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Feb. 6, 2017, 10:59 a.m.
Audience & Social

The history of American conspiracy theories holds some lessons for fake news debunkers, says Jesse Walker

“For a lot of people, the real assumption that they bring to the news, even beyond their partisan affiliations, is an expectation of a smooth narrative…That’s the real bias that readers have to combat, and it’s something that people in the media have to think about.”

“Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames. They’re wrong.”

Jesse Walker, books editor at Reason Magazine, wrote that in his 2013 book The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory, though the idea could just as easily apply to today’s politics. As conspiracy theories proliferate online and, more alarmingly, are sometimes spread by the president of the United States, innuendo and “alternative facts” have taken a sudden and central role in political discourse.

Walker’s thesis was that American conspiracy theories, while focused on an evolving set of events and groups of people over time, reflect certain persistent anxieties in the country, including popular uprisings (among elites), shadowy elite machinations (among everybody else), and fear of foreigners (among countries as a whole). Walker’s rubric potentially serves as a useful way to evaluate both the politics of today and the media’s role in debunking the fake news stories spreading on Facebook and Twitter.

I spoke to Walker about the historical oddity of Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories, the role of partisanship in news judgment, and why he’s optimistic about the future of digital fact-checking.

Ricardo Bilton: Having looked at over 200 years of conspiracy theories in the U.S., is there anything that seems particular new or different about how they look today?

Jesse Walker: Obviously, there’s are a lot of them going around, so it’s hard to pick out any one thing. One facet that stands out is all of the conspiracy theories emerging from Trump and his people. Trump is unusual in that, while there is a long history of people in the executive branch who held conspiracy theories, he has a shamelessness and a cynicism to his conspiracy rhetoric that’s not there with others. In general, in America nowadays, if a conspiracy theory is embraced by the mainstream, people don’t call it a conspiracy theory. There’s a taboo around a lot of the topics. Donald Trump likes to present himself as a man unshackled by the mores of society, such as the one that says you don’t casually suggest that your opponent’s father might be mixed up with the Kennedy assassination, as he did with Ted Cruz.

Bilton: When we talk about conspiracy theories lately, we’re often talking about fake news. What do you make of the debate around that term and that phenomenon, and how it might have affected the outcome of the election?

Walker: What was interesting about watching the debate over “fake news” over the past couple of months is how the definition of the term evolved so rapidly. A year ago, when people talked about fake news, they were talking about Onion-like satire sites that publish hoaxes that people click on and generate ad revenue. It could be political stories, but it could also be stories saying that, for example, Willie Nelson had died. It picked up over the course of the election and there was more political material being used. Then you had it applied to things like Pizzagate, which was generated by fringe people, not hoaxers.

To me, if we were to salvage anything from the fake news debate before it got drawn away into these side debates, it would involve two things: First of all, the increased importance of media literacy and being able to distinguish a real story from a fake one. Second, my view is that it’s actually a lot easier to debunk this stuff than in the past.

Bilton: So you’re optimistic about about media’s ability stop fake news from spreading?

Walker: I looked historically at some of these rumors that floated around in the early 1940s. There was, for example, this idea that blacks in the south were organizing to take over once World War II was over and Hitler would put them in charge. It sounds like the most absurd sort of fake news rumor of today. The thing is it wasn’t being circulated online where someone could read it and then easily Google it or click over to Snopes to see the debunking. It was just being talked about face-to-face as a rumor, and that’s how it spread.

So, yeah, I’m actually moderately optimistic, because the fact that everyone is talking about fake news and on the lookout for it shows there’s more of an awareness of it and how people can be fooled. Obviously, tons of false stories are circulating, but it’s easier than before to identify them, and debunk them, and counteract them. I don’t know whether it’s true that the debunking is doing the job, but the people writing the debunking stories are at least being somewhat empowered in a way they weren’t before and that should be a part of the equation too.

Bilton: Let’s talk about the role of partisanship in all of this. In January, Time mistakenly reported that Donald Trump had replaced the Oval Office’s bust of Martin Luther King Jr. with one of Winston Churchill. The story was very quickly corrected. But I know a bunch of left-leaning people who were convinced by the initial report, even after it was corrected, because it “seemed like something Trump would do.”

Walker: There’s obviously a strong connection between partisanship and confirmation bias. But I think it’s easy for people who deal with political journalism all the time to focus on the people for whom the main source of confirmation bias is politics. For most people, politics is not as big of a part of their lives. So maybe their confirmation bias is coming from another direction. I don’t even know how many people saw that story [in its original form], because it was circulated and debunked pretty quickly. Still, people have a knack for believing what they want to believe, and when someone makes a mistake, it’s going to reinforce the narratives for people on both sides.

For a lot of people, the real assumption that they bring to the news, even beyond their partisan affiliations, is an expectation of a smooth narrative. They expect news stories to look like the movies or TV shows that they’re familiar with. Even if they’re regular journalism consumers, the stories they remember best are these well done stories that tell a compelling narrative and make them feel like they’re watching a movie or TV show.

In reality, stories are messy and have real loose ends. That’s the real bias that readers have to combat, and it’s something that people in the media have to think about. Because, on the one hand we want to provide good, compelling narratives, but on the other hand, we don’t want people to think they live in this world that’s made up of these easy, compelling narratives. They don’t.

Bilton: It seemed during the election that a lot of the most outlandish stuff that reporters had to debunk came from the right, but one of the things you pushed in the book was that conspiracy theories aren’t confined to a single end of the political spectrum. Does that idea still hold?

Walker: I think the left, the right, the center — there are conspiracy theories on every part of the spectrum. I think the tendency to see conspiracies stems from basic human characteristics, and it will manifest itself in different ideological quarters in different ways. No one has a monopoly on it. If it gets more intense sometimes, it has to do with the intensity of fear that people have, either because they’re out of power or in power but for some reason feel threatened. People often have difficulty seeing the ways they resemble the people they criticize.

Photo of 9/11 conspiracy sign by Ryan used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 6, 2017, 10:59 a.m.
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