Conspiracy Theories

August 24, 2018 – Volume 28, Issue 29
Do they undermine democracy? By Sharon O'Malley

Introduction

A man wears a QAnon T-shirt at a July 31 rally (Cover: Getty Images/Joe Raedle)  
A man wears a QAnon T-shirt at a July 31 rally for President Trump in Tampa, Fla. The “Q” conspiracy theory, which claims that a “deep state” is working to undermine Trump's presidency, went viral after the rally. Experts say conspiracy theories spread easily these days because of social media and coverage by the mainstream media. (Cover: Getty Images/Joe Raedle)

Once found mainly on society's fringes, conspiracy theories are increasingly infiltrating public discourse: The government manipulated the weather to cause a hurricane; gun control advocates staged a mass shooting; a “deep state” is plotting to ruin President Trump. Yet researchers say conspiracy theories are no more prevalent today than 100 years ago. What is new, they say, is that the internet, social media and mainstream media coverage are helping conspiracy theories spread faster than ever, sometimes with dangerous consequences. Many political scientists worry that the trend could undermine trust in government, incite violence or, at the very least, undercut faith in accepted facts about the nation and world. Trump has contributed to the problem, some contend, by professing belief in false conspiracies, such as that President Barack Obama was not a U.S. citizen. Mass shooting victims or their families, meanwhile, have accused conspiracy theorists of harassment and begun taking them to court. The lawsuits raise questions about whether conspiracy theories are protected speech under the First Amendment.

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Overview

At a boisterous rally for President Trump in Tampa, Fla., on July 31, QAnon came out of the shadows.

Sprinkled in among a crowd of 8,000 people bedecked with the trademark red Make America Great Again hats were men and women wearing T-shirts and holding signs emblazoned with the letter Q.

Their presence went viral and sent both the media and legions of social media users scrambling to learn more about this mysterious group. The answer: QAnon is a fringe group that believes, among other things, that an anonymous government insider (“Q”) is working to expose a “deep state” that is trying to undermine Trump's presidency.1

For students of conspiracy theories, QAnon is the latest example of a phenomenon with deep roots in U.S. history. After mass shootings, hurricanes and a host of other incidents, conspiracy theories flood the internet. Some theories are harmless fun: Reptiles masquerading as humans are running world governments; Elvis Presley faked his death in 1977 and is working as a groundskeeper at Graceland, his former estate in Tennessee. But others can be dangerous: A gunman who believed the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory opened fire inside a Washington, D.C., restaurant in December 2016 as he hunted for the children supposedly being held there as sex slaves.2

Researchers say conspiracy theories are no more prevalent today than they were 50 or 100 years ago. What has changed, they say, is that conspiracy theories are spreading faster through social media and the mainstream media's coverage of them in the aftermath of natural disasters, terrorist attacks and mass shootings. And believers span all ages, races, political parties and, to some degree, education and income levels.3

Radio host Alex Jones (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman/Tamir Kalifa)  
Radio host Alex Jones, who owns the multimedia business Infowars, is facing several lawsuits, including ones filed by seven families of victims of the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The families contend Jones' claims that the shooting was a hoax have led other conspiracy theorists to harass them. The cases could test the limits of the First Amendment right to free speech. (AP Photo/Austin American-Statesman/Tamir Kalifa)

“The prevalence of conspiracy theories is astounding,” says Jay Windley, an aerospace engineer who spends much of his time debunking the claims of naysayers who believe NASA staged the Apollo lunar landings in 1969 and the 1970s on a Hollywood movie set to fool the world into thinking that the United States beat the Soviets to the moon. Nearly every important event in history is flanked by conspiracy theories, he says.

Experts say Trump is contributing to the problem by demeaning traditional sources of information and fanning the spread of unproven theories through his tweets and his own fascination with conspiracy theories. In May, he said the deep state secretly placed a spy in his 2016 campaign. He earlier said then-President Barack Obama had wiretapped Trump Tower in New York City, that millions of illegal votes had cost him a popular victory and that the father of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.4

Conspiracy theories persist because they are “a tool to explain reality,” says Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a psychologist at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “It's a protective mechanism. We can't always know or understand everything that happens to us.” So, he says, people find someone or something to blame, often despite absolute proof to the contrary.

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a conspiracy theory as “a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators.” Conspiracy theories posit that “a group [is] acting in secret to alter institutions, usurp power, hide truth or gain utility at the expense of the common good,” said Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami political science professor who teaches a course on conspiracy theories, and Joseph Parent, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Notre Dame.5

Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College who also teaches a course on conspiracy theories, says conspiracy theories differ from “fake news,” whose definition ranges from outright fabrication to simple mistakes, depending on who is using the term.

While the number of conspiracy theories has fluctuated over the past 100 years, the trend has not worsened, according to Uscinski and Parent, authors of the 2014 book American Conspiracy Theories, who studied a century's worth of letters to newspaper editors about the claims. What is true, Parent says, is “that the news is reporting it more now.”

Fully half of Americans, as a result, believe in one or more conspiracy theories, said University of Chicago political scientists Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood. The most popular, they said, include the “birther” conspiracy theory that falsely claimed Obama was not born in the United States (endorsed by about 25 percent in their study), and the theory that the Food and Drug Administration “is deliberately withholding natural cures for cancer (endorsed by 40 percent).”6

The chart shows widely circulated conspiracy theories and their beleifs.  

Long Description

Some of last year's most widespread conspiracy theories — ones that leapt from the fringes of the internet into mainstream consciousness despite their lack of credibility — involved a Las Vegas mass shooting and a spate of hurricanes that hit the United States, according to the fact-checking website Snopes. Here's a sampling.

Source: Mike Rothschild, “2017's Biggest Conspiracy Theories,” Snopes, Dec. 29, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y7lguq52

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Theory Belief of Theorists
Las Vegas Shooting A 2017 mass shooting that killed 58 and wounded 851 — the deadliest in U.S. history — was a hoax staged by anti-gun rights groups.
Obama's “Deep State” Former President Barack Obama is behind a shadow government whose goal, working through the FBI, is to oust President Trump.
Fake Melania Trump A decoy or body double has replaced the first lady; Mrs. Trump's infrequent public appearances and her supposed aloof demeanor spawned the theories.
Antifa Anti-fascist “super-soldiers” would go on a house-to-house killing spree on Nov. 4, 2017, in an effort to overthrow President Trump.
Hurricanes The U.S. government purposely caused hurricanes through its Alaska-based High-Frequency Active Auroral Research Program (HAARP).

Conspiracy theories, though, have shown a darker side in recent years. Relatives of mass shooting victims and the victims themselves, including students at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., have faced harassment and worse from proponents of conspiracy theories who deny these events happened. When Lenny Pozner posted documents online to prove that his 6-year-old son Noah was killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, he said he began receiving death threats.

“Truther websites have issued orders to their followers to hunt us down, file fake, anonymous reports with the police …; anything that they can do to harass and discredit me,” he wrote in his blog. “Family and friends have had to go into hiding. My family has had to move multiple times due to death threats so credible that one of the perpetrators was sentenced to prison. And yet, five years later, the threats and attacks are ceaseless.”7

Legal analysts say the First Amendment generally protects conspiracy theories as free speech. The exception, under the 1969 Supreme Court ruling Brandenburg v. Ohio, is speech that is “directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”8 Peddlers of conspiracy theories, however, are not liable if a follower threatens someone or breaks the law in other ways, according to Frank LoMonte, director of the Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida.

“The general rule is that one person is not regarded as being liable for the criminal behavior of another person,” LoMonte says. “I am not supposed to anticipate that the people who hear my words will act out in crazy, violent ways.”

But a speaker who instructs listeners to commit crimes could be arrested for inciting the violence, LoMonte says.

Experts continue to explore why people are attracted to conspiracy theories.

Parent pointed to what many researchers consider the top trigger for believers: “Conspiracy theories can be like emotional poultices,” he said. “You don't want to blame yourself for things you may lack, so you blame anonymous forces instead.”9

Alin Coman, a Princeton University psychology and public affairs professor, says “people think of conspiracy theorists as these weirdos, [but] anybody could become entrenched in that kind of thinking if the right circumstances arise.”

Characteristics of those who formulate or embrace conspiracy theories, according to Coman and others, include:

  • Loneliness or social isolation. In his research, Coman said he found a “dangerous cycle” that begins with “social exclusion [that] can cause people to seek meaning in miraculous stories, which may not necessarily be true.” In turn, sharing their superstitions with family and friends can create further isolation, which leads the believer to seek out like-minded strangers, who reinforce their beliefs.10

  • A desire to feel special. “Knowing” something that others do not can make conspiracy theorists feel unique and better informed than their peers, according to Anthony Lantian of France's Université Paris Nanterre, who noted that those in this category also feel a false sense of confidence about how the world “really” works.11

  • Education and income. In a study published in Applied Cognitive Psychology, van Prooijen found that the well-educated are less likely to endorse conspiracy theories than the lesser educated, mostly because they feel more in control of their situations and have stronger analytical skills. Still, he said, education alone does not account for a tendency to disbelieve, but when combined with natural skepticism and higher income, it is a factor.12

  • Brain function. Some people see patterns in paint splatter or clouds — a phenomenon researchers call “illusory pattern perception.” British and Dutch researchers have found a link between that condition and a belief in conspiracy theories: Believers see patterns in world events that others do not.13

Psychologist John Grohol, the founder of the online mental health site Psych Central, says most people who buy into one conspiracy theory believe in others as well. “Once you sign on to the belief that the government or people in power are able to lie and keep it secret,” he says, “you're pretty much going to believe any theory that you find out about.”

A 2018 study published by the American Psychological Association bears that out. Researchers found that people who believed in a conspiracy around Princess Diana's or JFK's death, for example, are more likely to be skeptical about the safety of vaccines.14

And changing their minds is difficult, according to a team of University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign graduate students, who found that criticizing or mocking conspiracy theorists for their beliefs most likely will prompt them to stand their ground. Explaining the science that debunks the theory is equally ineffective, the researchers found.15

As researchers, psychologists and others debate conspiracy theories, here are some of the questions they are asking:

Are conspiracy theories more prevalent than in the past?

The historian David Brion Davis described a spike in conspiracy theories at the beginning of World War II in 1939, and two other well-regarded researchers pointed to a surge just after the war ended in 1945. The National Post recorded two peaks in conspiracy theories, in the 1960s and 2000s. The New York Times called 1964 “the age of conspiracy theories” and branded America a “conspiracy nation” in 2013. In 1977, the Los Angeles Times declared that the United States had set a world record for conspiracy theories. In 2011, the New York Daily News labeled the nation a “conspiratocracy.”16

“Almost every year, journalists say that it's the year of conspiracy theorizing,” says political scientist Uscinski, editor of Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them, which will be published in October. “Every single year, they say it's reached an all-time high. It can't always be true.”

In fact, says Uscinski, it's never true. “Give me any data to show this is the case,” he says. “There's no evidence of that.”

And there is no evidence, he says, that more conspiracy theories are floating through 2018 than ever before or that more people believe in them. What is true, he says, is that “there is absolute, strong evidence that the news is reporting it more now.”

Uscinski and Parent examined 120 years worth of news coverage of conspiracy theories. “How much did The New York Times cover this in the '70s and how much now?” Uscinski says. “It's not even close. There's absolutely a ton of coverage that outpaces that of the past…. The news media cover [conspiracy theories] incessantly.”

