WASHINGTON — President Donald 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 more prevalent in the past.
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.
Second, the most prominent and visible American — Donald Trump — 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 Mueller’s investigation.
Sometimes Trump has used conspiratorial thinking to shape perceptions of issues. He accused the Mexican government of sending criminals and rapists to America. 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 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 understanding how to deprive conspiracy theories of oxygen, we have an 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 away from gun-related violence.
They can undermine democratic dialogue. If our neighbor is wrong, we can try to persuade them. If our neighbor is part of an evil plot, we must expose and defeat them.
And conspiracy theories can undermine a belief in truth itself. They honor what is useful above what is real and right.
All this may 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.