The Dangers of Conspiracy Theories in American Political Discourse

By Rosalind Horrobin

“Donald Trump contracted COVID-19 three days earlier than he said”

“His face mask is covering the breathing tube that is fitted to his face”

“He is deadly ill and returning to the White House to prove a point”

“—or he is already recovered and pretending to be ill to drum up his base?”

“Did Trump even get COVID-19?”

These are all rumours that have been circulating social media since Donald Trump announced his coronavirus diagnosis on Friday. And they are coming from all ends of the political spectrum.  Some Democrats believe that Trump caught COVID-19 before Friday and deliberately went to the presidential debate in an attempt to infect Biden. Others think that Trump is still seriously ill and may not survive the virus. At one point there was even a doctored image making the rounds of Trump boarding his Marine One helicopter that appeared to show a nasal cannula fitted under his mask and a lump around the size of a portable oxygen concentrator in his pocket. This photo was passed around social media as evidence of serious illness, with even prominent left-wing commentators buying into it. 

These wild theories about Trump’s health were not limited to a handful of people.  In the three days after Trump announced his illness, there were 89,000 mentions on social media that Trump was faking it and, more dangerously, 33,000 mentions of a plot to kill or infect the president.  Many on the right seemingly believe that this was an assassination attempt by the ‘Deep State’ or, more commonly, by China.  Through analysing these conspiracy theories, and others like it, we can begin to understand how so many people are being lured into these fantastical stories. These conspiracies are important in how they are dividing America further, creating an atmosphere of suspicion. If Americans cannot agree upon very simple facts about Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis then they are unable to properly enter a meaningful discussion about it.  Without a set of parameters and agreed upon facts in a conversation, then all dialogue is surface and the ability to relate to the other person is limited.  Too much time is being spent on proving simple issues that no true analysis is being realised.

A belief in a large, malevolent ‘deep state’ pulling the strings behind the scenes is an underlying assumption that many conspiracies rely upon.  It betrays a lack of trust in wider authorities, ‘the establishment’.  This idea of a deep state, hidden groups, and transnational conspiracies is fairly venerable.  The Free Masons, Illuminati, and the Protocols of Zion are all former incarnations of this conspiracy blueprint.

 A large influence on the outcome of the 2016 election could be chalked up to this lack of trust. Trump’s message of “draining the swamp” tapped into these suspicions, with a major party candidate confirming that there was a darkness that needed to be cleansed. Some elements of right-wing America are particularly prone to a belief in large deep state conspiracies, with examples like Pizzagate and QAnon being perhaps the most well known. These theories are particularly interesting in their real world consequences – either resulting in violence or making their way into mainstream discourse. 

In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager’s emails were hacked and later published on WikiLeaks.  Some people argued that there was coded language in many of the emails between Democratic elites that pointed to a child sex trafficking ring.  There was, of course, not.  Theorists linked these emails to a pizzeria in Washington DC, where they believed that the ring was being run out of the basement.  ‘Pizzagate’ theorists thought that words in the emails like cheese, hot dog and pizza were used as code for soliciting young children to commit sex acts.  Pizzagate theorists began to take their conspiracy into the real world: taking pictures of children in the restaurant and uploading them as ‘evidence,’ threatening the employees, and arriving in person to demand to be taken to the basement (which did not exist).  This all culminated in December 2016, when a North Carolina man travelled to the pizzeria in DC with an assault rifle, a handgun, a shotgun, and a knife. He threatened employees and shot up the restaurant saying he wanted to rescue the children.  He surrendered after investigating the restaurant and finding no evidence of the Pizzagate ring. James Alefantis, the owner of the pizzeria said that, “What happened today demonstrates that promoting false and reckless conspiracy theories comes with consequences.” Conspiracy theories are not some nebulous thing that have no real world consequences. In their echo chambers violence and hatred can be stirred up and, eventually, overspill into the real world. 

