his word. And that is where Matt's head was when Alabama's 2017 Senate election suddenly burst into the center ring of American politics.

Reporter 1

We begin tonight with the Alabama Senate race, where--

Ben Calhoun

Quick refresher. You'll probably remember this. This was a special election to fill the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Sessions, who'd left to be attorney general. On one side, the Democrat, Doug Jones, an uncle-ish looking former prosecutor, and his opponent, Republican Roy Moore, a Bible-quoting former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.

The race was not supposed to be competitive, until it was. Remember, nine women came forward to accuse Roy Moore of a combination of sexual misconduct and molestation for things he allegedly did when they were young, some underage, as young as 14. Moore denied those allegations. But there was lots of reporting, including accounts of how Moore was allegedly such a creep, he got banned from the local mall.

It wasn't enough to knock Moore out of contention, though. Alabama is just so red that people were saying things like this on conservative talk radio in Birmingham.

Reporter 2

What we're getting is, Alabamians would vote for a pedophile over a liberal Democrat.

Man

In this circumstance, yes.

Reporter 2

OK. You're just saying it flat out, then.

Man

Yep, absolutely.

Ben Calhoun

It got uglier and uglier. As the allegations against Moore piled up, Breitbart dispatched two reporters with the mission of discrediting the women making the allegations. It turned into a morass of character attacks and aspersions, including fake news stories targeting Moore's accusers.

And a disaffected, angry Matt Osborne, still stewing over 2016, wanted in super badly, which is how Matt went from despising the sleazy online tactics of 2016, utterly opposing them, to using them for his side. And the moment that tipped him from one side to the other-- it happened on the phone. September-- this was two months before the election-- Matt was talking to a DC political operative he knows. The plan was just, let's brainstorm a bunch of ideas, anything to help Doug Jones.

Matt Osborne

We are talking on the phone. And it's sort of a blue sky discussion.

Ben Calhoun

So the two of them start throwing stuff out, from regular ideas to pretty far-out ideas, the kind that start with, what if?

Matt Osborne

What if, on election day, you had events in neighboring states that might draw some people from Alabama? Like, you could advertise heavily in Alabama to draw potential Roy Moore voters out of the state on election day.

Ben Calhoun

So those are the kind of ideas that are getting kicked around.

Matt Osborne

Right. These are just crazy ideas getting kicked around.

Ben Calhoun

And then, suddenly, Matt says, he's throwing out an idea that he hadn't even considered before the moment it was coming out of his mouth. He tells the person on the phone, Alabama Republicans, like both national parties, they're split, right? Internally divided.

You've got a more centrist wing. And you've got a more radical wing. So what if, Matt hypothesized, what if we could pose as Republicans online with fake identities, and we could do things to aggravate that divide, make Alabama Republicans feel icky about each other, and try to suppress Republican votes?

In other words, Matt proposed a conspiracy-- the kind of conspiracy Russians are accused of running in 2016, right? Put out misinformation and disinformation under phony identities to stoke divisions among your opponents. You've probably heard of these referred to as false flag operations.

Matt Osborne

And that's the one that people want to know about. Like, why don't you write that up and share it with me? So I wrote a little paper.

Ben Calhoun

Matt then transformed his rough idea into a detailed plan. He drafted a memo, one this operative could take to Democratic donors to see if anyone might fund it. Matt's idea to divide Alabama Republicans was to divide the religious right Republicans from the more moderate Republicans.

Roy Moore had always been closely tied to the extra-religious, conservative wing of his party. In fact, his political operation depended heavily on Alabama's extensive network of Baptist pastors.

Matt Osborne

That pastor network is the backbone of his get-out-the-vote machine. On Wednesday nights, Sundays, that's when the Roy Moore pastors push their flock to go vote for Roy Moore. That's how it works down here.

Ben Calhoun

Baptists, as Matt wrote, are the largest denomination in the state, over 40% of the population. But--

Matt Osborne

Although Baptists are the largest single denomination in Alabama, they are by no means a majority, all right? So what they are is a very vocal minority.

Ben Calhoun

And, Matt wrote in his memo, the wedge issue to split the Baptists from the more moderate Republicans-- prohibition. I know. You're like, prohibition? Against alcohol? Didn't we settle that like 100 years ago?

But hang on, because Alabama actually has a long history of restrictive alcohol laws. Like, of the 30 counties that make up the northern half of Alabama, 19 counties are dry. Roy Moore's Baptist allies have been all, heck yeah, keep it that way. Get behind me, Satan, to which mainstream Republicans have responded, um, no. Matt says, suburban and business-wing-type Republicans have often favored looser alcohol laws.

Matt Osborne

The business wing of the Republican Party in Alabama was never enthusiastic about Roy Moore in the first place, all right? If you can get the sort of business-wing Republicans, if you can get the suburban Republican who votes Republican, but he likes to drink his beer on Saturdays while he's watching the football game-- if you can get him to identify Roy Moore with prohibition and moralistic screed-type activity, then they will be less likely to vote for him.

