This is the life of a lie.
Three weeks ago, a caravan of Hondurans began walking nearly 2,000 miles to the United States. Their ranks grew as they inched north and, along with them, falsehoods grew, too. But one stands out: a conspiracy theory that liberal billionaire George Soros, a Jewish immigrant, is paying the migrants to make the journey – or even orchestrating it.
Members of Congress and the president’s son both repeated it. Conservative celebrities, too.
It also may have resonated in darker places. Cesar Sayoc, the man charged with mailing pipe bombs to Soros and other prominent critics of President Donald Trump, dwelled at length online about conspiracy theories involving the Hungarian-American philanthropist. Robert Bowers, charged with killing 11 people worshiping in a Pittsburgh synagogue on Saturday, used his social media accounts to post extensively about the caravan, including circulating an image of refugees in Guatemala purportedly climbing into a truck with a Star of David on the side.
But it began with a handful of posts in the caravan’s early days.
One of the first was from a North Carolina writer who goes by the screen name “lorettatheprole.” Loretta Malakie has more than 6,000 followers on Twitter, to whom she directs frequent posts about “white genocide,” Jews and the “invading force” approaching the border.
On Oct. 14, Malakie posted a link to an article about the caravan, with a single word of commentary: “Soros.”
That same day, identical posts appeared over the course of 20 minutes in six pro-Trump Facebook groups. Combined, those six groups had 165,000 members. A user who gave the name Philip Balzano, a Trump supporter from Chicago, wrote to the Trump Train group: “Here Comes ANOTHER Group of Paid for New Demoncratic Voters Just in Time for the Primaries… The Financier aka ‘Win at All Costs’ ‘Never Let a Good Crisis Go to Waste’ the Evil George Soros and His 140+ Orgs, Should Be Classified as Terrorist and Terrorist Orgs.”
Malakie declined to comment, though on Twitter she panned the USA TODAY reporter who called her as “evil.” Balzano did not respond to an interview request sent through Facebook.
The Soros theory was not new – it had made the rounds during previous caravans in the spring and again in August. In fact, one Facebook user posting in October provided as evidence a video of Glenn Beck discussing the spring caravan’s alleged connections to Soros.
This time, though, the theory snowballed, gaining political purchase as the caravan became a flashpoint in the final weeks of a contentious midterm campaign.
“It’s really significant how these memes can go from feverswamp-ish places to be amplified by lawmakers, even the president,” said David Carroll, associate professor at The New School’s Parsons School of Design in New York. “From there, the impact on world events can’t be underestimated.”
Lies, of course, are not new either. But social media can turn a breeze into a hurricane. It carried this falsehood to millions with a few taps on a screen. It also left a distinct trail that makes it possible to follow how lies spread and who told them, a map of their trajectory from the darker corners of the internet to the political mainstream.
USA TODAY followed that path by examining tens of thousands of social media posts on three major mainstream social media sites: Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.
Over the next three days, a few louder social media voices weighed in. By Oct. 16 – four days after the caravan departed – the combined following of accounts mentioning both Soros and the caravan had reached 2 million, still a pebble in the flood tide of social media. (The total includes some duplicates because people follow more than one account.)
On Twitter, someone with the username “LibertyBell1000” warned about 42,000 followers that Soros had “manufactured yet another immigrant caravan ‘crisis.’ ” Another, using the name “WhoWolfe,” asked “Anybody else think Soros and the Dirty Dems are behind this?”
More posts spread across Facebook. Trump supporter Randy Penrod posted in a group called “The Deplorable’s,” with about 186,000 members, “Our stable leader just called out the Soros conspired invasion of new Democrat voters in a tweet just moments ago.”
Tap, tap, tap.
It took just one more day for the theory to reach critical mass, breaking through into widespread public consciousness.
The evening of Oct. 17, a Republican member of Congress posted a video on Twitter of what he said was people in Honduras handing out small sums of money to migrants.
“Soros? US-backed NGOs? Time to investigate the source!” he wrote.
Rep. Matt Gaetz would later concede that he was mistaken about where the video was shot (it was Guatemala). But by then his message had metastasized, spreading far beyond the 153,000 people who follow the north Florida congressman’s tweets.
