The Danger of Endorsing Political Conspiracies

Photograph of two tabloid magazines with headlines about Hilary Clinton, dated
"Quality Journalism Means an Informed Citizenry" by Mike Licht is licensed under CC BY 2.0 (via Flickr)

Barack Obama isn’t an American citizen. Hillary Clinton sold weapons to ISIS. Democrats orchestrated the Sandy Hook shooting to promote gun control. Conspiracies have plagued political discourse for centuries, and have grown especially more prevalent and harsh in recent years. There are multiple reasons behind this current uptick in conspiracies, the most obvious being the increased accessibility to the Internet and social media. However, even more unsettling is the very real damage that has been caused by belief in conspiracies in recent years.

On December 4, 2016, a man under the impression that the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington D.C. was harboring a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton in its basement, entered the restaurant with an assault weapon and opened fire. Fortunately, no one was injured or killed, but the shooter, named Edgar Maddison Welch, had intended to “rescue the children” by use of force. This shooting was only the climax of the conspiracy that has been dubbed “Pizzagate.” Pizzagate started as an online discussion on the message board 4chan, and quickly proliferated as the 2016 presidential election grew nearer. The conspiracy spread to Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and was even endorsed by notorious radio host and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones before Welch’s intended attack. A poll ran shortly after the 2016 election showed that 9% of Americans believe in the Pizzagate conspiracy theory.

Almost two years later, senseless violence runs rampant on the weekend of October 26, 2018, including a number of packages containing explosives being mailed to prominent Democrats, a mass shooting in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and another racially-charged shooting at a Kroger grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky. All of these attacks were rooted in beliefs in political conspiracies.

Florida native, Cesar Sayoc, mailed packages containing bombs to Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and George Soros amongst others, as well as three bombs sent to CNN headquarters in New York City and Atlanta. His targeting of these Democrats and CNN in particular is attributed to the fact that they have all criticized and been criticized by President Donald Trump. Sayoc is a Trump superfan, as evidenced by his van plastered with Trump promotional stickers and posts on social media. Sayoc also subscribes to right-wing conspiracy theories. On his Twitter and Facebook pages, the 56-year-old articulated support for various conspiracies including claims that Obama is the Antichrist, Parkland shooting survivor David Hogg is an actor paid by George Soros to advocate for gun control, and even that German Chancellor Angela Merkel was conceived from the frozen sperm of Adolf Hitler in a Soviet experiment. Considering his obsession with President Trump and his promulgating of conspiratorial rhetoric that targeted high-profile Democrats, it is clear that Sayoc’s beliefs in conspiracies inspired the attacks.

The two mass shootings that occurred over the weekend also fall under conspiracy-based motives. The synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh, carried out by Robert Bowers, was fueled by the perpetrator’s anti-Semitism. Bowers perpetuated anti-Semitic sentiments on social media, and allegedly shouted, “all Jews must die” before opening fire on the synagogue. The man also bought into a conspiracy that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) was leading the caravan of refugees who have been migrating from Honduras to the U.S.-Mexico border in recent weeks. Similarly, Gregory A. Bush of Jeffersontown was motivated by racism against African-Americans to carry out his grocery store shooting. Video footage shows Bush attempting to gain access to a predominantly-black church with his weapon before moving to the grocery store, where he shot and killed two African-American seniors: Maurice Stallard and Vicki Lee Jones. Eyewitnesses say he was confronted by another white man in the grocery store who was pointing his own firearm at Bush, to which Bush replied, “Don’t shoot me. I won’t shoot you. Whites don’t shoot whites.” White supremacy in itself is a conspiracy, as it relies on the false notion of biological racism to explain white people’s privileged position in society, and Bush implies that his attack was motivated by this biological racism.

As demonstrated by the three acts of violence from the weekend, and by the Pizzagate shooting in 2016, it is evident that over-the-top conspiracies are dangerous to the public. Why then do people continue to buy into and spread political conspiracies? A study from the University of Minnesota shows that the people who are most likely to endorse political conspiracy theories are those who are conservative, and have high political knowledge paired with low trust in government. The current state of news consumption and political rhetoric fosters an environment hospitable to citizens with these characteristics. Due to increased accessibility to the Internet and television, the American public is more connected to current events through media than ever. Additionally, the American public’s confidence in government institutions is destitute, likely caused by divisive rhetoric dominating political discourse that is in the news, on social media, and between politicians. Easy access to political news and severe unrest in politics encourages the formation of a citizen whose political awareness is only matched by their skepticism, and who is thus prone to believe in conspiracies.

How does this all end? Is tension and misinformation going to keep flourishing until conspiracy theories hold more influence than mainstream political news? Not necessarily, as long as influential people stop giving power to conspiracy theories. The recent uptick in conspiracy-based violence can undoubtedly be attributed to higher political knowledge and lower trust in government in American society, but it is no coincidence that these attacks also occur at a time when political leaders sanction misinformation. President Trump himself has spread a conspiracy that Arab populations in New Jersey cheered upon seeing 9/11 happen, and was an outspoken member of the “birther” movement that claimed Obama’s birth certificate to be forged. The president even appeared on Alex Jones’ talk show, Infowars, during his 2016 campaign, and told Jones, “Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down.”

As new information concerning Sayoc’s mail bombs comes to light, conspiracies about the bombs actually being planted by Democratic operatives are already unfolding. To step away from conspiracy-based violence, political leaders must condemn these (and other) conspiracies and side with true, verifiable information. The mainstream media, while biased, is “mainstream” for a reason: it publishes scrutinized and evidenced information, and corrects itself when it is wrong. Abhorrence for biased news is not reason to shun it and endorse conspiracies. In order to save lives, political leaders must end the war on truth.