QAnon started in 2017 on the anonymous messaging board 4Chan with a user claiming to be a high-ranking government official with ‘Q-level security clearance.”  The user went on to post many updates detailing how Trump is attempting to dismantle a cannibalistic, satanic child trafficking ring that is frequented by many liberal ‘deep-state’ actors.  You may see already the similarities to the Pizzagate conspiracy. Accusations of satanism are very common in American right-wing conspiracy theories and harken back to the ‘satanic panic’ of the 1980’s. Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Soros were all mentioned in Q’s ‘drops’ as being just some of the notable satanic deep state actors who would be held accountable for their crimes by Trump.   QAnon is notable in just how long it took social media companies to react, with Facebook announcing only on October 6th that QAnon accounts would be banned from their platforms.  And also notable for its breakthrough into mainstream political thought, with 24 congressional candidates publicly voicing support and espousing some of the theories from QAnon.  When Trump was first asked about QAnon he said “I heard that these are people that love our country. So I don’t know really anything about it other than they do supposedly like me.”  Approving of believers in a secret cannibalistic, satanic cabal controlling the world is not a hindrance to a political campaign anymore. That is worrying.

If you were to investigate why a QAnon subscriber persists in believing such fantastical stories, you would only have to look at Leon Festinger’s groundbreaking work.  Festinger created the phrase ‘cognitive dissonance’ to describe the “mental discomfort of facing inconsistency in one’s thoughts, beliefs, perceptions and/or behaviours.” In such a state of discomfort we will unconsciously try to remove or dismiss the conflicting information in the easiest way possible.  This can be seen in the way that when confronted with facts and information contrary to someone’s beliefs, they will dismiss the facts as tainted or unimportant rather than admit that they were wrong. When Pizzagate believers found the blueprints of the pizza store and discovered there was no basement, they didn’t take this as a debunking of their belief.  Instead, they saw it as confirmation of how high up this pedophile ring went — that someone was able to change the blueprints of a public building. A QAnon believer would argue that they were “seeing past the lies” and not “blindly accepting the mainstream media’s lies.” It is a failing of most of us that the last thing we consider is that we may be the ones in the wrong. 

Critical thinking and skepticism towards media narratives are to be commended, however many conspiracists simply rely upon shifting their belief blindly from one outlet to another instead of further investigation.  The conspiracy theories most prevalent in the online landscape are very clever in their need for an underlying assumption that you can trust no-one but the creator of the theory.  They rely upon this distrust for ‘the establishment,’ ‘the media’ and those in power.  With the advent of the internet and increasing globalisation, every single person is now a news outlet. They are able to spread news just as well and as quickly as mainstream news outlets with teams of fact-checkers.  Kellyanne Conway’s positive coronavirus diagnosis was announced by her daughter on TikTok before Conway was able to announce it herself on twitter.  With so many novel sources of ‘news,’ we are now besieged with an abundance of information.  We can’t spend all day cross-checking and verifying news sources—it would take hours everyday to find out the truth to even one news story, and even then it may be impossible.  That’s why we have to put our trust into journalists to weed out the important information for us, to curate and arbitrate our information.  But journalism is no longer breaking news and investigating characters and their designs. Now journalists are spending all their time editing, checking and arbitrating ‘news’ stories that have come from no-where.  Too much time is spent on debunking insane conspiracy theories and yet often these debunkings are ignored.  Those who believe in conspiracy theories are making the same decision as we are; that sorting through all this information on one’s own is too difficult and that we should place our trust in a news outlet.  They just choose the wrong ones.

And it’s not entirely their fault.  The recent documentary ‘The Social Dilemma’ introduced the audience to the algorithm deliberately designed to tell you what you want to hear. The main goal for websites is to convince you to spend as much time as possible on them and so they deliberately steer you towards known rabbit holes.  An algorithm does not know truth from fiction and it doesn’t care.  All it knows is that when users click on one link they are often more prone to click on another similar link.  This leads us down dark rabbit holes on both sides of the political spectrum.  The internet is becoming a gated community.  Despite globalisation and access to huge amounts of information through the internet, we are likely to consume just a small portion of it—a portion that confirms our already pre-existing beliefs, whilst pushing them just the tiniest bit further in the process. 

From the small to the gigantic we cannot choose to ignore conspiracy theories’ effects on American politics anymore.  Information from questionable sources are right now informing many voters on this election.  The scale of these conspiracies are almost unimportant—from Trump faking Coronavirus all the way up to QAnon and Pizzagate, they all have the same effect. They all result in an individual less likely to engage with the important issues of governance, instead focussed on debunking and investigating these insane stories. Conspiracies have real world consequences and if we are not careful and informed in where we choose our news from, we will start to see these consequences more and more.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own, and may not reflect the opinions of The St Andrews Economist.

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