The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The dangerous cycle that keeps conspiracy theories in the news — and Trump’s tweets

A scene from a campaign rally for President Trump, right, with then-gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis in Tampa on July 31, 2018. Signs seen in the crowd reference QAnon, a conspiracy theory. (The Washington Post)
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Conspiracy theories aren’t fueled by facts; they are fueled by attention. On Saturday, a baseless conspiracy theory about the death of Jeffrey Epstein gorged itself on a feast of the stuff, as a viral hashtag spammed by believers trended on Twitter. In less than a day, a viral tweet from a conservative Internet personality promoting that hashtag — #ClintonBodyCount — was retweeted by the president.

This rapid spread on Twitter of an unsubstantiated claim (one, in this instance, that is in conflict with information from President Trump’s own Justice Department) is not an aberration. It’s part of a cycle that represents social media platforms working as intended, showing users the things they are most likely to share and click.

Twitter in particular, as the platform of choice for many national journalists as well as Trump, has become the perfect vehicle for conspiracy theories, misinformation and racist screeds to find massive audiences, as messages grow from a few viral tweets, to a trending topic, to news coverage, to a tweet from the president’s popular account. The rapid spread of #ClintonBodyCount indicates that things aren’t really getting any better.

Trump retweets conspiracy theory tying the Clintons to Epstein’s death

The hashtag references a long-running conspiracy theory accusing the Clintons of being involved in the “suspicious” deaths of a wide range of people. It has been around for decades, despite its many claims not holding up to the most cursory of fact checks. The conspiracy theory was the driving force behind the rapid spread of false rumors about Democratic National Committee staffer Seth Rich’s death in 2016, and is also loosely connected to the mythology of QAnon — the conspiracy theory that hinges on anonymous posts claiming that, among other things, Trump is about to have the Clintons arrested.

Epstein’s apparent suicide in a federal jail, where he was confined after his arrest last month on charges of sex trafficking underage girls, created an ideal climate for this conspiracy theory to spread. Epstein’s successful avoidance of consequences over the years, his associations with powerful people — including the Clintons and Trump — and the unanswered questions about how he was able to die in federal custody after earlier being placed on suicide watch fueled speculation not just from the normal hubs of conspiratorial thinking on the Internet, but also from more mainstream voices.

Former Democratic senator Claire McCaskill used a provocative ellipsis in a tweet to imply that the financier’s apparent suicide was not what it seemed. #TrumpBodyCount, a conspiracy theory-related hashtag spread by those who wanted to call attention to Trump’s own relationship to Epstein, also trended.

When you ask experts about ways to limit the reach of racism and conspiracy theories on platforms such as Twitter, they’ll tell you to watch how it’s amplified: Sharing a meme to condemn it is still a share. Retweeting a racist tweet to shame its writer still gives the tweet more eyeballs. Even though many journalists and media organizations have gotten better at realizing that trending hashtags are often more representative of the weaponization of attention rather than a reflection of popular opinion, trending hashtags are still an effective tactic for courting news coverage of fringe ideas — even if that coverage is intended to debunk it.

Algorithms are one reason a conspiracy theory goes viral. Another reason might be you.

Trump in particular short-circuits the usual advice. When Trump tweets about #ClintonBodyCount, it becomes news. And the conspiracy fringe has long known exactly how to get their tweets in front of the president.

Two weeks ago, when Trump retweeted an account supporting the QAnon conspiracy theory, The Post interviewed experts on the spread of false and extreme ideas through the president’s account. Becca Lewis, a research affiliate at Data & Society who studies far-right political subcultures online, argued that Trump has “turned his Twitter account into a powerful propaganda tool for some of these far-right movements.”

“Whether he knows it or not, they’re aware of it,” she said. “The best thing they can hope for is a Trump retweet.”

It “highlights the impossible position we’re in, when being retweeted by the president is now the number one surefire way to enter the news cycle,” according to Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor at Syracuse University who has studied media amplification of extreme speech and misinformation online. “Manipulators figured that out long ago. … You just have to find something that will stroke his ego enough or make Clinton/the Democrats look bad enough, or both, and then when he retweets it, suddenly that’s the thing everyone talks about, or at least feels they have to talk about, because he’s the president. It’s a level of media manipulation that’s almost incomprehensible, because it’s such a trap: clearly dangerous and seemingly inescapable.”

An analysis by Hoaxy, a tool created by Indiana University to analyze the spread of questionable hashtags — and the possible involvement of bots in promoting them — showed that even before the president’s social media involvement, conservative comedian and Internet personality Terrence K. Williams was a key amplifier of the #ClintonBodyCount hashtag. “#JefferyEpstein had information on Bill Clinton & now he’s dead,” read the tweet retweeted by Trump. Williams also asked his more than 500,000 followers to “RT if you’re not Surprised.”

Perspective: Jeffrey Epstein doesn't deserve to be a conspiracy theory

For years, figures such as Williams have known that getting a hashtag trending fuels attention, and they’ve been good at getting it done. Mike Cernovich, an early expert at this who rose in profile after Trump’s election for his role in helping to spread the Pizzagate conspiracy theory, has long coordinated hashtag choices on live streams with his followers during breaking news. Hashtags like #ClintonBodyCount go viral before the news can catch up, in part because a bunch of people who know exactly how important it is to trend on Twitter are working to make it happen. And it’s worth understanding that, while hashtags such as these are amplified by bots, the accounts spreading conspiratorial hashtags also belong to plenty of actual people. Hoaxy’s analysis identified 985 Twitter accounts that were key to helping the hashtag spread; only 30 of those accounts had strong bot-like characteristics.

Years into Trump’s presidency, the people who are the smartest about how the Internet works still don’t have a great answer for how to deal with his tweets — in particular, those that spread misinformation, racism or hold a megaphone for fringe voices. So the media remains in a cycle: As Trump tweets or retweets, the tweets become news, Trump tweets more about the news, and the media covers those tweets, too, inevitably sharing them with the 78 percent of Americans not on Twitter.

And while Trump has long been clear on why he likes to tweet so much — it’s a way of getting a lot of people to see what he thinks without needing to rely on the media — the punchline is that his tweets have become newsworthy by default.

Even if the media avoids spreading misinformation by engaging with these type of trending hashtags, a tweet from the president changes everything. On Sunday, the conspiracy theory was discussed on the morning politics shows. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, addressing Trump’s retweet, told “Fox News Sunday” that Trump “just wants everything to be investigated.”

For Phillips, the solution might come from asking a different question: Instead of considering whether Trump’s tweets are newsworthy (they are), journalists should think about how they’re covering them.

“There are still stories that can be told, compelling stories, important stories, that may overlap with what’s he’s talking about, that aren’t playing the game by his rules,” she said. “He’s backed us into a corner. The answer is to move to a different room.”

The story has been updated to remove a reference to a tweet.

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