The bar graph shows responses by percentage of Democrats, Republicans and independents to the question: Did Russia attempt to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election?  

Long Description

Americans are deeply divided over whether Russia meddled on President Trump's behalf in the 2016 election. More than 80 percent of Democrats “strongly” or “somewhat” believe Russia interfered, compared with 32 percent of Republicans. Figures may not add to 100% because of rounding.

Source: “Russia Poll 7.18.2018,” Ipso/Reuters, July 18, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ydab326u

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Response Total Percentage Percentage of Democrats Percentage of Republicans Percentage of Independents
Strongly agree 34% 58% 10% 29%
Somewhat agree 22% 23% 22% 24%
Somewhat disagree 11% 6% 19% 9%
Strongly disagree 15% 2% 31% 12%
Don't know 19% 11% 17% 26%

The internet routinely overflows with conspiracy theories after nearly every mass shooting: When a gunman killed 17 and wounded another 17 at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in February, conspiracy theorists said actors staged the incident. Student David Hogg, for example, faced blowback after he began speaking out on the need for gun control. Conspiracy theorists said he had been coached by his father, a former FBI agent; was a pawn for gun control groups; or was not a victim but a “crisis actor” who was paid to travel to disaster sites to argue against stricter gun laws.17 Similar claims that the events were staged arose after the 2012 killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and a Las Vegas concert in 2017.18

Jesse Walker, author of The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, says he has seen a spike in media coverage of conspiracy theories since Trump became president. “If there are more [conspiracy theories] now than there were three years ago, that has to do with the nature of the Trump years, and like the spike around Watergate [in 1972], it will come down after a while rather than become a bigger thing,” he says.

Walker says social media and the internet have fueled the spread of conspiracy theories, with three consequences. First, he says, the internet has sped up the news cycle, including what he calls “the conspiracy theory news cycle…. There may be a larger, faster generation of conspiracy theories.” Second, conspiracy theories and other fringe thinking that predated the internet tended to be confined to subcultures and did not penetrate the mainstream. “The internet makes a lot of subcultures more visible than they were before,” he says.

Finally, because of that greater visibility, Walker says, more interaction occurs among those “conspiracy tribes; there's more mixing.” So, for example, conspiracy theorists can easily step outside of their confined forum and into one for white nationalists or hippies or UFO buffs “and see each others' stories.”

But, Walker adds, “that doesn't necessarily mean there's a greater volume of conspiracy thinking out there” — just a greater awareness that it exists.

Celebrities with their massive social media followings also help to spread conspiracy theories, according to experts. Kylie Jenner — a Kardashian sibling — publicly wondered about the “chemtrails” conspiracy theory: Airplanes' vapor trails supposedly contain toxic chemicals that the government uses to control the weather. Rapper Kanye West told Rolling Stone he believes the HIV virus was created to kill blacks and gays.19

Edgar Maddison Welch surrenders to police in Washington, D.C. (AP Photo/Sathi Soma)  
Edgar Maddison Welch surrenders to police in Washington, D.C., in December 2016 after he fired shots inside a pizzeria. Welch believed in the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory that claimed the pizzeria was really a cover for a child sex ring run by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Some experts see the incident as a sign of the dangers that conspiracy theories can pose. (AP Photo/Sathi Soma)

In numerous tweets to her 500,000 followers, former sitcom star Roseanne Barr argued the government was behind 9/11. She also has endorsed vaccine conspiracy theories and touted “Pizzagate.” This year, she tweeted that Trump has broken up pedophile rings and was responsible for the arrest of 1,500 ringleaders. She has said special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election is a cover for a probe of Democrats who are involved in child sex trafficking.20

David Mikkelson, founder of the fact-checking website Snopes.com, notes a related phenomenon: Radio shows, podcasts and other media that hype conspiracy theories are proliferating because of their ability to attract advertisers and celebrity support.

“Before, an ordinary person couldn't go out and get LeBron James [for example] to promote my product unless I was willing to pay millions and millions of dollars,” he says. “Now, there are a whole lot of celebrities out there on Facebook and Twitter, where people can pay them to retweet their information or post their information on their Facebook pages. It's gotten easier for the ordinary person to reach a broader audience by enlisting famous people to help promote what they're saying.”

Is President Trump's endorsement of conspiracy theories harmful to democracy?

President Trump has retweeted conspiracy theories and blamed a deep state for everything from planting a spy within his presidential campaign to leaking damaging information to the media. He regularly refers to the U.S. Department of Justice as part of a deep state.21

The bar graph shows the percentage of Americans who agree or disagree that a deep state exists.  

Long Description

Nearly three-fourths of American adults believe a group of unelected government and military officials definitely or probably is secretly manipulating or directing national policy. An equal percentage of Democrats and Republicans hold those views, and a slightly higher percentage of independents share them. Figures may not add to 100% because of rounding.

Source: “National: Public Troubled by Deep State,” Monmouth University, March 19, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ydz8asxu

Data for the graphic are as follows:

Response Total Percentage Percentage of Democrats Percentage of Republicans Percentage of Independents
Definitely exists 27% 19% 31% 33%
Probably exists 47% 53% 41% 46%
Probably does not exist 16% 18% 17% 13%
Definitely does not exist 5% 6% 4% 5%
Don't know 5% 5% 7% 3%

It is unclear how many people believe the conspiracy theories that Trump espouses or passes along — or if Trump himself really believes them, says political scientist Uscinski. But he says if people buy into conspiracies because the president claims they are real, “they will act on those wrong beliefs.”

James Pfiffner, a professor of policy and government at George Mason University, sees another problem with the president's embrace of conspiracy theories. “Trump's continued adherence to demonstrably false statements about politics and policy strikes at the very heart of democracy,” Pfiffner wrote in a piece for the Brookings Institution. “If there are no agreed-upon facts, then it becomes impossible for people to make judgments about their government or hold it accountable.”22

Snopes' Mikkelson says Trump is undermining faith in the electoral system by claiming that he would have won the popular vote if millions of illegal votes had not been cast. (Trump lost by 2.9 million votes to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton but won the Electoral College.) “It's something so new in politics, that it's hard to know what to make of that,” Mikkelson says. “The chilling implication of that is that we [shouldn't] have any more elections because they can't be conducted fairly.”

University of Florida law professor Mark Fenster, author of Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, made a similar point. “A democracy depends upon the peaceful transition of power from one individual to another and from one party to another,” he said. “When you start challenging that, democracies don't last.”23

Some political analysts, however, argue that Trump's presidency is so controversial, and is arousing such intense passions among both the Right and the Left, that he is actually strengthening democracy, regardless of his embrace of conspiracy theories.

Trump's behavior “has called forth a wave of activism, organizing and, perhaps most important, a new engagement by millions of Americans in politics at all levels,” wrote political analysts E.J. Dionne Jr., Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein. “Trump's sheer disregard for the normal practices and principles of presidential behavior has cast a spotlight on the vital role that norms play in regulating and protecting our democracy. Only when norms disappear are we reminded of how important they were in the first place.”24

A record 417 women have filed to run for Congress this year, large pro- and anti-Trump protests are common and voter turnout is expected to be strong in the November midterm elections with congressional control at stake. Trump himself has cast the midterms as a referendum on his presidency and is urging his supporters to organize. A recent Washington Post/Schar School poll found that 58 percent of Democrats said it is “extremely” important to vote in November.25

But author Walker says Trump's approach to conspiracy theories and his disregard for facts are taking a toll on democratic norms. Walker calls Trump “completely shameless about [spreading conspiracy theories]…. He will not just imply that [former presidential candidate Ted] Cruz's dad was responsible for the [JFK] assassination, but he cites the National Enquirer as his source.” Plus, Walker says, Trump “is willing to say things completely in the moment … and then turn on a dime and take the absolute opposite approach a week later.”

One result, Walker says, is that a significant number of Americans do not believe what Trump says. In a January poll of registered voters by Quinnipiac University, 63 percent said the president is not honest.26 Walker points to a second result: “If the head of the government is inherently dishonest, it obviously has the potential to damage people's faith in the government.”

The Washington Post estimated in June that Trump had made 3,251 false or misleading claims in the first 497 days of his presidency. As of mid-August, he enjoyed an approval rating among Republicans of 82 percent.27

Daniel Effron, an associate professor of organizational behavior at London Business School, said some of Trump's supporters believe the president is not lying, while others realize he is but chalk it up as part of “an off-the-cuff rhetorical style they admire.”28

Pfiffner said modern presidents often shade the truth and sometimes tell serious lies to deceive the public. In that sense, he said, Trump is part of a long American tradition.

However, “Trump's lies differed significantly from those of previous presidents,” Pfiffner said. “Some of his most frequent lies are bragging about his achievements in ways that are demonstrably untrue and contrary to well-known and accepted facts. For example, Trump claimed that he had his picture on the cover of Time Magazine more than any other person; that he signed more bills than any other president in his first six months in office; that the crowd at his inauguration was larger than Obama's; that he had the largest number of electoral votes since [Ronald] Reagan. These lies undermine public confidence in President Trump and American government, increasing public cynicism.”29

Trump's ardent supporters disagree. They applaud his attacks on Washington, the establishment and the media, and believe his leadership and policies are strengthening the country.

“I backed Trump from the beginning because he calls things out,” said Trump supporter Crystal Myers of California. “He does not allow lies to live. He just exposes things…. Donald Trump is not politically correct, and I love that about him.”30

Trump's supporters also see criticisms of the president as grossly exaggerated, part of what they call “Trump derangement syndrome.” John Daniel Davidson, a writer for The Federalist, a conservative website, defines the term as a “political malady whereby pretty much everything Trump does, no matter how mundane, is a threat to our democracy and a trampling of the Constitution.”31

Should conspiracy theories receive First Amendment protection?

Since radio host Alex Jones, owner of the multimedia business Infowars, started airing his show in 1999, he has peddled conspiracy theories about, among others, U.S. government involvement in the 9/11 attacks, former President Obama's birth certificate, the safety of vaccines and the New World Order — a supposed, secret cabal conspiring to create and run a world government.

But it was his claim that a State Department employee masterminded the fatal 2017 white nationalist attack on a crowd of protesters in Charlottesville, Va., that got him sued in March 2018. The employee, Brennan Gilmore, had attended the white nationalist rally as a counterprotester and filmed the ensuing violence. When he posted the footage online, Gilmore became the subject of elaborate conspiracy theories, including some peddled by Jones, and received numerous death threats.32

Between May and August, seven families of victims who died in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School — including Pozner and his wife, Veronique De La Rosa — filed their own civil suits against Jones, whom New York magazine has described as “America's leading conspiracy theorist.”33 Jones claimed on-air that the shootings, which killed 20 children and six adults, never happened; that the parents faked their kids' deaths; and that the witnesses who spoke to the media afterward were paid actors. He asked a Texas judge in early August to dismiss one of the suits on free speech grounds.34

Although Jones acknowledged that the massacre occurred, the lawsuits accused him of inflicting emotional distress and of defamation by telling lies that harmed their reputations and prompted death threats against them.

“This type of misinformation is a bit of a societal crisis,” De La Rosa told The New York Times, adding that she and Pozner have moved seven times since their son was killed at Sandy Hook, and each time, online conspiracy theorists have published their address. “This isn't someone on a soapbox in Times Square spewing nonsense. It's someone who every day generates income from his demonstrably false utterances.”35

Jones' defense: The First Amendment protects free speech and freedom of the press.