Conservative commentator Ann Coulter retweeted it to her 2 million followers. So did Sarah Carter, a journalist who’s a frequent guest on Fox News.
Jack Posobiec – a correspondent for conservative cable news television channel One America News Network – got more specific, implying Soros was renting RVs for the migrants.
Posobiec was among the early proponents of “Pizzagate,” a social-media conspiracy that falsely claimed then-candidate Hillary Clinton and other Democrats were running a pedophile sex trafficking ring from the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria. It drew a man with a gun to Comet Pizza, where he intended to rescue the children.
The next day, even more influential voices repeated it.
One was the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., who retweeted Gaetz’s post to his 3.1 million followers. The younger Trump has been actively campaigning for Republicans on television and the campaign trail in the lead up to the midterm elections. A spokesman for Donald Trump Jr. declined to comment.
On Twitter alone, at least 43,000 accounts with a combined 127 million followers carried some message linking Soros to the caravan over those two days; most fanning the conspiracy, a few seeking to knock it down.
On Reddit, where users share and comment on news and memes, the lie exploded. Five posts in The_Donald subreddit tied Soros to the caravan. Within a week, there would be 10 times more. The_Donald has 675,000 members.
Ten days after the caravan began in Honduras, police started intercepting what appeared to be pipe bombs – PVC tubes packed with what the FBI later called “energetic material,” wrapped with tape and attached to a clock – that had been sent to Soros and other prominent critics of President Trump.
By the time police found the first of those bombs in Soros’ mailbox in Westchester County, New York, the lie about his involvement with the caravan had been posted by 20,000 more users on Twitter – to a combined audience of 117 million – and more weighed in on Facebook, Reddit and other sites.
It was like a runaway train. Unstoppable.
Another member of Congress, Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said in a Fox News interview that he couldn’t “help but think that Democrats, perhaps Soros and others, may be funding this thinking it will help them.”
By then, the lie also was at an inflection point. Online, the biggest voices were those debunking it. The day before the bomb was found at Soros’ house, the most prominent people mentioning the theory on Twitter had no longer been conservative commentators but instead New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Chelsea Clinton.
But researchers say repetition is repetition. Even exposing a lie plays a central role in mutating fantasy into fact, or at least a matter of debate. Here, news coverage – including this story – play a significant role.
“The choices reporters and editors make about what to cover and how to cover it play a key part in regulating the amount of oxygen supplied to the falsehoods, antagonisms, and manipulations that threaten to overrun the contemporary media ecosystem,” Syracuse University professor Whitney Phillips wrote in a paper this year on disinformation.
Attention alone can lend credence to the very information critics mean to undermine.
By Oct. 22, posts debunking the theory also emerged. One from Arizona Christian conservative Joshua Feuerstein was among Facebook’s most-viewed videos pushing the Soros-caravan connection. Feuerstein is best known for characterizing Starbucks’ shift to generic red holiday cups as a war on Christmas.
His video purported to show Honduran migrants on a truck. Accompanying text popularized a direct connection not just to Soros, but to the midterms: “They are not coming on foot as CNN #FakeNews says! George Soros is paying for them to show up at the border by mid term elections!”
The video and text drew 137,000 views.
Exactly how far the lie linking Soros to the migrant caravan has traveled is impossible to measure in full. Messages on 4chan and other sites where conspiracies germinate disappear quickly. Gab – a social media site that attracted right-wing figures banished from more mainstream platforms – itself was on the verge of disappearing this week. Even on mainstream sites like Facebook and Instagram, many messages are private.
Still, by the morning of Oct. 27, it had spread to hundreds of millions of users on mainstream social media, and found its way to many more on cable news.
That morning, federal prosecutors allege that trucker Robert Bowers stormed into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and shot 11 worshipers to death. The authorities have offered few details about what might have motivated him to attack, but online Bowers left his own trail of grievance and conspiracy.
Using the handle OneDingo on Twitter, Bowers shared anti-Jewish content and criticized President Trump. Since January, he was a regular on Gab, too, where his bio read: “Jews are the children of Satan.” The image on his Gab account referred to a white supremacist meme. His last message read: “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
And by the next day, he did.
In the aftermath, as the news media rushed to cover the killings and to explain the internet conspiracies that might have precipitated such a massacre – the lie spread anew.