What we want is for people to say, gosh, Roy Moore is nuts. Roy Moore's followers are nuts, you know? These people who are in my party-- you know, I share a party with them, but they're nuts.

Ben Calhoun

There's one more thing to just feel a little less excited about.

Matt Osborne

Exactly.

Ben Calhoun

And exactly what the Russians purportedly did to Democrats in 2016-- stoke their internal divisions to make them feel less motivated. Matt's version of that was to create fake groups on social media. One would be named The Southern Caller. The other, Dry Alabama. They'd act like prohibitionist cultural conservatives, enthusiastic about Roy Moore, and hope that they could bum out mainstream Republicans.

Matt Osborne

You can mirror the activity of 2016 in this sense. All the Russian activity, you can mirror it if you get Republicans arguing with each other. The more they argue with each other, and the more Republicans see other Republicans arguing with each other, the less likely they are to vote.

Ben Calhoun

When you pitched the idea of Dry Alabama, was there any part of you that had any apprehensions about sort of deploying that kind of strategy?

Matt Osborne

You know, by that time, I had already made up my mind. Like, I'm ready to pull out all the stops. I had made up my mind already that I was willing to create content under a false flag, if you will. I was willing to trick Republicans into not voting. That was fine with me.

Ben Calhoun

Matt says, when he sent off his memo, he wasn't sure if people would want to fund his plan. He was, after all, in the party that had been waving around Michelle Obama's slogan-- when they go low, we go high-- and using that to attack Republicans. And for a while, Matt heard nothing-- for weeks-- so long that he figured no one wanted to fund his dirty tricks.

Matt Osborne

I was sitting in my living room. What was I watching? I don't remember. I was watching TV. And my phone rang. And I'm told, hey, we got money.

Ben Calhoun

It was the Democratic operative in DC. "We got money" meant some donors had decided to fund Matt's proposal. Matt's reaction?

Matt Osborne

Bam.

Ben Calhoun

No kidding. This is for real?

Matt Osborne

Oh, wow. This is real. This is-- this is happening. OK, cool.

Ben Calhoun

The donors put up $100,000. Part of that would pay for a team of people to create these fake conservative groups. The rest of the money, most of it, would pay for ads on Facebook to shove what they made into the social media feeds of Alabama Republicans.

At this point, there were only 17 days left before the election. So they had to go fast. Work started immediately-- bogus email addresses, fake logos. The team doing this, I should say-- sort of fascinatingly tiny-- just two people in DC and then Matt in Alabama.

One of the people in DC, Matt says, was sort of doing oversight, not even super involved. The other person in DC created tweets and memes. Matt did the Facebook posts and the videos.

The whole group was so small. It kind of makes you realize, you don't need a building full of people to do this kind of thing. It can be a conspiracy of just two or three.

Matt, as an Alabama native, was kind of the person who the group turned to make the con seem authentic. Hey, Matt, how would people say this in Alabama? How would they say that?

Matt Osborne

Hey, Matt, how do you spell "barbecue" in Alabama? What-- we want to come across as authentic. I said, BBQ, or spell it out, barbecue with a C, right? Alabamian instead of Alabaman, that sort of thing.

Ben Calhoun

There were some things that were deemed too much, even by dirty tactic standards. Matt pointed out that something that would inevitably get a ton of engagement would be an AR-15 giveaway. The funder, it turned out, was not OK with a gun giveaway, real or fake. But even if they weren't going to give away an AR-15, there was a lot of room for imagination. Like, Matt recruited a woman he knew.

Matt Osborne

I will just-- for our purposes today, I will call her Sharon.

Ben Calhoun

Matt hired Sharon to do a voiceover on a video that he made for Dry Alabama.

Matt Osborne

She's wonderful. She's as Alabama as they come. She has the perfect accent, right? The kind of middle Alabama, kind of rapid-clip accent with all the right vowel inflections.

Sharon

So at the next tailgate party, instead of drinking and succumbing to evil temptation, try thing amazing, Bama-style, alcohol-free cocktail. Try this moral take on a sinful beverage, a righteous mint julep. Place mint leaves in an old-fashioned glass. Pour in lemon juice and sugar. And mix with a spoon until the sugar's completely dissolved.

Ben Calhoun

This video, just to say, does have the genuine lo-fi feel of those try-this-recipe videos that you see online all the time.

Sharon

Fill the cup with ice and pour sparkling water over the top. Garnish with a sprig of mint. And you've got some smooth as fine cotton. Pledge your support for a Dry Alabama today. And join our crusade for a Dry Alabama.

Ben Calhoun

At one point, talking about all this, Matt said, some of this feels new. But in his mind, it's actually not, really. If you remember, Matt did radio intelligence in the Army.

