Conspiracy theory fast-tracks its way into President Trump’s Twitter feed

Outlandish claims spread at Trump resort event made their way to the president’s Twitter feed in less than 48 hours

U.S. President Donald Trump taps the screen on a mobile phone at the White House, June 18, 2020. (Source: REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo)

Outlandish claims about the 2012 Benghazi attack and Osama Bin Laden still being alive traveled from a conference at one of President Donald Trump’s golf resorts to the president’s personal Twitter feed in less than 48 hours with the help of conspiracy-driven extremist online communities, a DFRLab analysis has found.

Trump retweeted an apparent supporter of the convoluted conspiracy theory on Tuesday. The author of the tweet, who has since been suspended by Twitter, posted a link to an article published on DJHJ Media, a blog helmed by conservative commentator David J. Harris Jr. Because of the author’s suspension, the tweet no longer appears in the president’s Twitter feed, but was preserved as a screenshot by journalists and others online.

https://twitter.com/oneunderscore__/status/1316135939455021059/photo/1

As The Daily Beast reported, the article contained spurious allegations of Americans being killed in Benghazi to cover up the death of Navy SEALs and asserted that the Obama administration killed an Osama Bin Laden body double rather than the real terrorist himself. According to DJHJ Media’s own on-site metrics display, the article had been viewed more than 373,000 times at the time of publication. According to social media data collected using the analytics tool BuzzSumo, links to the article have been shared on Facebook nearly 56,700 times to date.

The conspiracy theory in the DJHJ Media article were first introduced to the public on October 11, 2020, when conservative personality Nick Noe and parent of a slain Navy SEAL Charles Woods spoke at the American Priority Conference, a gathering of Trump supporters at the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort. The event where Noe and Woods shared their claims matters: among the crowd and sharing the stage with the pair was a who’s who of pro-Trump social media disinformers and notable conspiracy theorists, many of whom have accumulated large online audiences and have worked together to amplify pro-Trump content in digital venues. Among those attendees was former “Survivor” contestant Anna Khait, who acted as a crucial vector for the claims’ virility.

The day following the event, Khait uploaded videos of the stage presentation and an additional interview with Noe to Twitter and YouTube. CrowdTangle analysis shows that prior to Trump’s spread of the claims on Twitter, links to Khait’s videos were circulated among users of several public pro-Trump Facebook groups and conservative Facebook pages. Links to videos of Noe and Woods’ conversation were posted dozens of times to TheDonald.Win, a spin-off of Reddit’s since-banned pro-Trump forum.

Threads posted by users on TheDonald.win link to videos containing Noe and Woods’ latest Benghazi claims prior to the president’s retweet of a story containing the same information. (Source: TheDonald.win)

Users of 4chan’s /pol forum board shared the videos as the subjects of at least seven highly-engaged-with threads prior to the president’s retweet, according to discussion archives. Copies of videos containing Noe and Woods’ claims were shared on dozens of conspiracy theory YouTube channels, where they collectively accumulated hundreds of thousands of views.

On Monday, Khait appeared on the YouTube channel The Next News Network to discuss the videos she had shared, and to promise that evidence supporting the claims would soon be revealed. Her interview with the channel had received more than 2,900,000 views at the time of publication, and CrowdTangle analysis shows it was shared among pro-Trump and conservative Facebook groups.

On Twitter, users deployed several hashtags to amplify the videos, including prominently #SealTeam6. According to analysis conducted using the monitoring tool Meltwater Explore, the hashtag experienced a 73,695% increase in use the week of the conspiracy theory claims compared to the week prior. Additionally, Meltwater analysis found that mentions of Benghazi online spiked sharply in the days following Noe and Woods’ presentation and peaked on the day that Trump retweeted the DJHJ Media article.

Meltwater analytics show a spike in mentions of Benghazi in the days before and after the president boosted a falconer’s bizarre claims about the 2012 incident. (Source: DFRLab/Meltwater)

BuzzSumo identified a pro-QAnon Twitter account with more than 87,000 Twitter followers as a top sharer of the DJHJ Media story on Twitter. Additionally, Khait’s video clip was also shared by a suspected false persona operated by an Iranian opposition group on Twitter. That Twitter thread was subsequently retweeted more than 11,000 times.

It remains unclear how exactly President Trump came across the QAnon supporter’s link to the DJHJ Media story.


Jared Holt is Visiting Research Fellow with the Digital Forensic Research Lab.

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.