In a YouTube video, Jones said the lawsuits aim to overturn the First Amendment. “Once that's done, it's done,” he said.36

Many conspiracy theory researchers and some lawyers — who say the theories are false — say conspiracy theories are protected under the First Amendment. “The idea that you start suing journalists [for] spreading conspiracy theories doesn't jibe with other ways we use the First Amendment,” political scientist Wood says. “Can you imagine how much President Trump would like to sue The Washington Post and other media journalists for what he perceives are assaults on his character? This is not the healthiest way forward.”

The cases against Jones, said New York Times reporter Elizabeth Williamson, could determine whether the law protects conspiracy theorists and their followers who spread unfounded rumors and suspicions via the media and the internet. “The families,” she wrote, “are seeking society's verdict on ‘post-truth’ culture in which widely disseminated lies damage lives and destroy reputations, yet those who spread them are seldom held accountable.”37

Still, it is up for debate whether the First Amendment will protect Jones in court.

Four law professors who filed an amicus — or friend of the court — brief in support of the plaintiff in the Charlottesville lawsuit, argued that Jones does not qualify for First Amendment protection: “False speech does not serve the public interest the way that true speech does,” the professors wrote. “And indeed, there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.”

They added that a win for Jones in court would “allow unscrupulous news organizations to couch their language as ‘opinion’ and to mask their meaning with implication and insinuation, [leaving] readers clear as to the message but avoiding all liability for defamatory remarks. This should not be allowed and, in fact, is not allowed.”38

Journalists and First Amendment attorneys are watching the cases, which, if they go to trial, will set a precedent that could either tamp down conspiracy rhetoric or ramp it up.

In Jones' case, “if he's able to convince a judge or a jury that he made an honest mistake [because he relied] on the experts, then he'll probably win,” says the Brechner Center's LoMonte. “If he really just made [the claims] up or if he derived his information from obviously unreliable sources, then he will lose.”

The First Amendment protects speech, even if it is inaccurate, LoMonte says. If a court determines that the Sandy Hook parents are public figures because they have given media interviews, they will have to prove that Jones and the others they are suing acted maliciously when they spread the theories, according to LoMonte. If, however, the plaintiffs are deemed to be private citizens, they only have to prove that the media figures were negligent about checking their facts, LoMonte says.

Some have argued that because Jones, as a radio show host, is not a traditional journalist, he should not enjoy the same leeway that courts sometimes offer to mainstream media.

“The biggest problem that we face right now is people are not divining the difference between The New York Times and some guy writing a blog out of his basement, or to a more realistic degree, a radio show host with a clear agenda with no journalistic background,” says Neal Justin, media critic for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. “It's apples and oranges in my mind. It makes me uncomfortable to put [Jones] in the same conversation.”

But LoMonte argues that Jones is a member of the media — even though he is not a news reporter. And, he says, “there's not really an on-off switch for the protection of the First Amendment against defamation based on how legitimate your journalism is.”

Some conspiracy theorists have backed down in response to threats of legal action. Jones, for example, apologized for promoting a theory that Comet Ping Pong, a Washington, D.C., pizzeria, was a cover for a child trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, but only after a shooter barged into the restaurant and the owner threatened to sue Jones. He also retracted comments he made about Greek yogurt maker Chobani to settle a lawsuit that accused him of defaming the company by inaccurately connecting it to the sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl by three young refugees.39

Jim Hoft, the founder of right-wing blog Gateway Pundit, told his writers to “be careful” after the State Department employee who sued Jones named him in the same action.40

“Lawsuits do have a way of forcing media types — and conspiracy theorists masquerading as media types — to reckon with the sort of information they are peddling,” said Erik Wemple, a Washington Post media critic.41

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Background

Nation's Founders

One of the earliest American conspiracy theories helped lead to the creation of the United States.

Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and many other Americans believed that Britain's King George III and Parliament were conspiring to turn them into virtual slaves by depriving them of their political liberties.

Although they had no firm evidence of a plot, the revolutionaries pointed to British policies that, among other things, imposed taxes on the colonies without their consent. Washington wrote that the Crown had devised a “system of slavery” that would render the colonists “tame & abject Slaves, as the Blacks we Rule over with such arbitrary Sway.” A passage in the Declaration of Independence, signed in July 1776, described the king's “design” to bring the colonists “under absolute Despotism.”42

Uscinski, in his book American Conspiracy Theories, noted that the Founders “faced a problem that the evidence for the fiendish plot was, well, wanting. With hindsight, we know that the British government had no designs to enslave the American people.”43

Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere and other iconic Americans were members of the Freemasons, a secretive fraternity of powerful men established in the Middle Ages and still operating today. The global organization describes itself as “the oldest and largest worldwide fraternity,” and says it emphasizes “personal study, self-improvement and social betterment via individual involvement and philanthropy.” Freemasonry, however, has spawned hundreds of conspiracy theories since the 1800s, including claims the group secretly controls the government or has satanic beliefs.44

Atheist Adam Weishaupt, a 36-year-old German professor of law who was disillusioned with religion and the Freemasons, formed a group in 1776 that he hoped would reveal an alternative form of “illumination” and “radically change the way European states were run.” His secret society, which he called the Illuminati, included five men when it formed; by 1784, it had 2,000 to 3,000 members.

The group created rites, internal hierarchies and code names for its members, who, as it grew, included noblemen, lawyers, doctors, politicians, judges, writers and high-ranking Bavarian officials. When an ex-member exposed the secret society, the Bavarian sovereign banned it. Weishaupt lost his university post, and historians say the Illuminati disbanded after about 11 years.45

Its legacy, however, has lived on in the minds of conspiracy theorists who believe it still exists and blame it for many modern-day tragedies. The Illuminati, for example, has been inaccurately accused of instigating the French Revolution and JFK's assassination.

Conspiracy theories have long swirled around the Jewish people. In medieval Europe, it was widely believed that Jews poisoned wells and ritually consumed the blood of Christians. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence of theories that Jews and Freemasons were plotting to establish control over the world.

Another conspiracy theory involved the Holocaust. As World War II neared an end — just before Adolf Hitler and his mistress swallowed cyanide and committed suicide — the German Führer ordered the destruction of records, crematoria and other evidence of the mass extermination of an estimated 6 million Jews. After the war, many of Hitler's officers left Germany and either defended their actions or denied that the slaughter had occurred, starting a “Holocaust denier” movement that has persisted and, in fact, grown: In a 2014 Anti-Defamation League survey of 53,000 people in 100 countries, only one-third of respondents said they believed historical accounts of the genocide were accurate.46

Americans in the mid-20th century believed in a number of conspiracy theories, including some that turned out to be true.

For instance, some Americans have long believed that the government is spying on them. In fact, in 1958, the FBI began COINTELPRO, a secret program to spy on people who joined movements that the bureau suspected were “subversive.”

At its founding, the program targeted members of the Communist Party and groups that the party had infiltrated. Later, it expanded its reach to socialists, the Ku Klux Klan, the Black Panther Party, civil rights groups and the “new left.” The operation's strategy: to infiltrate political groups and spread rumors about their members, costing them their jobs, marriages and reputations. They often let the groups know they had been infiltrated so members would turn on each other, accusing their peers of being snitches. Its activities were exposed in 1971, when antiwar activists stole documents from an FBI field office in Pennsylvania.47

At the same time, the FBI devised a plan to tap Americans' phones, read their mail and break into their businesses — but Operation CHAOS was blocked by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover before it started.48

Midcentury Fears

The term “conspiracy theory,” which first surfaced in 1870, became widely used after Kennedy's assassination in Dallas in 1963. Kennedy's killing “was the point at which conspiracy theories shifted from fringe groups to the mainstream,” Walker wrote last year.49

The media became more critical of government toward the end of the Vietnam War, with the publication of the Pentagon Papers and after The Washington Post's investigative reporting of the 1972 Watergate break-in by President Richard Nixon's campaign staff. During the period Americans' confidence in government was challenged with revelations that the government had been less than transparent. During Nixon's presidency (1969–74), distrust of government among Americans rose from 22 percent to 62 percent. The 1970s, wrote editor Walker in The United States of Paranoia, became “a golden age of Enemy Above stories.”50

Mistrust of government, in turn, fueled additional conspiracy theories. “It was easier to imagine the president ordering a break-in at the Democratic National Committee if you knew that the FBI had repeatedly broken into the offices of organizations devoted to political protest,” Walker wrote. “For that matter, it was easier to think that the government might have murdered Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X if you knew that the Chicago cops and FBI had assaulted and killed [members] of the Black Panther Party.” Conspiracy theories about those two murders have never been proven.51

With evidence that the U.S. government has conducted secret experiments, including a study on syphilis at Tuskegee University that began in 1932 and lasted 40 years, and misled the public, millions of Americans over the years have questioned whether the six Apollo lunar landings in the late 1960s and early '70s ever occurred.

Likewise, many people believe:

  • The Earth is flat, not round. Flat-Earthers believe the planet is a disk, perhaps with walls of ice surrounding its edge, and the moon, stars and other planets hover over it. Flat-Earthers generally distrust science and say those who claim the Earth is round are covering up the truth.52

  • Stonehenge, a prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, was built, in part, by aliens. Scientists have long been stumped by how the large, heavy boulders that make up the monument's circular design got to the site, given the lack of transportation — Stonehenge was built centuries before the invention of the wheel.53

  • The Titanic, which hit an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland in 1912 during its maiden voyage, was sunk by Jesuit priests who commanded the captain to run the ship into an iceberg, by a cursed mummy aboard or by the owners seeking the insurance money.54

  •   

    An alien spacecraft landed in Roswell, N.M., in 1947 and the government covered it up.55

  • The CIA created the HIV virus at President Nixon's urging to wipe out homosexuals and blacks. Fact-checkers said the KGB helped spread the story as part of a Cold War campaign to discredit the United States.56

  • The British royal family orchestrated the car accident that killed Princess Diana and her boyfriend Dodi Fayed in 1997 because her in-laws did not want her to marry a Muslim.57

A Canadian tourist in front of St. Paul's Cathedral in London (AFP/Getty Images/Dave Gaywood)  
A Canadian tourist in front of St. Paul's Cathedral in London reads the news about Princess Diana's death in August 1997. Diana died after the car she was riding in crashed in a Paris tunnel as her driver tried to flee paparazzi. Her death spawned a conspiracy theory that the British royal family had her killed to keep her from marrying her Muslim boyfriend, Dodi Fayed. (AFP/Getty Images/Dave Gaywood)

A long-running conspiracy theory involves the New World Order, an all-powerful, secret world government that believers of the theory say operates without detection and may have ties to Satan.58

The New World Order, often invoked to explain the cause of major political or tragic events, is emblematic of what researcher Daniël Verhoeven called “systemic conspiracy.” A systemic conspiracy is a claim that such an event is “not what it seems. Behind what appears to be the establishment, there is a ruling elite, an organization of individuals who act as puppet masters; the real elite behind the masquerading elite.”59

Verhoeven also identified “superconspiracy theories,” which occur when believers link multiple conspiracies, sometimes in complex ways, in a hierarchy topped by a manipulative mastermind who is behind the lesser conspiracies.60

An example of a superconspiracy theory involves al Qaeda's attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001, which killed almost 3,000 people. The crux of the theory is that Jews were responsible for the attacks, despite evidence that at least 400 Jews died when the two towers collapsed.61

The web of theories posits that Israel's national intelligence agency, Mossad, knew about the attacks in advance — because it carried them out — and tipped off the 4,000 Israeli nationals who worked in the two buildings so they would stay home on 9/11; Mossad and the CIA worked together to attack the World Trade Center so they would have an excuse to overthrow the Taliban and take over Afghanistan's heroin trade; a spy ring of Israeli art students tracked the 9/11 suspects before the attacks and learned of the plan but did not inform authorities; and the Jewish owners of the Twin Towers planned the attacks so they could collect insurance money.62

A 2003 report by the Anti-Defamation League concluded that “anti-Semitic conspiracy theories have gone beyond just alleging that Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks. They have focused on Israel as an evil force ready to destroy anyone who gets in the way of its interests.” Those theories are still active today.63

‘Birther’ Theory

Conspiracy theories received a further boost in 2008 when Barack Obama ran for president. Some opponents of Obama, who was born in Hawaii, said he was ineligible to serve as president because they falsely believed he was born in Kenya, where his father was from, or in Indonesia where he lived for a time as a child.

