In one of the most truly iconic moments of the 2016 election season, an incident at a Donald Trump rally in Reno, Nevada quickly devolved into violence and online conspiracy fodder with zero evidence in a matter of hours. Trump was rushed off the stage by Secret Service agents after Austyn Crites, an anti-Trump protestor, was falsely accused of having a gun. Crites was apprehended and questioned by agents. Less than a day later, according to the internet, Crites was an alleged operative of the Hillary Clinton campaign for more than five years. The rapid twisting of information and appearance of conspiracies has been a hallmark of this election season, but this one might just take the cake.
Crites, a self-identified Republican, was attending the rally to protest against Trump's policies, which have often been criticized as anything but conservative. At the time of the incident, he was holding a sign that read "Republicans Against Trump." Crites told The Guardian that rally-goers began physically attacking him as soon as he pulled the sign out. "There were people wrenching on my neck so hard they could have strangled me to death. Other people were grabbing at my balls. Other people were kicking me." Then someone yelled that he had a gun.
The Secret Service said in a statement regarding the incident, "Immediately in front of the stage, an unidentified individual shouted 'gun.' Secret Service agents and Reno Police Officers immediately apprehended the subject. Upon a thorough search of the subject and the surrounding area, no weapon was found." Yet shortly after Crites was released and cleared of any legal suspicion, new allegations concerning his motives arose online.
Crites was accused be being a paid operative of the Hillary Clinton campaign, and alleged to be mentioned in her emails on Wikileaks, neither of which seems to be true. Crites posted to Facebook to deny the allegations about his involvement with Clinton, and a search on Wikileaks turns up no substantive connection between Crites and Clinton.
This incident serves as a microcosm of some of the most corrosive parts of this election season, and a warning sign for four years from now. The violence, misinformation, and polarization that has plagued the country for the last year and half reared its head one last time before the election, proving that it's easier than ever to make up stories and feed people lies when it comes to politics.
People's partisan identities incentivize them to accept these beliefs without too much inquiry or critical thought, but cases like this one should remind everyone why they can't jump to conclusions. People need the benefit of the doubt and clearly partisan reporting doesn't, which everyone desperately needs to learn by the time the country goes through this process again.