Dartmouth Professor: Spread of Liberal Conspiracy Theories a 'Worrisome' Trend

May 24, 2017

The term “fake news” became part of the national lexicon leading up to last year’s presidential election.

But in the months since President Trump took office, there’s now been a flurry of liberal conspiracy theories being spread across social media.

Brendan Nyhan is a professor at Dartmouth College and a New York Times contributor. He studies fact-checking and the spread of political misinformation.

He joined NHPR’s Morning Edition to talk about this issue.

Many of these conspiracy theories or fake news stories have to do with Trump and his campaign’s connections to Russia. What are you seeing?

I’m seeing a disturbing trend of people taking the very serious and real questions about Russian interference and using that as a pretext for all sorts of wild and unsupported conspiracy theories. These are often coming from internet personalities and people who work on social media, but they’re infiltrating into the discourse more generally through liberal elites who are amplifying them. So we’re seeing a spread of these claims out into the mainstream in a way that I think is potentially worrisome.

What are some examples?

Sure. There are so many conspiracies out there right now, it’s hard to even keep track. Most recently, Louise Mensch, who’s become an influential conspiracy monger, suggested that secret impeachment proceedings were underway, making a series of claims that are falsified by the text of the Constitution itself in terms of how impeachment works. It sounds ludicrous, but it’s the kind of information that’s being circulated. We’re seeing people like Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe amplifying these claims. We’re seeing people like former Clinton Secretary of Labor Robert Reich suggesting left-wing protesters at Berkeley were actually in cahoots with the far-right. We’re seeing MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell suggesting Vladimir Putin had allowed or encouraged chemical weapons attacks on Syria so that Donald Trump could launch missiles against Syria to boost his popularity ratings. The list goes on, and it’s quite remarkable how quickly it’s turned around. It’s important to remember Democrats spent the last eight years complaining about the birther myth and all sorts of conspiracy theories around Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, and now just a few months later, here we are.  

Brendan Nyhan
Credit Dartmouth College

During debate over the health care law, there was misinformation spreading about what was actually in the bill, or stories about politicians celebrating over beer which were later debunked. What’s the root cause of this?

People are looking for bits of factual information that seem to confirm a pre-existing narrative. This is the problem with confirmation bias. Some person was pushing a crate of beer on a dolly through the capital. It was seen by a reporter who took a picture and suggested maybe it was going to a celebration of the passage of the Republican health care bill in the House. That idea resonated with people, that Republicans were celebrating the passage of this bill. And it became this kind of pseudo fact supporting what opponents saw as an inappropriate celebration of the bill’s passage, even though it turned out the beer was unrelated to the health care bill itself. We’re seeing that sort of pattern in much more serious circumstances when it comes to the Russia investigation where every piece of information that comes out is being spun and interpreted in the worst possible ways, and in some cases, we’re seeing outright fabrication and speculation being reported and amplified.

It almost reminds me of the old childhood game of telephone. You tell someone something and it gets changed and altered, and what might have started out as a kernel of truth gets morphed into something that has nothing to do with the truth.

That’s right, and we all can take some responsibility for this in the kinds of information we share on social media. We’re all potentially complicit in the spread of misinformation. Everyone will be fooled. That’s part of the medium, for better or for worse. What I’ve been disappointed to see is how many people don’t exercise the appropriate care in what they do amplify and fail to correct the record when the information they’ve circulated turns out to be wrong. In a game of telephone, the misinformation only travels among your circle of friends. But of course in the present day, it can go viral all around the country and the world, often within minutes or hours. By the time the story is debunked, the misinformation is already out there and many of the people who saw that false story will never actually see the correction telling them it was wrong.