Donald Trump, who was considering running for president in 2011, helped keep the theory alive when he said that the theory might be true and demanded Obama produce his birth certificate. Obama did, in April 2011.64

The economic turmoil caused by the deep recession of 2007–09 and its aftermath fueled additional theories. Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh alleged that Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., helped orchestrate the recession in order to get Obama elected, while others believed the Federal Reserve Board purposely caused the downturn.65

Once Trump took office in January 2017, he continued to promote the Obama “birther theory” and to claim the 2016 election was rigged — even though he won it — because, he said, Clinton did not legitimately win the popular vote. Even before the election, he said he feared the results would be bogus.66

Trump also gave a plug to conspiracy theorist Jones, telling the radio show host during the 2016 campaign that “your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.” Most recently, when Jones asked Trump to defend him after Facebook and YouTube deleted content he posted on their platforms, his son Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that “Big Tech's censorship campaign is really about purging all conservative media.”67

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Current Situation

Social Media's Role

Social media is helping to spread conspiracy theories in complex ways, experts say.

Computer algorithms enable social media sites to keep track of which posts are shared most often — and feature those posts so others will see what is trending.

“Things become trending in an algorithm because actual human beings are interacting with these actual stories,” said Whitney Phillips, an assistant professor of literary studies at Mercer University who studies online trolling, “and humans are interacting with these stories because they are trending.”68

Professor Filippo Menczer of Indiana University's Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research said an “echo chamber can make people more gullible about accepting unverified rumors,” hoaxes, conspiracy theories and misleading news.69

Another reason conspiracy theories go viral, according to Wired magazine's research arm, New Media Frontier, is the habit of social media users to include the original post when they share a tweet, a YouTube video or a Facebook status. Those algorithms treat a share or retweet and an original post equally when determining which ones to feature as the most popular, and do not differentiate between shares with negative or positive comments about the original. Likewise, the technology cannot distinguish between truth and lies or between posts from trolls or bots and those of legitimate news sources.

New Media Frontier looked at Twitter comments by conspiracy theorists who claimed gun control advocates faked the fatal shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Valentine's Day. “People outraged by the conspiracy helped to promote it — in some cases far more than the supporters of the story,” the researchers said. They called this “outrage-sharing” and “quote-tweeting,” and said it “may have helped put the conspiracy in front of more unsuspecting people.”70

For example, Chelsea Clinton — daughter of Bill and Hillary Clinton — included in her post a Parkland conspiracy tweet from Gateway Pundit's Hoft. She asked Hoft to “return to attacking me … instead of the courageous #Parkland students.” Other Hoft detractors did the same. By the next morning, Hoft's tweet had been promoted 30,000 times on Twitter — accounting for more than 60 percent of all of the mentions of the shooting. It had won, the New Media Frontier researchers said, “the algorithmic popularity contest.”71

Facebook's and YouTube's algorithms responded similarly. “The conversation about the trend becomes the trend itself, an interminable loop of outrage that all started because some line of code decided to tell millions of people that topic was important,” a Wired recap of the research said.72

Pozner, father of 6-year-old Noah, argued the conspiracy theorists must be confronted.

“Many will say, ‘Just ignore them.’ ‘Don't give them the attention they crave,’” he wrote in 2017. “This approach is ineffective and feeds the movement rather than diminishing it. Unimpeded, this mindset and worldview spread across the internet like a virus. The hoaxer ideology must be challenged, discredited and disparaged.”73

Stopping the Spread

Facebook, YouTube, Apple and Spotify in early August removed much of the content posted on their sites by Alex Jones, whose website Infowars is among the most prolific peddlers of conspiracy theories. These sites are popular platforms for conspiracy theorists. And in mid-August, Twitter suspended Jones' account and asked him to remove a posting on Twitter's video-streaming service Periscope, in which Jones told supporters to get their “battle rifles” ready against the anti-fascist group antifa and the mainstream media.74

In a press release, Facebook cited its policy to remove “hate speech that attacks or dehumanizes others.” The social media giant also blocked Jones from posting additional content for 30 days.75

The move comes in response to criticism that social media administrators should censor hate speech and the spread of false information that harms others.

But some said Jones should be allowed to post. “Whether you like [Jones] or not, he is undeniably the victim today of collusion by the big tech giants,” Nigel Farage, a conservative British politician, wrote on Twitter in response to the news. “What price free speech?”76

Facebook CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg also was criticized in mid-July for his comments about Holocaust deniers. “I find [postings denying the Holocaust] deeply offensive,” he said in an interview. “But at the end of the day, I don't believe that our platform should take [such postings] down because I think there are things that different people get wrong. I don't think that they're intentionally getting it wrong.” (Zuckerberg later apologized and said, “I absolutely didn't intend to defend the intent of people who deny [the Holocaust].”)77

Guillaume Chaslot, a former Google engineer — Google owns YouTube — conducted a survey early this year for The Wall Street Journal that found that the video platform often “fed far-right or far-left videos to users who watched relatively mainstream news sources.”78

Phil Wolf, owner of a used-car dealership in Wheat Ridge, Colo. (Getty Images/John Moore)  
Phil Wolf, owner of a used-car dealership in Wheat Ridge, Colo., stands before a billboard on his lot in November 2009. Wolf paid for the billboard, which highlighted the “birther” conspiracy theory that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and was not a U.S. citizen. (Getty Images/John Moore)

Employees who monitor content — more than 10,000 each at Facebook and YouTube — are tasked with skimming posts for hate speech and videos featuring suicides, sexual exploitation, violence, hate speech or terrorism. In response to pressure from advertisers and after a series of congressional hearings last year, both platforms said they would beef up their vetting process and remove ads and posts showcasing what they consider troubling content.79

“False news is bad for people and bad for Facebook,” Tessa Lyons, a Facebook product manager, wrote in May. She called fake news “a tool for economic or political gains” and acknowledged that political adversaries have used the platform to promote fake news during recent elections.80

Some users have criticized the platforms, however, for removing posts about race that are not necessarily racist and comments from right-wing social media users.

The Brechner Center's LoMonte says the platforms have the legal right to decide what to allow or delete from their sites. “All of those companies have nearly impenetrable insulation under federal law,” he says.

The Communications Decency Act, LoMonte says, considers social media platforms a “conduit of somebody else's speech … not the publisher of it…. Unless the platform actively contributes to creating the harmful content, then they are not treated under the eyes of the law as the publisher” any more than a telephone company is responsible for the phone call of a customer who yells hate speech at the person on the other end.

First Amendment advocate Mikkelson calls any move by Facebook or YouTube to censor conspiracy theories, hate speech or other posts “an infamous slippery slope.” And Wood says the effort is “a bit like whack-a-mole. The conspiracies are serving an important psychological function for their adherents. You can fix whether theories get out there, but the underlying psychological imperative is not changed.”

Still, Germany enacted a law in January to require social media platforms to censor hate speech, which could include some conspiracy theories; in the first court case to test it, a Berlin judge in April issued a preliminary injunction against the mandate.81

In March, the European Commission called on social media companies and European Union states to delete, within an hour of their appearance online, “content ranging from terrorist content, incitement to hatred and violence, child sexual abuse material, counterfeit products and copyright infringement.”82

Mikkelson says the laws will not stop conspiracy theories. “There are hundreds of different ways to spread conspiracy theories inside and outside the internet,” he says. “Should people not be allowed to publish books about conspiracy theories? I haven't heard anyone say that.”

Fears of Violence

A number of conspiracy theorists are going beyond words and harassing survivors or the relatives of victims, according to legal experts. The Guardian has called conspiracy theorists' response to mass shootings “a new epidemic [of] harassing victims.” And some conspiracy theorist believers have threatened violence as they seek to prove their theories. Recent incidents include:83

  • In July, a QAnon follower armed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle and driving an armored vehicle blocked traffic on a bridge near the Hoover Dam in Nevada and Arizona for 90 minutes. Authorities said he demanded that the government release a report by the Department of Justice's inspector general about how the FBI handled its investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. The man, who was arrested, apparently did not know the report had been released the day before.84

  • A 54-year-old conspiracy theorist was charged in March with making a “terroristic threat” after he allegedly threatened to hang the pastor of the First Baptist Church in Texas, where the minister's 14-year-old daughter and 25 others died in a November shooting. The man alleged the massacre was a hoax.85

  • A Florida woman with a history of mental illness, who said Sandy Hook was a hoax, was sentenced in June 2017 to five months in federal prison and five months of house arrest for having sent death threats to Pozner. The judge also banned her from visiting several websites that promote conspiracy theories.86

  • The 29-year-old pizzeria shooter Edgar Maddison Welch, who did not wound anyone, is serving a four-year prison sentence and three years of probation on gun charges after firing a rifle three times as he tried to find and rescue child slaves who he believed were being held in the D.C. restaurant.87

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Outlook

Partisan Divisions

The spread of conspiracy theories will continue until far into the future, says Snopes founder Mikkelson. “I don't expect that you're ever going to be able to stop it,” he says. “Technology changes, but human nature doesn't so much…. Conspiracy theories exist because they fill a need for many people. It's not like something you can wink out of existence overnight.”

Still, says political scientist Uscinski, the popularity of conspiracy theories will wane once Trump leaves the White House.

“If either Clinton or [Jeb] Bush had won [the 2016 presidential election], would we be having this conversation now?” he asks. “Probably not.”

Author Walker agrees. The prominence of conspiracy theories in five years, he says, “will depend on who's president.” Still, he says, “they're not going to go away; they're going to be a constant part of political conversation.”

Uscinski says politicians on the campaign trail routinely offer up conspiracy theories about their opponents and will continue to do so. And members of the losing political party historically have created theories to discredit the winners afterward — and will continue to do so.

Political scientist Wood, however, predicts that no future politician will be able to copy Trump's style when it comes to talking about conspiracy theories. “Who is equipped to pick that up and run with it? It's idiosyncratic to someone who has his political style, his educational background and … comportment.

“There will be more conspiracy theories,” Wood says, “but after Trump leaves office, I don't think we will have as fearsome an advocate of those kinds of stories inside the Oval Office.”

Plus, Wood believes that as Americans become better educated, fewer of them will be interested in engaging in talk of conspiracy theories. “I have good reason to suspect we're at a conspiracy low point,” he says. “The thing that cuts against this is education, especially [higher] education,” which Wood says means more people look to scientific explanations rather than to unfounded theories.