He told me, one tactic they teach you is something called spoofing. You find the enemy's radio frequency. And then you mimic the voice of the people on it. And you give out bad information.

Then, he read a tweet from Dry Alabama. "Be sober, be vigilant, because your adversary, the devil, as a roaring lion walketh about, seeking whom he may devour." That's from First Peter, Matt told me.

Reporter 3

Doug Jones comes from behind. And now, CNN projects, he will be the next Senator-- first time in 25 years that a Democrat--

Ben Calhoun

More than 1.3 million people voted in the election. Doug Jones defeated Roy Moore by just 22,000 votes. Altogether, $51 million was spent on the race, which unleashed a hurricane of TV ads, armies of canvassers, meaning it's just impossible to gauge what effect Matt's thing had.

Matt's team considered the project a success, though. On a wrap-up call, he was told, with just $100,000, the team's content was seen 4.6 million times, their videos watched hundreds of thousands of times. Everybody was happy with those numbers. But people also felt like the whole thing was a success in the sense that they'd pulled off the fakery without getting caught. That was part of what they were testing.

I'm just going to confess here that I'm somebody who's troubled by the culture of our politics right now. I believe people should feel a societal pressure to win with ideas and inspiration and that playing dirty should be looked down on, because playing dirty, I think, encourages suspicion and cynicism. And that's bad for everybody.

Maybe because of that, when I went to see Matt, I half thought that because he spent so much time outraged about this kind of deceptive and scuzzy politics, that maybe, after having some time to think it over, he'd end up with some kind of buyer's remorse. Like, I drank so much. What did I say?

Ben Calhoun

Doesn't it feel like, especially in-- you know, during the presidency of Donald Trump, that the norms are only the norms if most people adhere to them, you know? Like--

Matt Osborne

Well, what is the norm here? The norm here is that Democrats are supposed to go high and get kicked in the knees. That's the norm. The norm is that Republicans play dirty and win.

Is that the norm that we're supposed to preserve? Because if that's the norm that we're supposed to preserve, let that norm die, I say. Burn it down. Burn it to the ground.

Ben Calhoun

So the core of what I hear you saying is that you don't think that it's something that you can combat by example and just say, we're going to refuse to win that way.

Matt Osborne

Oh, look at me. I have clean hands and clean clothes, and I'm standing above you in a shining light, and I don't have any power. I can't actually make any changes. But don't I look good? And isn't that the important thing?

[LAUGHS]

Ben Calhoun

It sounds so harsh when you put it that way.

Matt Osborne

[LAUGHS]

Ben Calhoun

I'm not about to referee Matt's idea that Republicans play dirtier. What I do think is important is whether these tactics will continue to spread. Over the last few months, there's been excellent reporting about a number of digital strategies tried out by Democrats in this Alabama race in addition to Matt's.

In one, Democrats created fake Russian bots to make it look like Russians were helping Roy Moore. In another, a company microtargeted voters on social media, sent them messages it claims drove up Democratic turnout by 4% and drove down Republican turnout by over 2%. Senator Doug Jones, I should say, has said he disapproves, knew nothing about this stuff. He's called for an investigation.

From talking to Democratic fundraisers, I can tell you for sure, there's plenty of donors who don't want any part of this kind of thing. But there's definitely a portion, I hear, who say, yeah, it's time. They're ready to throw money at stuff like this.

Matt says, he thinks, when it comes to these kind of dirty tactics, the situation is going to have to get worse before it gets better, because in our gridlocked system, you won't get regulations against this stuff until both parties are fed up with it, which, that sounds like a real bummer to me. But I have to admit, there's a logic to that.

For his part, Matt's not going to stop, at least if someone will pay for him to keep doing things like this. If you want to see the memo that led to his misinformation campaign, you can go read it yourself these days. Matt's posted it on his LinkedIn profile. He wants to get hired to do more stuff just like this.

Ira Glass

Ben Calhoun is one of the producers of our show.

Credits

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Dana Chivvis. The people who put a show together includes Elna Baker, Ben Calhoun, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Aviva DeKornfeld, Jarrett Floyd, Damien Graef, Seth Lind, Lina Misitzis, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Alissa Ship, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is David Kestenbaum.

Special thanks today to Eddie Hedge, Kenneth Anderson, Steve Kolowich, Jesse Walker, Katherine Mangu-Ward, Melissa Ryan, Joe Stokes, Brian McCabe, Sarah Koenig, Joseph Parent, Peter Mondo, Whitney Phillips, the St. Louis County Police Department, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department, the St. Louis County Medical Examiner's Office, John Larson at St. Louis Public Radio, and Missouri State Representative Maria Chappelle-Nadal.

Our website, thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our archive of over 600 episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Special thanks as always to our program's cofounder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he bought an obedience book for his dog. I don't think he knows how to use it. He just basically put the book on the ground next to her and told her--

Paula

There you go. You read that, girl.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.