The same holds for information. Our ability to filter information is predicated on our adeptness at finding patterns. Given a few things, we can figure out what they have in common, a handy way for our abnormally robust brains to fill in the blanks. But there aren’t any blanks anymore, not really; every nook and cranny of our lives is filled with information. It’s easy, then, for us to apply our instinctive abilities to that volume of data and come to the wrong conclusions. You can’t find a complete sentence in a bowl of alphabet soup, but in a volume of alphabet soup the size of the Atlantic Ocean, you can eventually cobble together the entire Harry Potter series.
In popular culture, we have two competing understandings of how conspiracies are uncovered. There’s the “All the President’s Men” variety, in which journalists talk to people who individually have discrete pieces of information and figure out the newsworthy pattern. Then there’s the “A Beautiful Mind” variety, in which a hyperactive ability to find patterns vacuums up everything nearby and figures out the thin tendrils by which they might be connected. You can find patterns wherever, given enough creativity and enough possible components. It’s like building a house of Legos: You can connect any two things and can build whatever you want, given a big enough pile of blocks.
This has had an interesting effect on the economics of the current political moment. It’s a moment in which there is a loosely articulated conspiracy involving Russian hackers and — potentially — agents of the president of the United States, a conspiracy of enormous stakes and enormous import. It’s a moment in which that president is deeply unpopular, so there are plenty of people willing to do some digging to uncover links between the two. It’s a moment in which uncovering those links leads to social-media fame for those more interested in applying brush-to-canvas in creative ways than painting a comprehensible, verifiable picture. And it’s a moment in which there has never been a bigger ocean of soup from which to draw letters.
On Friday, the Democratic National Committee released a complaint against the 2016 campaign of President Trump — and against staffers for the campaign and against 10 unknown people and against WikiLeaks and — why not! — against Russia. The 66-page document attempts to establish authoritatively a connection between the Trump campaign (which certainly existed) and Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 election (which also certainly existed). But, as with so many other efforts, the lines drawn between the two are flimsy. Nonetheless, the DNC deliberately tries to draw them with a thicker weight than they deserve. The DNC’s goal, after all, is not to present a fair case for Trump’s having colluded with Russia. Its goal is to presenting a convincing case. And just as the protagonist of “A Beautiful Mind” created the conspiracy he wanted to see, so does this document create the conspiracy for which the party is looking.
But unlike “A Beautiful Mind,” the DNC presumably knows that it’s misleading itself.
For example, the complaint writes that Russia repeatedly communicated with agents of the campaign about its desire to hurt Clinton, which is true. It goes on to say that “the Trump Campaign and its agents” welcomed that help. Agents did. Did “the campaign”? There’s a nebulous border to where “the campaign” is drawn, which has certainly been to Trump’s advantage over the past year. But is it fair to say that “the campaign” welcomed help because adviser George Papadopoulos didn’t tell federal authorities that he had been told about the Russians having dirt on Clinton?
What’s more, do those contacts between Russia and the campaign validate the DNC’s claim that “the Trump Campaign, Trump’s closest advisers, and Russian agents formed an agreement to promote Donald Trump’s candidacy through illegal means”? There’s no new evidence in this document, mind you. The DNC simply claims that the uncertain or loose connections between the two are themselves the proof they’re looking for.
At other times, the known evidence is misrepresented or ignored.
“Trump associates continued to secretly communicate with Russian agents and WikiLeaks as they strategically disseminated information stolen from targets,” the DNC alleges. The evidence for this? Direct messages between Donald Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks and others between Roger Stone and the Russian intelligence officer calling himself “Guccifer 2.0.”
Both of those sets of messages have been made public; there’s no credible evidence that any are still secret. And they’re anodyne, at best; Guccifer trying to curry favor with an indifferent Stone or WikiLeaks and Trump Jr. dancing around each other with differing outcomes in mind. Small things are lifted from the alphabet soup and proclaimed to be important, like Stone predicting that leaks from Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta were imminent or WikiLeaks asking Trump Jr. to promote something shortly before Trump-the-candidate tweeted his support of WikiLeaks.
Stone’s tweet about Podesta came well in advance of the leaks of Podesta’s emails, and he’s argued that the wording of his tweet — “soon it will the Podesta’s time in the barrel” — should be read as “be the Podestas” not “[be] Podesta’s.” Meaning that he predicted that John and his brother Tony Podesta would be targeted, and he didn’t say anything about WikiLeaks. Over the summer, in fact, Stone kept predicting that an upcoming WikiLeaks release would target the Clinton Foundation, which it didn’t.
Trump Jr., meanwhile, was asked questions by WikiLeaks that he ignored and vice-versa. The tweet from Trump was a general promotion of WikiLeaks — but the request from WikiLeaks was to promote a specific link, which Trump Jr. tweeted a few days later.
The DNC complaint tries to have it both ways. In one section, they tout Trump’s public praise of WikiLeaks as incriminating. In the next, they detail various times that the campaign tried to cover up its connections to the Russians. Look, either they didn’t want attention drawn to their criminal conspiracy — which is what the DNC alleges existed — or they did.
We must now ensure that we keep cracked open the door through which all of this flows: It certainly could be the case that there was more direct, higher-level communication between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. It could also be the case that what’s known is already sufficient to result in significant political or further criminal repercussions. One way in which conspiracy theories work is that any small validation is seen as validation of the whole, deservedly or not. But in the interests of fairness, we have to grant that there still could be a there there, whether or not the DNC makes its case.
I go back, over and over, to 2009 essay by Lawrence Lessig predicting that access to information on a massive scale could lead to conspiracy theories in which cherry-picked data was strung together in questionable ways. The skill we need to cultivate is the one in which we get better at filtering things out of our theories, recognizing that they’re too neat or too tangential.
One of Lessig’s point in his essay, though, was that there would be a political benefit to coming up with credible theories by using the DNC’s process. Too much information, he wrote, “is not going to inspire change. It will simply push any faith in our political system over the cliff.”
Especially given an incentive for the push. By Friday afternoon, the DNC had emailed its supporter list about the lawsuit.
This article was corrected to clarify that the DNC email didn’t include a fundraising pitch.