Still, says Uscinski, some conspiracy theories, like those surrounding JFK's assassination, will “always be with us.”

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Pro/Con

Should conspiracy theories receive First Amendment protection?

Pro

Frank D. Lomonte
Professor and Director, Brechner Center for Freedom of Information, University of Florida. Written for CQ Researcher, August 2018

The numbing bombardment of hateful speech polluting our public discourse understandably tempts people to waver in their commitment to the First Amendment. It shouldn't. As the Supreme Court regularly reminds us, we can't prohibit “bad” speech, even with the best of intentions, because subjective standards can readily be abused to silence political dissent.

Yes, it's disturbing that manipulative people can attract a following with unhinged demagoguery. But the First Amendment is ultimately about line-drawing. If it is impossible to come up with a clear line that protects useful speech while letting the government punish harmful speech — and it often is — then we have two choices: We can run the risk of protecting too much, or too little. Federal courts have consistently told us, when in doubt, err on the side of more speech.

Consider Congress' 1999 attempt to criminalize distributing videos of animal torture. In United States v. Stevens, the Supreme Court struck down the prohibition, persuaded that the statute could inhibit documentary films and other societally useful speech. If it's important to allow the Humane Society to distribute upsetting videos of puppy mills, then the law must be broad enough to afford what Justice William Brennan memorably called “breathing space to survive.”

To classify “conspiracy theories” as constitutionally unprotected speech would have dire consequences for political discourse. Many Americans are convinced that President Trump is under Russia's influence because of a rumored “blackmail video,” which he has forcefully denied. If conspiracy theories were unprotected speech, then people who tweet about that video would have no recourse if they are fired from a federal job or otherwise penalized by the government.

Our legal system is built on trust that the “marketplace” will impose its own consequences, and there are signs that is happening. Advertisers abandoned talk-show host Laura Ingraham when she made distasteful remarks about a Parkland shooting survivor, and revulsion over Alex Jones' conspiracy-mongering led Facebook and YouTube to deactivate his pages.

Those who advocate narrowing the First Amendment should remember whose hand is strengthened when speech loses its constitutional protection: the people with power to prosecute crimes and money to hire libel lawyers. If you are uncomfortable trusting Barack Obama or Donald Trump — or whoever comes next — to decide which speakers deserve punishment, a rigorously enforced First Amendment is your friend.

Con

Mark J. Macdougall
Partner, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, LLP. Written for CQ Researcher, August 2018

To call the First Amendment the foundation of American civil liberties would be to understate its role in a free society. The guaranty of freedom of expression, however, has never been absolute. As Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes famously wrote, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre.”

The current constitutional standard for when expression can be legally constrained was stated in 1969 in Brandenburg v. Ohio, in which the Supreme Court held that the state may limit speech that “is directed to inciting or producing imminent lawless action and is likely to incite or produce such action.”

When the Supreme Court set this standard, the idea of a global internet was not even the stuff of comic books. Conspiracies are born every hour on the Web and live there forever. No one can fairly argue that assassination theorists, fake moon-landing promoters and “birthers” do not enjoy the full protection of the First Amendment. But unlike the world in which Brandenburg was decided, today anyone with a laptop computer can send their speculations around the world in seconds.

So when could an internet conspiracy theory reach the threshold of inciting or producing “imminent lawless action”? One dramatic example is Edgar Maddison Welch, the conspiracy buff who carried an assault rifle into a crowded pizza joint in Washington, D.C., in 2016. Welch's plan was to free children being held as sex slaves by prominent Democrats in the “Pizzagate” conspiracy reported on the websites he frequented. Miraculously, nobody was killed or injured and Welch was quickly arrested.

Referring to the internet sources that motivated him, Welch told a journalist from his jail cell, “The intel on this wasn't 100 percent.” The most prominent promoter of the Pizzagate conspiracy — the source of “intel” that sent Welch on his mission — later admitted that it was all made-up. He said he was sorry.

The internet is now the principal marketplace of ideas in American life. The courts will inevitably be forced to revisit the question of what constitutes a call to “imminent lawless action”— sufficient to move a fake conspiracy claim outside the protections of the First Amendment.

Let's hope the facts of the first test case do not include a violent loss of life and the story of another Edgar Welch prompted to violent action by internet conspiracy theories.

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Chronology

 
1770s–1870sSecret societies form.
1776A German professor forms the Illuminati, a secret society whose goal is to “radically change” the way government is run; the group was wrongly blamed for helping instigate the French Revolution.
1865Conspiracy theories swirl around the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Some are true.
1870 Journal of Mental Science is the first to use the term “conspiracy theory.”
1900s–1950sEstablishment of government programs spurs conspiracy theories.
1912Dozens of conspiracy theories blame the Titanic's sinking on its owners, a cursed mummy aboard or Jesuit priests.
1932U.S. Public Health Service begins a 40-year study of syphilis but does not tell the subjects who have the disease, triggering a belief among African-Americans that the government and medical professionals conspire against black Americans.
1947One of the earliest modern conspiracy theories emerges, involving the supposed landing of an alien spacecraft in Roswell, N.M.
1953CIA begins feeding LSD to unsuspecting Americans to determine whether the government could use it to extract confessions from war prisoners.
1958FBI infiltrates fringe political groups. This and other government operations spark new conspiracy theories about secret government programs.
1960s–1990sResearch into conspiracy theories begins.
1963President John F. Kennedy is assassinated, prompting numerous conspiracy theories.
1964Historian Richard Hofstadter publishes “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” often cited as the first seminal research on conspiracy theories.
1972Sociologist Stanley Cohen coins the term “moral panic” to describe a coping mechanism some use to make sense of threats and tragedies by assigning blame for them to outsized “folk devils.”
1997Princess Diana dies in a car accident as her driver tries to dodge paparazzi. Conspiracy theorists believe the British royal family had her killed so she would not marry her Muslim boyfriend.
2000s–PresentPolitical conspiracy theories abound.
2011Donald Trump promotes the theory that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and was thus ineligible to be president.
2013Government subcontractor Edward Snowden reveals that the National Security Agency is listening to private phone calls and monitoring internet use, confirming “Big Brother” theories.
2016President-elect Trump says the election was rigged after opponent Hillary Clinton wins the popular vote by 2.9 million votes.
2017North Carolina man gets four years in prison for firing a rifle inside a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor after seeing rumors on social media that Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager were running a child sex ring inside…. Radio show host Alex Jones retracts comments he made about yogurt maker Chobani to settle a lawsuit that accused him of defaming the company by falsely connecting it to the sexual assault of a 5-year-old girl by three refugee youths.
2018Parents of Sandy Hook Elementary School children killed in 2012 mass shooting sue Jones for defamation after he spread conspiracy theory claiming deaths were faked. (April) … QAnon, a conspiracy theory movement whose members believe Trump is secretly orchestrating a crackdown on the “deep state,” gains national attention at a Trump rally in Florida. (July)
  

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Short Features

Some see his embrace of the unproven as shrewd politics.

For President Trump, the ongoing investigation into whether his election campaign colluded with Russia is “the greatest witch hunt in American history” and the result of a “deep state” plot.1

A number of political scientists, politicians and political pundits say Trump's belief in a deep state — a shadowy network of government insiders with far more power than elected officials — is part of a worldview in which he sees “others” as conspiring to hurt him or the United States.

Trump “feels like there's an effort to undermine his election and that the collusion allegations [concerning Russia] are unfounded,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. “He believes passionately that the liberal Left and the media are out to destroy him.”2

Others see political calculation in Trump's pronouncements. University of Florida law professor Mark Fenster, author of a book on conspiracy theories, said Trump's embrace of conspiracy theories is shrewd politics because it enables him to connect with voters. “He tells the story of haves and have-nots, and of elites that have power that others don't,” he said.

Trump also is “using conspiracy theories to draw attention to himself,” Fenster said. “When he gets onto something, he'll talk about it for a while, but then he'll drop it and move on to the next thing. Conspiracy theories are a tool for Trump.”3

Whatever his motives, Trump has expressed the views that FBI agents investigating the 2016 election have possibly planted evidence about his campaign in an effort to discredit it; the National Park Service and the media underestimated the size of the inaugural crowd on the National Mall to minimize Trump's popularity, create partisan divisions and delegitimize his presidency; and global warming is a “hoax” perpetuated by the Chinese to push the global community into taking steps that would harm U.S. manufacturing.4

Trump is hardly the first politician whose feelings of besiegement have led to claims of conspiracy.

Richard Nixon also believed the political establishment and the media conspired to ruin him, a view that historians say led to his downfall when he resigned in 1974 to head off possible impeachment for obstruction of justice and abuse of power.

The Left also has engaged in conspiratorial thinking, such as during the Iraq War, when liberal conspiracy theorists said the George W. Bush administration invaded Iraq in 2003 to gain access to Mideast oil fields. And Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee, has complained of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” allied against her and her husband, former President Bill Clinton.5

But a number of commentators and academics say Trump is unique because he has backed so many conspiracy theories and is working so hard as president to stoke the anger of his followers about immigration, the media and the deep state. Business Insider last November counted 18 conspiracy theories that Trump has mentioned since 2011.6

For example, during Barack Obama's presidential re-election campaign in March 2011, Trump questioned why Obama, who was born in Hawaii in 1961 to a Kenyan father and an American mother, had not made his birth certificate public and claimed that Obama's grandmother said the president was born in Kenya.7

Obama made his birth certificate public a month later, and the Trump campaign acknowledged in 2016 that the president was born in the United States. But as recently as fall 2017, Trump continued to push the theory that Obama is not U.S.-born.8 To his supporters, Trump was raising legitimate questions about a political opponent; to his detractors, he was cynically appealing to the fears of his white supporters about African-Americans and Muslims. (Some Americans mistakenly believe Obama is a Muslim.)

Two other conspiracy theories advanced by Trump reflect his contention that his enemies are out to harm him and his presidency, according to analysts:

  • Obama tapped Trump Tower telephones. In March 2017, Trump tweeted: “Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the [Election Day] victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!”

Obama and a string of his Cabinet secretaries denied the claims, pointing out that presidents lack the authority to order wiretaps. What did happen, according to published reports, was that intelligence agencies were monitoring Russian officials, and that some conversations they intercepted might have involved Trump aides. Trump stuck to his claim, however, insinuating that Obama had been conspiring to prevent Trump's election.

“How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process,” Trump wrote in one tweet. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”9

  • Illegal voters cost Trump the popular vote. Trump won the Electoral College in 2016, but Hillary Clinton received 2.9 million more votes than Trump. Trump said Clinton's tally was wrong. Conservatives have long pushed for stricter voter registration rules to prevent what they allege is massive fraud in which undocumented immigrants illegally vote in elections. Trump seized on such charges after the 2016 election.

“I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he said, including “illegal aliens.”10

— Sharon O'Malley

[1] Eli Watkins, “Some of the times Trump has called Russia probe a ‘witch hunt,’” CNN, Jan. 11, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycjn48bu.

[2] Kenneth T. Walsh, “The Ghost of Richard Nixon,” U.S. News & World Report, Dec. 15, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ydbctvxb.

[3] Aaron Hutchins, “Why Donald Trump's conspiracy theories are strangely popular,” Maclean's, Sept. 30, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/yd3v3deu.

