Radio host Alex Jones has for years spread a vile conspiracy theory that the 2012 mass shooting of innocent elementary school students and teachers in Newtown was some kind of hoax. In response, the families of six of the murdered children and teachers are taking Jones to court. Good — I think.
The families are accusing Jones and some of his frequent guests of defamation, for sure, but they’re also seeking damages because of the constant abuse and death threats they continue to receive on social media.
They also claim that Jones made quite a bit of money off the conspiracy theory, calling Jones’ spreading of lies “a very lucrative business model.” From the complaint:
“Jones and his subordinates … deliberately stoke social anxiety and political discord in their listeners, because distrust in government and cultural tribalism motivate those listeners to buy their products.”
I can’t think of a sentence that more accurately describes American politics over the last few decades. There is a deep connection between conspiracy theories and extremist politics, and when extremist politics go mainstream, like they have in today’s Republican Party, what might once have been seen as wacky fringe theories turn into real political rhetoric and even policy.
There are left-wing conspiracy theories that enter the public debate, such as the 9/11 “truther” theory, but the vast majority of harmful political conspiracy theories have come from the right.
Bill Clinton was an early target; he seemed to cause right-wing conspiracy theories to emerge simply by existing and being president. For example, conspiracy theories about the suicide of Clinton’s White House deputy counsel Vince Foster were topics of constant chatter in the right wing fever swamps, but they actually spread into mainstream media. Blowhards like Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes (then of CNBC), and Pat Robertson all fueled the fire by implying Foster had somehow been murdered, or his body had been moved, or he had died in an apartment owned by Hillary Clinton.
Why do so many otherwise rational people believe in things that are so clearly untrue?
Conspiracy theories suck people in by promising truths that often align with our own beliefs. If you’re mad about all those smug scientists telling you things about the world that make you uncomfortable, anti-science conspiracy theories — like vaccines causing autism or global warming is a hoax — are perfect fits. If you hate the black president with the funny name, here’s a theory about how he wasn’t even born in this country and is a secret Muslim. If you support President Trump, you may buy into his latest lie about spies being implanted in his campaign by political opponents.
And if calls for gun control following mass shootings outrage you but you feel you can’t say anything in the face of tragedy, theories claiming that Sandy Hook and other shootings were faked are like finding cool, sweet-tasting water in the desert.
Conspiracy theories bait the gullible by piling inconsequential details or outright lies on top of one another and giving them outsize importance. Tiny, easily explained discrepancies in early news reports or later filings are suddenly held up as “evidence.” For instance, Sandy Hook theorists latched on to a picture of President Obama meeting with families after the tragedy which supposedly showed one of the victims alive. It was, in fact, the victim’s younger sister.
Conspiracy theories also make people feel special, and can be an antidote to alienation. In their minds they alone know the “truth,” and they’re part of an elite club of elite truth-seekers who aren’t afraid to challenge the status quo.
And once someone starts thinking like a conspiracy theorist, it’s hard to stop. If you believe in one conspiracy theory, you probably believe in a lot of them. Take President Trump, who seems to believe in all of them.
It’s hard to deal with people stuck in conspiracy-land, because they won’t be swayed and they won’t listen to reason. Any evidence presented debunking any of these theories is dismissed immediately as just another part of the wide-ranging conspiracy. It’s like trying to talk with someone who joined a cult.
Maybe suing the big-time purveyors of dangerous nonsense like this will help stop its spread. Or maybe it’ll just make things worse.
But what we can do to keep from falling into the conspiracy theory trap ourselves is to question information that is brand new or seems discordant, and then to find the truth by consulting multiple high-quality sources.
If you think there are no reliable sources in the mainstream media, however, then I have some bad news for you: you’re already deep into conspiracy theory territory, and you need to get out.
Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.
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