President Trump will do just about anything to get his daily, hypodermic fix of attention, including the spread of racist tropes and conspiracy theories. And no, I am not starting a rumor that Trump is secretly a drug addict. It is a metaphor. But if my editors and their fact checkers were all on vacation, encouraging this lie would surely kindle enthusiasm in portions of the left, outrage on the populist right and tut-tutting from centrists concerned about damage to our democracy. With a large enough dose of mendacity and malice, my fabrication might even go viral.
Instead, I will just engage in my normal, non-viral tut-tutting, thereby aiding Trump’s most recent attention grab — the retweeted implication that a former president was somehow involved in the apparent suicide of disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein.
Conspiracy theories are not new to American politics. They were arguably more prevalent and powerful in the past. Many Americans believed that the Federalists were bought and sold by the British, or that Catholic migration was really papist infiltration, or that a Jewish cabal sought to bring the United States into World War II.
But contemporary conspiracy theories are different in two ways. First, they are carried widely and instantaneously on the Internet, and often on social media that echoes and exaggerates preexisting convictions. Current technology gives believers in conspiracy theories the illusion that their views are broadly shared. And conspiracy theorists are early adopters of new technologies, making innovation the ally of deceit.
Second, the most prominent and visible American — Trump — regularly employs and legitimizes conspiracy thinking. Much of the social scientific literature related to conspiracy theories paints their advocates as social outsiders, excluded from political power. But our main problem is not Alex Jones or 8chan; it is a president who is also a self-interested fabulist. Trump employed conspiracy theories to question Barack Obama’s legitimacy as president, and then accused Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. Trump developed conspiracy theories about voter fraud in case he needed to contest an unfavorable outcome in the 2016 election. He cultivated conspiracy theories about the “deep state” in an attempt to discredit Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation. He asserted that windmills cause cancer and that Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was part of a conspiracy to kill John F. Kennedy — because, well, he prefers epistemological chaos.
Sometimes Trump has used conspiratorial thinking to shape perceptions of important issues. He accused the Mexican government of purposely sending criminals and rapists to the United States. He accuses refugees, against all evidence, of being a “Trojan horse” terrorist threat. The goal of these accusations was clearly to whip up hatred of foreigners and outsiders.
Conspiracy theories are a particularly complex and malignant social challenge. Studies have found that mere exposure to anti-government conspiracy thinking reduces trust in governmental institutions — even when accusations are refuted by strong evidence. According to one study, just being told about conspiracy theories related to the death of Princess Diana shifted people’s views, without them realizing their views had changed.
This presents a problem for social scientists. Since they can’t even ask questions on this topic without influencing the answers, how do they measure the true influence of conspiracy thinking?
And this presents a problem for journalists, particularly opinion journalists. What if the process of answering Trump’s charges actually serves Trump’s purposes? What if sunlight is actually not the best disinfectant? And yet, doesn’t silence in the face of lies imply concession?
Without fully understanding how to deprive conspiracy theories of oxygen, we have a good idea how they are hurting our political system.
They sometimes have a direct influence on behavior — say, when conspiracy theories about vaccines cause immunization rates to fall.
They distract attention from other important issues — say, when a president promotes a conspiracy theory to change the topic from gun-related violence.
Conspiracy theories can encourage cynicism and apathy about the political enterprise.
They can undermine democratic dialogue. If our neighbor is wrong, we can try to persuade him or her. If our neighbor is part of an evil plot, there is no option but to expose and defeat him or her.
And conspiracy theories can undermine a belief in truth itself. They elevate the arguments that serve your side, no matter how absurd or destructive they become. They honor what is useful above what is real and right.
All this might commend a different response. Rather than refuting specific conspiracy theories, perhaps we should focus on the character of political leaders who employ them. They are liars and enemies of self-government.