[4] Isobel Thompson, “Trump's Fear of a Deep State Coup Has Become Full-Blown Hysteria,” Vanity Fair, May 23, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycfaqd6h; Karen Tumulty and Juliet Eilperin, “Trump personally asked a parks official for proof of crowd claim,” The Boston Globe, Jan. 27, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y79pnz6j; Maegan Vazquez, “Trump calls the European Union a ‘foe’ of the United States,” CNN, July 16, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y6wbp7wq; and Dylan Matthews, “Donald Trump has tweeted climate change skepticism 115 times. Here's all of it,” Vox, June 1, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yb5ytsg5.

[5] Danny Postel, “It Wasn't About Oil, and It Wasn't About the Free Market: Why We Invaded Iraq,” In These Times, Feb. 11, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/onle6s2; David Maraniss, “First Lady Launches Counterattack,” The Washington Post, Jan. 28, 1998, https://tinyurl.com/yc49972w.

[6] Maxwell Tani and Michal Kranz, “18 outlandish conspiracy theories Donald Trump has floated on the campaign trail and in the White House,” Business Insider, Nov. 30, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ybxx52n2.

[7] Ibid.; Gregory Krieg, “14 of Trump's most outrageous ‘birther’ claims — half from after 2011,” CNN, Sept. 16, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y7fftc8t.

[8] Jacqueline Thomsen, “Trump still privately questions Obama's birth certificate: report,” The Hill, Nov. 29, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yav6xvtx.

[9] Jana Heigl, “A timeline of Donald Trump's false wiretapping charge,” PolitiFact, March 21, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/n8x7oc5.

[10] “Trump claims millions voted illegally in presidential poll,” BBC, Nov. 28, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y834hj3l.

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Some conspiracy theories have merit, researchers say.

Reptiles masquerading as humans are not really running world governments, and, no, a UFO did not land at Roswell, N.M., in 1947.

But sometimes, conspiracy theories do turn out to be true (or at least partly true), researchers have found. Here are five conspiracies that once were considered little more than crazy rumors:

President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, 1865. Immediately after actor John Wilkes Booth fatally shot the president at Ford's Theatre in Washington, theories about the event swirled. First lady Mary Todd Lincoln suspected the vice president, Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, was in on a plot to kill her husband, and several members of Congress agreed. Other theories implicated Pope Pius IX, Confederate President Jefferson Davis and Lincoln's secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.11

In fact, the assassination started as a conspiracy involving Booth and several accomplices to kidnap the president a month earlier and return him only if the government released Confederate prisoners. When that scheme fell through, Booth and his co-conspirators planned to kill Lincoln, commander of the Union armies Ulysses S. Grant, Secretary of State William Seward and Johnson. Grant, however, declined Lincoln's invitation to join him at the theater after his wife had a spat with the first lady; Johnson's would-be assassin lost his nerve and did not sneak into the vice president's residence as planned; and Seward, who was at home recovering from a carriage accident, was stabbed repeatedly by Booth co-conspirator Lewis Powell but survived.12

Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 1932. The U.S. Public Health Service, now part of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, studied 600 black men, including 399 who had syphilis and 201 who were healthy. The men with syphilis, who did not know they had the disease, were told they had “bad blood” and would be treated for it; they did not receive treatment for syphilis.

The study, conducted in partnership with Tuskegee University, lasted 40 years. During that time, the sick subjects went blind or insane or experienced other syphilis-related health problems — but were never told they had the disease and never received penicillin, which became the recommended treatment in 1945. Researchers continued to study the natural progression of the disease until The Associated Press discovered the study in 1972 and the government shut it down. By then, 28 participants had died, and 40 wives and 19 children also had contracted syphilis.13

The disclosure of a government conspiracy spawned two unproven conspiracy theories: that the government intentionally injected some of the subjects with syphilis, and that the government created HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, to kill African-Americans and gays. The Tuskegee study, conspiracy researchers say, created mistrust among African-Americans toward the government and the medical community that persists: Some in the African-American community have refused treatment for AIDS, based on their belief that the government is conspiring to infect them with the disease.14

MK-Ultra, 1953–64. The CIA conducted experiments involving electroshock therapy and LSD on more than 150 Americans and Canadians, most without their knowledge, at universities, hospitals and prisons. Some subjects were volunteers, however, including Ken Kesey, author of the 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which tells the story of a mental institution, and so-called Unabomber Ted Kaczynski, a domestic terrorist who pleaded guilty in 1998 to killing three and injuring 23 in a nationwide bombing campaign.15

The government's motive for the secret experiments was to study ways to use drugs and medical procedures to force confessions from prisoners of war and to understand how to combat the suspected use of those methods by North Korea, China and Russia.16

Former National Security Agency subcontractor Edward Snowden (Getty Images/Barton Gellman)  
Former National Security Agency subcontractor Edward Snowden gives an interview in December 2013 in Moscow, where he had sought asylum after exposing the agency's surveillance program. His revelations confirmed the conspiracy theory that the government was secretly spying on U.S. citizens. (Getty Images/Barton Gellman)

The Gulf of Tonkin incident, 1964. On Aug. 2, North Vietnamese torpedo boats and a U.S. destroyer clashed in international waters in the Gulf of Tonkin, with the administration of President Lyndon B. Johnson claiming the North Vietnamese fired first. The U.S. government said the North Vietnamese navy attacked again two days later.

Conspiracy theorists long suspected the administration made up the attacks as an excuse to drastically broaden U.S. military involvement in Vietnam. The release of classified documents in 2005 showed these suspicions were partly correct: The second attack on Aug. 4 never happened and “high government officials distorted facts and deceived the American public” to justify sending more troops to Vietnam, according to the U.S. Naval Institute, an independent military association in Annapolis, Md., that studies naval history.17

Big Brother is watching you, 2013. Author George Orwell, who once worked for the BBC, famously coined the phrase in 1949 in his best-selling novel 1984. The author believed he was the subject of government surveillance — a suspicion that was proved true when Britain's National Archives released evidence in 1942 that Scotland Yard was tracking his movements.18

But the bigger, enduring concept — that the U.S. government has been tapping Americans' phones, reading their emails and tracking their internet use — was revealed as true by computer specialist Edward Snowden, who leaked National Security Agency (NSA) documents in 2013 while working there as a subcontractor. An NSA program called PRISM gave the agency access to private internet communications of specific customers of Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook and four other online companies. Telephone companies also had made their customers' phone records available to the NSA, according to evidence leaked by Snowden.

Another program, called XKeyscore, allowed the NSA to search “nearly everything a user does on the internet,” Snowden said. At the time of the Snowden leak, the agency was intercepting 200 million text messages every day from around the world.19

— Sharon O'Malley

[11] Ray Cavanaugh, “The Lincoln Assassination Conspiracies,” History News Network, https://tinyurl.com/ycp4ewm6; “Misinformation and Conspiracy Theories About the Lincoln Assassination,” Ford's Theater, https://tinyurl.com/y9q9d9wh.

[12] Christopher Klein, “10 Things You May Not Know About the Lincoln Assassination,” History, April 14, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/yazq4ufc.

[13] Elizabeth Nix, “Tuskegee Experiment: The Infamous Syphilis Study,” History, May 16, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8r2k4j3.

[14] Stephen B. Thomas and Sandra Crouse Quinn, “The Tuskegee Syphilis Study, 1932 to 1972: Implications for HIV Education and AIDS Risk Education Programs in the Black Community,” American Journal of Public Health, November 1991, https://tinyurl.com/ya9a4syl.

[15] “MK-Ultra,” History, https://tinyurl.com/y9668m6q.

[16] “Project Mkultra: one of the Most Shocking CIA Programs of All Time,” Gizmodo, Sept. 23, 2013, https://tinyurl.com/yccxc555.

[17] Pat Paterson, “The Truth About Tonkin,” U.S. Naval Institute, February 2008, https://tinyurl.com/y9o7jgjh.

[18] Graham Tibbetts, “‘Big Brother’ was watching George Orwell,” The Telegraph, Sept. 3, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yc88j6wu.

[19] Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai, “The 10 Biggest Revelations From Edward Snowden's Leaks,” Mashable, June 5, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/y952u88d.

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Bibliography

Books

Bailyn, Bernard , The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution: Fiftieth Anniversary Edition , Harvard University Press, 2017. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, this classic study of the American revolutionary crisis focuses on the colonists' obsession with the uses and abuses of power.

Oliver, J. Eric, and Thomas J. Wood , Enchanted America: How Intuition and Reason Divide Our Politics , University of Chicago Press, 2018. Two political scientists examine the pulse of a nation that elected Donald Trump in 2016, categorizing voters either as rationalists, who use science and reason to understand reality, or intuitionists, who rely on gut feelings and instincts and are prone to believe in conspiracy theories.

Uscinski, Joseph E., and Joseph M. Parent , American Conspiracy Theories , Oxford University Press, 2014. Two University of Miami political science professors study 120 years' worth of printed letters to the editor of The New York Times and a yearlong sample of internet posts on conspiracy theories to compare the amount of awareness of the issue over time.

Van Prooijen, Jan-Willem , The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories , Routledge, 2018. An Amsterdam-based psychology professor explains why some people are more susceptible to believing in conspiracy theories than others, and argues that such beliefs, while not always irrational, harm both believers and society.

Walker, Jesse , The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory , HarperCollins, 2014. A senior editor for Reason magazine argues that people who believe in conspiracy theories are not “a feature of the fringe” but a potent force in American politics. The book also traces the history of conspiracy theories.

Articles

Davis, Julia Hirschfeld, and Maggie Haberman , “With ‘Spygate,’ Trump Shows How He Uses Conspiracy Theories to Erode Trust,” The New York Times, May 28, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ydektt7j. Journalists offer a history of President Trump's endorsements of conspiracy theories.

Dunne, Carey , “My month with chemtrails conspiracy theorists,” The Guardian, May 22, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/lzo66um. The writer spent a month with two organic farmers who believe airplanes emit chemicals that the government uses to alter the environment and make people sick.

Ford, Matt , “The Legal War on Alex Jones,” The New Republic, May 29, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yaa7kfyk. A liberal magazine chronicles several lawsuits filed against radio host Alex Jones, who accused a State Department worker of masterminding the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va.

Mole, Charlie , “Seth Rich: How a young man's murder attracted conspiracy theories,” BBC, April 21, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yclrbtsj. A British journalist delves into the life and death of Democratic National Committee employee Seth Rich, whose murder on a Washington, D.C., street in 2016 put him at the center of a number of conspiracy theories.

Reports and Studies

Butter, Michael, and Peter Knight , “Bridging the Great Divide: Conspiracy Theory Research for the 21st Century,” Diogenes, Oct. 31, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/ydexutxl. Two British academics say research into conspiracy theories is “thriving” but unfocused.

Douglas, Karen M., Robbie M. Sutton and Aleksandra Cichocka , “The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories,” Current Directions in Psychological Science, Dec. 7, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yczmuyvy. After reviewing recent research on conspiracy theories, three psychology professors from the University of Kent in the United Kingdom conclude that few studies have looked at the psychological consequences for those who had adopted such theories.

Klein, Colin, Peter Clutton and Vince Polito , “Topic Modeling Reveals Distinct Interests within an Online Conspiracy Forum,” Frontiers in Psychology, July 3, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7calfb7. A team of Australian researchers found from a review of 2.2 million Reddit posts over eight years that conspiracy theorists do not fit a unique profile but instead fall into 12 subcategories of prolific posters on the general subject.

