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Conspiracy theories are emerging after the FBI's search of Mar-a-Lago

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Social media platforms lit up with right-wing speculation, militant rhetoric and political fundraising after former President Donald Trump announced that his Mar-a-Lago home had been searched by the FBI. NPR reporter Lisa Hagen has been watching right-wing media and message boards and she joins us now. Hey, Lisa.

LISA HAGEN, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

SUMMERS: So tell me, as you've been watching these channels, what sorts of things have you been noticing?

HAGEN: It's been a lot of very hot talk and sometimes quite violent sounding. But what we saw this week is now a pretty well-established pattern for people who follow this. Like, I talked to Caroline Orr Bueno, a behavioral scientist who studies disinformation at the University of Maryland. She was looking back at social media posts from around when Trump lost the 2020 election or even before that, when Trump was facing early calls for impeachment.

CAROLINE ORR BUENO: That calls for civil war, basically, you could swap out the tweets and barely notice a difference.

HAGEN: Now, she's talking about anonymous posters there. But what she noticed that's different about this week is that elected officials and high-profile media personalities are using the same civil war language she's used to seeing on message boards, the same comparisons of the U.S. government to totalitarian states from history.

SUMMERS: OK. So there is still quite a bit that we do not know about the content of the documents that the FBI was looking for. How is that information vacuum shaping the way that former President Trump supporters are responding?

HAGEN: It gets filled in with storylines and narratives that rely on the worst possible assumptions about the FBI and Justice Department. For example, you know, this is meant to stop Trump from announcing a second run for president. The FBI must be planting evidence - we actually heard that from Trump today - or there are nefarious, deep state connections that the officials involved in issuing the warrant have that are driving this. A lot of this language gets couched.

Former White House adviser Stephen Bannon said, you know, the FBI is the Gestapo, but then backed off right away and said Republicans need to win the midterms, which is quite a weak way to respond if you believe that you're dealing with a Nazi-style secret police. But Bueno says it's a useful rhetorical device.

BUENO: So they kind of get the best of both worlds. They're able to get the message across, but also maintain that element of plausible deniability.

SUMMERS: OK. So conspiracy theories and increasingly violent rhetoric from prominent figures, that stuff seems to draw pro-Trump audiences in. But what are these influencers doing with that attention once they have it?

HAGEN: Right. So these are not just moments to be seen loudly defending the president, but it's time for marketing and branding. Show hosts can sell gold. Politicians, including Trump, are fundraising off this search warrant. They're selling merch. You can get a defund FBI shirt on Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene's online store, for instance.

SUMMERS: All right. So looking forward, Lisa, if the federal government proceeds with legal action against former President Trump, what does that mean? Does all of this online chatter - will it turn into real-world action?

HAGEN: Every step that federal law enforcement takes is going to come with more of this cycle of speculation and self-promotion. And it's important to say the vast majority of the audiences who hear or respond to these things aren't actually going to act on phrases about war or fighting or violence. But when you're talking about audiences of millions of some of these personalities on the media, it only takes a few or one person deciding that this is their moment for violence.

SUMMERS: That is NPR reporter Lisa Hagen. Lisa, thank you for your reporting.

HAGEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lisa Hagen