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Conspiracy Theories and the Right-Wing Ecosystem

Sean Hannity speaking with attendees at the Conservative Review Convention at the Bon Secours Wellness Arena in Greenville, South Carolina in 2016. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

The conspiracy theory is a well-worn theme within popular culture. From The Manchurian Candidate to JFK to The X-Files, our understanding of these theories are as ones where the stakes are at the highest levels, and usually involve some attempt at national or global domination. The main players are shadowy, supremely inter-connected and occasionally violent. There is almost always widespread collusion between the fields of politics, media, business and the military.  The motives are rarely, if ever, benign. In their article, “Conspiracy Theories and the Paranoid Style(s) of Mass Opinion”, political scientists J. Eric Oliver and Thomas Wood define a conspiracy theory as, “an explanation that makes reference to hidden, malevolent forces seeking to advance some nefarious aim.”

In recent years we have seen an explosion of such theories in the United States: that the events of September 11, 2001 were either known in advance to the US government or were an ”inside job”; that President Barack Obama is not a US citizen (and is Muslim); and, that the December 2014 Sandy Hook Massacre in which Scott Lanza killed 20 children at a school in Connecticut was faked in order for the US government to implement stricter gun control. These are but a few.

To this we can add the tragic story of Seth Rich, a 27-year old Democratic National Convention staffer who on July 10, 2016 was shot an killed in an apparent botched robbery attempt in Washington, D.C. Rich’s death came just days before WikiLeaks released a huge trove of leaked DNC emails. The conspiracy theory? That Rich, a supposedly disgruntled Bernie Sanders supporter, was the source of the emails leaked to WikiLeaks, and that the Clinton campaign had him killed as a result. Of course, if Rich was the source of the leaked emails, this would mean that the story that the Russians had hacked the DNC emails was false, thus taking a significant burden off of the shoulders of Donald Trump.

The story, always bubbling under the surface in chat rooms and on social media, exploded on May 16 when Sean Hannity of Fox News and Washington’s local Fox News affiliate ran a story connecting Rich to WikiLeaks. Former Speaker of the House and Trump supporter Newt Gingrich then repeated the theory in an appearance on Fox & Friends on the morning of May 21. 

The problem? The story, by all accounts, is false, and there is no evidence whatsoever linking Rich to WikiLeaks. Even the conservative National Review offered a scathing critique.

Within days Fox News retracted the story, stating that the article, “was not initially subjected to the high degree of editorial scrutiny we require for all our reporting”. Hannity, who had ardently pushed the theory on his show and via his Twitter feed, announced that he would back off of the story, “out of respect for the [Rich] family’s wishes.” Rich’s family, by the way, had the day before published an opinion piece in the Washington Post imploring Hannity and others to stop using their son’s death as a “political football.”

The story of Seth Rich is informative for what it tells us about the nature of conspiracy theories, and how they not only survive, but thrive, in the contemporary media ecosystem.

To begin, there is no reaction mainstream outlets can give to these theories that will convince those who truly believe the theory that they are wrong. In fact, every form of response is understood as confirmation. Thus their power.

If the mainstream media do not cover the theory at all? Well, that’s to be expected as they are likely part of an organized cover-up. Often, media non-coverage is the ultimate evidence that the theory has merit.

If the mainstream media do cover the theory, but are critical? Again, that’s to be expected. Media pushback is proof they are threatened. But, on the other hand, the fact that the media are covering the story at all tells you that there must be something there. Otherwise, why cover it?

If the mainstream media do cover the theory, and concede there might be some merit? In this case, skepticism about mainstream outlets and criticism of their politics and collusion suddenly disappear, and their coverage is seen as validation.

This point about attacking the mainstream media as a strategy was raised in a recent study of the “right-wing ecosystem” by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts, and Ethan Zuckerman. In the piece, the authors note that this ecosystem has developed into, “an internally coherent, relatively insulated knowledge community, reinforcing the shared worldview of readers and shielding them from journalism that challenged it.” Within this environment, “the President can tell supporters about events in Sweden that never happened, or a presidential advisor can reference a non-existent ‘Bowling Green massacre.’” The authors are at pains to point out, however, that these ecosystems are more than just a function of algorithms that filter out unwanted news. It is about the “repetition, variation, and circulation” of these theories across sites and users over time that make it possible for the seemingly incredible to be believed. Key to this spread is a common understanding of topics, themes and sources among followers.

And what of the Rich story? What is clear is that, rather than kill the story, the decision by Fox News will help it to thrive. Immediately after it was withdrawn, Sean Hannity tweeted that, despite his laying off of the story for now, he will work “harder than ever to get to the truth the family wants and deserves. Stay tuned.” This was followed by a tweet in which he wrote: ”Spoke to many advertisers. They are being inundated with Emails to stop advertising on my show. This is Soros/Clinton/Brock liberal fascism.”

What more proof do we need that he speaks the truth?

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Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen

Christian Christensen, American in Sweden, is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrChristensen

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