Tucker, Joshua A. , et al., “Social Media, Political Polarization, and Political Disinformation: A Review of the Scientific Literature,” Hewlett Foundation, March 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yag559lh. A group of political science professors looks at the literature on the relationship between social media and political “disinformation,” which they identify as “fake news, rumors, deliberately factually incorrect information, inadvertently factually incorrect information, politically slanted information and hyper-partisan news.”

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The Next Step

Alex Jones

Panich-Linsman, Ilana , “Win or Lose, the Alex Jones Lawsuit Will Help Redefine Free Speech,” Wired, Aug. 6, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ydfmj5zf. A lawsuit against radio show host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who has said the 2012 Sandy Hook mass shooting in Newtown, Conn., was a hoax, will help define free speech in the internet age, according to First Amendment lawyers.

Stanley-Becker, Isaac , “Twitter defends not suspending Alex Jones, saying it won't ‘succumb and simply react to outside pressure,’” The Washington Post, Aug. 8, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9yad3x7. Twitter says Jones has not violated its rules and can continue to tweet on its platform.

Zadrozny, Brandy , “Right-wing platforms provide refuge to digital outcasts — and Alex Jones,” NBC News, Aug. 9, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yccb3drt. Niche websites and apps are offering to host Jones and other conspiracy theorists who have been banned from digital platforms.

Partisanship

Cillizza, Chris , “How a conspiracy theory explains the Michael Cohen secret tape,” CNN, July 25, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9m6smz2. President Trump uses conspiracy theories to deflect fault, argues CNN's editor-at-large.

Ewing, Philip , “Democrats Sue Russia, WikiLeaks And Trump Campaign Over Election ‘Conspiracy,’” NPR, April 20, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yaery79v. Democrats have filed a lawsuit against Russia, WikiLeaks and the Trump campaign, alleging collusion between the three parties to secure Trump's presidential victory in 2016.

Salvanto, Anthony , et al., “Americans wary of Trump tariffs' impact, but support plan to aid farmers — CBS poll,” CBS, July 29, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yarlc3dl. The president's efforts to cast the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt” and the media as an enemy of his administration is succeeding in Republican circles, a recent CBS poll finds.

QAnon

Collins, Ben , “What is Qanon? A guide to the conspiracy theory taking hold among Trump supporters,” NBC News, Aug. 3, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7b4llro. A new conspiracy theory says an anonymous source, Q, has discovered a secret war between President Trump and a pedophile ring of elites controlling the government.

Merelli, Annalisa , “An Italian novel is at the center of a meta-conspiracy theory about QAnon,” Quartz, Aug. 8, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yax5z5x5. A new theory about the right-wing conspiracy theory QAnon is that the whole thing is a left-wing prank.

Stanley-Becker, Isaac , “QAnon: Meet a real-life believer in the online, pro-Trump conspiracy theory that's bursting into view,” The Washington Post, Aug. 3, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycl4dmq9. A QAnon believer describes this conspiracy theory, the people who believe in it and the logic behind their beliefs.

Social Media

Collins, Ben, and Alyssa Newcomb , “House Republicans float online conspiracy theories in hearing about social media ‘censorship,’” NBC News, July 17, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yae68ewn. Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee accuse social media sites of censoring conservative content.

Diamond, Dan , “HHS official who spread conspiracy theories forced out,” Politico, July 27, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y75gr4z6. An official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services who was responsible for spreading several conspiracy theories over social media in the past year resigned recently.

Ellis, Emma Gray , “Here's One Way to Reform an Internet Conspiracy Theorist,” Wired, June 27, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybsaqh87. According to a Virginia Tech study of Reddit users, conspiracy theorists can be de-radicalized by focusing on those believers who are new to online conspiracy theories.

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Contacts

FactCheck.org
Annenberg Public Policy Center, 202 S. 36th St., Philadelphia, PA 19104
215-898-9400
www.factcheck.org
A project of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, the nonpartisan website monitors the factual accuracy of statements made in the political sphere, including claims of conspiracy.

Flat Earth Society
London, United Kingdom
http://theflatearthsociety.org
An international organization of “flatists,” who believe the Earth is a flat disk rather than a sphere and claim that scientists who say the planet is round are either mistaken or part of a vast cover-up.

HONR Network
2875 S. Orange Ave., #500-2611, Orlando, FL 32806
475-558-1214
www.honr.com
Created by Lenny Pozner, whose son, Noah, died in the 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the group advocates for laws that will allow for the prosecution of “hoaxers” who claim mass shootings are staged by the government.

Joseph L. Brechner Center for Freedom of Information
University of Florida, 2096 Weimer Hall, Gainesville, FL 32611
352-392-2273
http://brechner.org/
A university-based group that educates journalists, policymakers and the public about the First Amendment and free speech, as well as the law of gathering and disseminating news across all platforms and technologies.

Moon Base Clavius
webmaster@clavius.org
www.clavius.org
Founded by aerospace engineer Jay Windley, the organization's mission is to debunk conspiracy theories that claim no astronauts have landed on the moon.

PolitiFact
1100 Connecticut Ave., N.W., Suite 1300B, Washington, DC 20036
202-463-0571
www.politifact.com
A Pulitzer Prize-winning, fact-checking journalism site owned by the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

Snopes.com
www.snopes.com
One of the oldest and largest fact-checking sites on the internet, this group researches rumors and misinformation, including urban legends, common fallacies, conspiracy theories and celebrity gossip.

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Footnotes

[1] Justin Bank, Liam Stack and Daniel Victor, “What Is QAnon: Explaining the Internet Conspiracy Theory That Showed Up at a Trump Rally,” The New York Times, Aug. 1, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y797rd8c.

[2] Matthew Haag and Maya Salam, “Gunman in ‘Pizzagate’ Shooting Is Sentenced to 4 Years in Prison,” The New York Times, June 22, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ycah9sul.

[3] Jason Wilson, “Conspiracy theories used to be a fringe obsession. Now they're mainstream,” The Guardian, April 12, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/mryj5mf.

[4] Donald Trump, Twitter post, Nov. 6, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/zvzkapj; Maxwell Tani and Michal Kranz, “18 outlandish conspiracy theories Donald Trump has floated on the campaign trail and in the White House,” Business Insider, Nov. 30, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ybxx52n2.

[5] “Conspiracy Theory,” Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, https://tinyurl.com/y8lsqgau; Michael Shermer, “Why Do People Believe in Conspiracy Theories?” Scientific American, Dec. 1, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/y7dt6mm4.

[6] J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood, “Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion,” American Journal of Political Science, March 5, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/ybtgskzh; John Sides, “Fifty percent of Americans believe in some conspiracy theory. Here's why,” The Washington Post, Feb. 19, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/y79n234r.

[7] Lenny Pozner, “Peace and dignity for victims of mass shootings,” Honr Network, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8n3fmqa.

[8] Brandenburg v. Ohio, Oyez, June 9, 1969, https://tinyurl.com/jlt2vmp.

[9] Jeffrey Kluger, “Why So Many People Believe Conspiracy Theories,” Time, Oct. 15, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yb6htkuq.

[10] B. Rose Kelly, “Social exclusion leads to conspiratorial thinking, study finds,” Princeton University, Feb. 20, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y8ly5mb7.

[11] Anthony Lantian et al., “I Know Things They Don't Know!” Social Psychology, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yc39bdde.

[12] Jan-Willem van Prooijen, “Why Education Predicts Decreased Belief in Conspiracy Theories,” Applied Cognitive Psychology, Nov. 28, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/ycor7lmq.

[13] Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Karen M. Douglas and Clara De Inocencio, “Connecting the dots: Illusory pattern perception predicts belief in conspiracies and the supernatural,” European Journal of Social Psychology, Aug. 21, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ydaweymf.

[14] Matthew J. Hornsey, Emily A. Harris and Kelly S. Fielding, “The Psychological Roots of Anti-Vaccination Attitudes: A 24-Nation Investigation,” Health Psychology, Feb. 1, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7xtrbt4.

[15] Jeffrey Kluger, “How to Change an Anti-Vaxxer's Mind,” Time, Aug. 3, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/q87ryp3.

[16] Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent, American Conspiracy Theories (2014), p. 106.

[17] Nicole Chavez, “School shooting survivor knocks down ‘crisis actor’ claim,” CNN, Feb. 21, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y789kvcw.

[18] Chris Bell, “The people who think mass shootings are staged,” BBC, Feb. 20, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9s9lt38.

[19] Jacob Shamsian, “14 bewildering conspiracy theories that celebrities think are true,” Insider, May 29, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yco4mk8h.

[20] David Weigel, “The conspiracy theory behind a curious Roseanne Barr tweet, explained,” The Washington Post, March 31, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yczprwaf.

[21] Alana Abramson, “President Trump's Allies Keep Talking About the ‘Deep State.’ What's That?” Time, March 8, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/gu4b3ye; Stephen Collinson and Jeremy Diamond, “Trump again at war with ‘deep state’ Justice Department,” CNN, Jan. 2, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8wwbgfh.

[22] James Pfiffner, “Trump's lies corrode democracy,” Brookings Institution, April 13, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yarq4ef3.

[23] Aaron Hutchins, “Why Donald Trump's conspiracy theories are strangely popular,” Maclean's, Sept. 30, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/yd3v3deu.

[24] E.J. Dionne Jr., Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, “How Trump is helping to save our democracy,” The Washington Post, Sept. 22, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y754ryt2.

[25] Domenico Montanaro, “4 Lessons From The 2018 Primaries So Far,” NPR, June 5, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yafyhje7; Emily Guskin, “Democrats are more enthusiastic about voting in midterms, poll shows,” The Washington Post, July 12, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8wwnvdw.

[26] “Trump Is Intelligent, But Not Fit Or Level-Headed, U.S. Voters Tell Quinnipiac University National Poll,” Quinnipiac University, Jan. 10, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y83nh4c4.

[27] Glenn Kessler, Salvador Rizzo and Meg Kelly, “President Trump has made 3,251 false or misleading claims in 497 days,” The Washington Post, June 1, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yc6an48c; “Presidential Approval Ratings — Donald Trump,” Gallup, undated, https://tinyurl.com/ybz9lnv2.

[28] Daniel A. Effron, “Why Trump Supporters Don't Mind His Lies,” The New York Times, April 28, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8gn7oba.

[29] Pfiffner, op. cit.

[30] “Election 2016: Trump voters on why they backed him,” BBC, Nov. 9, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y8pqeozo.

[31] John Daniel Davidson, “Only Trump Derangement Syndrome Can Explain Calls for Impeachment,” The Federalist, May 16, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y84j5kro.

[32] Luke Mullins, “The Man Who Sued His Trolls,” The Washingtonian, Aug. 9, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ya3mojhc.

[33] Joe Coscarelli, “An Interview With Alex Jones, America's Leading (and Proudest) Conspiracy Theorist,” New York Magazine, Nov. 17, 2013, https://tinyurl.com/yajelbq6.

[34] Matthew Haag, “Sandy Hook Parents Sue Alex Jones for Defamation,” The New York Times, April 17, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8yx6fkh; Daniella Silva, “Alex Jones' attorney argues that Sandy Hook defamation suit should be dismissed,” NBC News, Aug. 1, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycbfdyzd.

[35] Elizabeth Williamson, “Alex Jones, Pursued Over Infowars Falsehoods, Faces a Legal Crossroads,” The New York Times, July 31, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y94fsrlb.

