- An armed man attempted to force his way into an FBI office in Cincinnati, Ohio, on Thursday, the FBI said.
- Far-right corners of the internet almost immediately called the incident staged and a “false flag.”
- An extremism expert said many of the same forums have been calling for violence against the FBI.
Almost immediately after an armed man tried to force his way into an FBI office in Cincinnati, Ohio, and exchanged gunfire with police, the pro-Trump internet gave the incident a familiar conspiracy-theory label: “false flag.”
Social media users on Twitter, Trump’s platform Truth Social, and the pro-Trump forum TheDonald made baseless claims that the standoff was a hoax engineered to make Trump supporters look bad.
But while conspiracy theories are common among the far-right online, an extremism expert said users dismissed the incident as users on the forums have called for “civil war” and violence against FBI agents.
On Thursday, an armed man wearing body armor tried to “breach” an FBI facility in Cincinnati, according to the agency and emergency officials.
The man fled after failing to get in and ultimately wound up in a standoff with cops after “trading shots,” Ohio State Patrol and county emergency officials said. No police or federal agents were injured in the incident.
The attempted breach came just one day after FBI director Christopher Wray denounced threats of violence against FBI officers gaining traction online following the agency’s execution of a search warrant at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property in Florida.
Wray called the threats against the FBI “deplorable and dangerous” in a press conference on Wednesday, following a surge in heated rhetoric from Republican lawmakers outraged over the raid and far-right influencers stoking talk of violent uprising against authorities.
During Thursday’s incident in Cincinnati, those same online forums and sites were filled with users with large followings questioning the veracity of the incident and baselessly claiming it was staged.
A far-right influencer with over 600,000 followers on Trump’s social media app Truth Social wrote, “The false flags have begun” soon after news broke of the incident.
“Good God the FBI / Corporate Media are so f’in predictable,” another Truth Social user wrote to his over 15,000 followers. “Right on cue, a False Flag being conducted in Cincinnati, OH right now and right on cue it’s because of Trump and his supporters ‘rhetoric.'”
In a thread on TheDonald, top comments all called the incident a hoax.
“They staged an attack on themselves to play the victim,” the thread’s top commenter wrote, using a homophobic slur to insult FBI agents.
A host on Alex Jones’ Infowars broadcast also floated ideas of a set-up as the suspects’ stand-off with police continued.
“Whether this gunman is organic or a false flag plant provocateur, the FBI are not the victims,” he said on-air.
Police have not released the identity of the suspect in the attack, and as of early Thursday afternoon officers were still engaged in a standoff with the man.
False flag claims are a popular tool in the far-right’s arsenal: experts
False flag conspiracy theories are often deployed by far-right internet users and influencers to discredit mass shootings or frame situations as government schemes.
People have spread false flag claims about everything from the Capitol riot to the Uvalde and Buffalo mass shootings earlier this year. These accusations, which ignore well-documented facts and readily available evidence, have sometimes gained enough traction that media fact-checkers and public officials have needed to debunk them.
Melissa Ryan, a disinformation and extremism researcher, told Insider it wasn’t surprising to see false flag accusations take root immediately after the FBI incident in Ohio, since this sort of thing has been happening for “years and years.”
The accusations are notable in the Cincinnati incident, however, because many far-right internet users have been openly advocating for violence against the FBI for some time.
“These folks have been calling for civil war, violent terrorism, harassment of the judge who issued the warrant, doxxing FBI agents,” Ryan said. “And then the minute violence against the FBI happens, they’re like, ‘Oh, not it, obviously it was a false flag, they’re trying to make us look bad.'”
The purpose of these false flag accusations, according to Ryan, isn’t necessarily to boost a cohesive alternative narrative, but to stir up confusion and make it difficult for people to figure out what’s happening.
Jared Holt, a Senior Research Manager for the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, previously told Insider that there’s a real-time component to baseless conspiracy theories like false flag accusations, where far-right communities build and reinforce the theories by disseminating them immediately.
“There’s a communal aspect that bonds people who believe in theories like this,” Holt said.