[36] “Alex Jones' Statement on New Sandy Hook Lawsuit,” YouTube, May 23, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yav5y77e. (YouTube has removed the post.)

[37] Elizabeth Williamson, “Truth in a Post-Truth Era: Sandy Hook Families Sue Alex Jones, Conspiracy Theorist,” The New York Times, May 23, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycnlya3t.

[38] Alan Feuer, “Free Speech Scholars to Alex Jones: You're Not Protected,” The New York Times, Aug. 7, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yc2boa5b.

[39] Michael Sebastian, “Even Pizzagate Suspect No Longer Believes the Conspiracy Theory,” Esquire, Dec. 5, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/y8oacboz; David Montero, “Alex Jones settles Chobani lawsuit and retracts comments about refugees in Twin Falls, Idaho,” Los Angeles Times, May 17, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/lnxjcum.

[40] Oliver Darcy, “Will the spate of lawsuits against fringe media stop of the flow of conspiracy theories?” CNN, March 30, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8oort2h.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Malcolm Gladwell, “The Revolting Truth,” The Washington Post, July 4, 1993, https://tinyurl.com/ybogeta3.

[43] Uscinski and Parent, American Conspiracy Theories, op. cit., p. 2.

[44] “History of Freemasonry,” Masonic Service Association of North America, undated, https://tinyurl.com/7aetn5z; “Who are the Freemasons and what do they do?” The Week, Aug. 1, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7kc2lkp.

[45] Isabel Hernández, “Meet the Man Who Started the Illuminati,” National Geographic, undated, https://tinyurl.com/y7d93gqp.

[46] “The Holocaust — Global Awareness and Denial,” Anti-Defamation League, 2015, https://tinyurl.com/hdesl2m.

[47] Jesse Walker, The United States of Paranoia (2013), p. 158; Ed Pilkington, “Burglars in 1971 FBI field office break-in come forward after 43 years,” The Guardian, Jan. 7, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/y8p4ptxg.

[48] Walker, ibid., p. 161.

[49] Mick West, “Debunked: The CIA invented the term ‘Conspiracy Theory’” in 1967 [in use for 70 years prior],” Metabunk.org, Nov. 29, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/ybmgajef; Darcie Nadel, “A Brief History of Conspiracy Theories,” Owlcation, April 25, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yb55yxz3.

[50] Walker, op. cit., p. 164.

[51] Ibid., p. 162.

[52] Stephanie Pappas, “Flat Earth: What Fuels the Internet's Strangest Conspiracy Theory?” Life Science, Feb. 5, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yd565j8r.

[53] Nadia Drake, “7 Ancient Sites Some People Think Were Built by Aliens,” National Geographic, Oct. 26, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y99tpnhr.

[54] David Mikkelson, “Titanic No Pope,” Snopes, Oct. 8, 2007, https://tinyurl.com/y8s3nbv3.

[55] “Roswell,” History, undated, https://tinyurl.com/y7o4hfv9.

[56] Barbara Mikkelson, “AIDS Created by the CIA?” Snopes, Sept. 23, 2014, https://tinyurl.com/y8osnqge.

[57] Maeve McDermott, “Who Killed Princess Diana? Conspiracy theories endure, twenty years later,” USA Today, Aug. 29, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y7bcfpod.

[58] Hua Hsu, “A Global Government Is Waiting in the Wings,” New York Magazine, Nov. 17, 2013, https://tinyurl.com/y858gcz8.

[59] Daniël Verhoeven, “Conspiracy theories … a long history and a new trend,” blog, July 19, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/y79azvfh.

[60] Ibid.

[61] David Mikkelson, “Thousands of Israelis Were Absent from the WTC on 9/11?” Snopes, updated Sept. 10, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/ya365ghz.

[62] “Unraveling Anti-Semitic 9/11 Conspiracy Theories,” Anti-Defamation League, 2003, https://tinyurl.com/y8zs7ax4.

[63] Marilyn Mayo, “Anti-Semitic 9/11 Conspiracy Theorists Thrive 15 Years After Attacks,” Anti-Defamation League, Sept. 9, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/ya2qbdpk.

[64] “Barack Obama Birth Certificate,” Snopes.com, https://tinyurl.com/yb5ngs4c.

[65] Amanda Terkel, “Limbaugh's Crazy Conspiracy Theory: Democrats Started the Economic Crisis to Help Elect Obama,” Think Progress, Dec. 22, 2008, https://tinyurl.com/ybvqbndo.

[66] Alex Shephard, “Minutes: News & Notes,” The New Republic, July 2016, https://tinyurl.com/jhnkmsz.

[67] William Finnegan, “Donald Trump and the ‘Amazing’ Alex Jones,” The New Yorker, June 23, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/yaa84vby; Ben Goggin, “Donald Trump Jr. Just Defended Alex Jones and InfoWars on Twitter,” Yahoo, Aug. 7, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y77gte2w.

[68] Abby Ohlheiser, “Algorithms are one reason a conspiracy theory goes viral. Another reason might be you,” The Washington Post, Feb. 22, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8cwj9bg.

[69] “Misinformation on social media: Can technology save us?” The Conversation, Nov. 27, 2016, https://tinyurl.com/j2snm8y.

[70] Molly McKew, “How Liberals Amped Up a Parkland Shooting Conspiracy Theory,” Wired, Feb. 27, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y6vwnpbb.

[71] Ibid.

[72] Issie Lapowsky, “Parkland Conspiracies Overwhelm the Internet's Broken Trending Tools,” Wired, Feb. 21, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8vtr2dt.

[73] Lenny Pozner, “Sandy Hook Dad: Expose, Shame Sandy Hook ‘Hoaxer’ Alex Jones in Public,” Hartford Courant, June 14, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ycleg8pb.

[74] Elizabeth Dwoskin, “Twitter suspends far-right conspiratorial commentator Alex Jones,” The Washington Post, Aug. 15, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ycfljhxn.

[75] “Enforcing Our Community Standards,” Facebook, Aug. 6, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybdr4tda.

[76] Jack Nicas, “Alex Jones and Infowars Content Is Removed From Apple, Facebook and YouTube,” The New York Times, Aug. 6, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8ncsvw5.

[77] Kara Swisher, “Mark Zuckerberg clarifies: ‘I personally find Holocaust denial deeply offensive, and I absolutely didn't intend to defend the intent of people who deny that,” Recode, July 18, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y78c8sgs.

[78] Jack Nicas, “How YouTube Drives People to the Internet's Darkest Corners,” The Wall Street Journal, Feb. 7, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yadeet9z.

[79] April Glaser, “Want a Terrible Job? Facebook and Google May Be Hiring,” Slate, Jan. 18, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ydfuoank.

[80] Tessa Lyons, “Hard Questions: What's Facebook's Strategy for Stopping False News?” Facebook Newsroom, May 23, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/yac7lsn6.

[81] Christof Kerkmann and Johannes Steger, “German court overturns Facebook ‘censorship,’” Handelsblatt, April 13, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/ybb94vre.

[82] Kumaran Ira, “European Union Demands Google, Facebook Step Up Internet Censorship,” Global Research, Centre for Research on Globalization, March 5, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y8ppex7s.

[83] Sam Levin and Lois Beckett, “US gun violence spawns a new epidemic: conspiracy theorists harassing victims,” The Guardian, Nov. 28, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/ycmz9byu.

[84] Andy Campbell, “The QAnon Conspiracy Has Stumbled Into Real Life, And It's Not Going to End Well,” The Huffington Post, July 24, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y9byelsv.

[85] Sam Levin, “Conspiracy theorists arrested for alleged threats at site of Texas church shooting,” The Guardian, March 7, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/y7mdx3mk.

[86] Paula McMahon, “Five months in prison for woman who sent death threats to dad of Sandy Hook victim,” Sun-Sentinel, June 7, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yc9lw6de.

[87] Grace Hauck, “‘Pizzagate’ shooter sentenced to 4 years in prison,” CNN, June 22, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/yaa48o3o.

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About the Author

Sharon O'Malley, author of this week's edition of CQ Researcher  

Sharon O'Malley, an assistant professor of journalism at Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland, is a freelance writer, editor, consultant and trainer who has published articles in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including The Arizona Republic, USA Today, Ladies' Home Journal, Working Woman and American Demographics. For SAGE Business Researcher she has written reports on internships, the free economy, mortgage finance and product recalls.

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Document APA Citation
O'Malley, S. (2018, August 24). Conspiracy theories. CQ researcher, 28, 681-704. Retrieved from http://library.cqpress.com/
Document ID: cqresrre2018082400
Document URL: http://library.cqpress.com/cqresearcher/cqresrre2018082400
ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Journalism, Newspapers, and the Media
Aug. 24, 2018  Conspiracy Theories
Jun. 09, 2017  Trust in Media
May 30, 2014  Digital Journalism
May 03, 2013  Media Bias
Apr. 26, 2013  Free Speech at Risk
Apr. 12, 2013  Combat Journalism
Nov. 2010  Press Freedom
Oct. 08, 2010  Journalism Standards in the Internet Age
Feb. 05, 2010  Press Freedom
Mar. 27, 2009  Future of Journalism Updated
Jun. 09, 2006  Blog Explosion Updated
Jan. 20, 2006  Future of Newspapers
Apr. 08, 2005  Free-Press Disputes
Oct. 15, 2004  Media Bias
Oct. 10, 2003  Media Ownership Updated
Dec. 25, 1998  Journalism Under Fire
Jun. 05, 1998  Student Journalism
Sep. 20, 1996  Civic Journalism
Sep. 23, 1994  Courts and the Media
Aug. 24, 1990  Hard Times at the Nation's Newspapers
Jan. 19, 1990  Finding Truth in the Age of ‘Infotainment’
Aug. 18, 1989  Libel Law: Finding the Right Balance
Jun. 06, 1986  Magazine Trends
Oct. 12, 1984  News Media and Presidential Campaigns
Jul. 15, 1983  State of American Newspapers
Oct. 23, 1981  High Cost of Libel
Dec. 23, 1977  Media Reforms
Mar. 11, 1977  News Media Ownership
Jun. 21, 1974  Access to the Media
Dec. 20, 1972  Newsmen's Rights
Aug. 16, 1972  Blacks in the News Media
Dec. 15, 1971  Magazine Industry Shake-Out
Jul. 18, 1969  Competing Media
Sep. 02, 1964  Politicians and the Press
Dec. 04, 1963  Libel Suits and Press Freedom
Jan. 09, 1963  Newspaper Mergers
Dec. 20, 1961  Reading Boom: Books and Magazines
Dec. 02, 1959  Privileged Communications
Apr. 25, 1956  Newsprint Deficit
May 06, 1953  Government and the Press
Sep. 21, 1948  Press and State
Sep. 05, 1947  Newsprint Supply
Mar. 26, 1947  Facsimile Newspapers
Dec. 10, 1945  World Press Freedom
May 01, 1940  New Experiments in Newspaper-Making
Nov. 04, 1933  Press Freedom Under the Recovery Program
BROWSE RELATED TOPICS:
Campaigns and Elections
Conservatism and Liberalism
Consumer Behavior
Consumer Protection and Product Liability
Crime and Law Enforcement
Criminal Law Procedure and Due Process
General Social Trends
Hate Groups
Internet and Social Media
Journalism and the News
Party Politics
Protest Movements
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