Why liberal conspiracy theories are flourishing in the age of Trump.
President Donald Trump is about to resign as a result of the Russia scandal. Bernie Sandersand Sean Hannity are Russian agents. The Russians have paid off House Oversight Chair Jason Chaffetz to the tune of $10 million, using Trump as a go-between. Paul Ryan is a traitorfor refusing to investigate Trump’s Russia ties. Libertarian heroine Ayn Rand was a secret Russian agent charged with discrediting the American conservative movement.
These are all claims you can find made on a new and growing sector of the internet that functions as a fake news bubble for liberals, something I’ve dubbed the Russiasphere. The mirror image of Breitbart and InfoWars on the right, it focuses nearly exclusively on real and imagined connections between Trump and Russia. The tone is breathless: full of unnamed intelligence sources, certainty that Trump will soon be imprisoned, and fever dream factual assertions that no reputable media outlet has managed to confirm.
Twitter is the Russiasphere’s native habitat. Louise Mensch, a former right-wing British parliamentarian and romance novelist, spreads the newest, punchiest, and often most unfounded Russia gossip to her 283,000 followers on Twitter. Mensch is backed up by a handful of allies, including former NSA spook John Schindler (226,000 followers) and DC-area photographer Claude Taylor (159,000 followers).
There’s also a handful of websites, like Palmer Report, that seem devoted nearly exclusively to spreading bizarre assertions like the theory that Ryan and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell funneled Russian money to Trump — a story that spread widely among the site’s 70,000 Facebook fans.
Beyond the numbers, the unfounded left-wing claims, like those on the right, are already seeping into the mainstream discourse. In March, the New York Times published an op-ed by Mensch instructing members of Congress as to how they should proceed with the Russia investigation (“I have some relevant experience,” she wrote). Two months prior to that, Mensch had penned a lengthy letter to Vladimir Putin titled “Dear Mr. Putin, Let’s Play Chess” — in which she claims to have discovered that Edward Snowden was part of a years-in-the-making Russian plot to discredit Hillary Clinton.
Last Thursday, Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) was forced to apologize for spreading a false claim that a New York grand jury was investigating Trump and Russia. His sources, according to the Guardian’s Jon Swaine, were Mensch and Palmer:
Members of the Russiasphere see themselves as an essential counter to a media that’s been too cautious to get to the bottom of Trump’s Russian ties.
“There’s good evidence that the Kremlin was planning a secret operation to put Trump in the White House back in 2014,” Schindler told me. “With a few exceptions, the MSM [mainstream media] hasn’t exactly covered itself in glory with Kremlingate. They were slow to ask obvious questions about Trump in 2016, and they’re playing catch-up now, not always accurately.”
Experts on political misinformation see things differently. They worry that the unfounded speculation and paranoia that infect the Russiasphere risk pushing liberals into the same black hole of conspiracy-mongering and fact-free insinuation that conservatives fell into during the Obama years.
The fear is that this pollutes the party itself, derailing and discrediting the legitimate investigation into Russia investigation. It also risks degrading the Democratic Party — helping elevate shameless hucksters who know nothing about policy but are willing to spread misinformation in the service of gaining power. We’ve already seen this story play out on the right, a story that ended in Trump’s election.
“One of the failures of the Republican Party is the way they let the birther movement metastasize — and that ultimately helped Donald Trump make it to the White House,” says Brendan Nyhan, a professor at Dartmouth who studies the spread of false political beliefs. “We should worry about kind of pattern being repeated.”
Anatomy of a conspiracy theory
The Russiasphere doesn’t have one unifying, worked-out theory — like “9/11 was an inside job” or “Nazi gas chambers are a hoax.” Instead, it’s more like an attitude — a general sense that Russian influence in the United States is pervasive and undercovered by the mainstream media. Everything that happens in US politics is understood through this lens — especially actions taken by the Trump administration, which is seen as Kremlin-occupied territory.
There are, of course, legitimate issues relating to Trump’s ties to Russia — I’ve written about them personally over and over again. There are even legitimate reasons to believe that Trump’s campaign worked with Russian hackers to undermine Hillary Clinton. That may or may not turn out to be true, but it is least plausible and somewhat supported by the available evidence.
The Russiasphere’s assertions go way beyond that.
Take Mensch, who is probably the Russiasphere’s most prominent voice. She actually did have one legitimate scoop, reporting in November that the FBI had been granted a warrant to watch email traffic between the Trump Organization and two Russian banks (before anyone else had). Since then, though, her ideas have taken a bit of a turn. In January, she launched a blog — Patribotics — that’s exclusively dedicated to the Trump/Russia scandal. It’s … a lot.
“Sources with links to the intelligence community say it is believed that Carter Page went to Moscow in early July carrying with him a pre-recorded tape of Donald Trump offering to change American policy if he were to be elected, to make it more favorable to Putin,” Mensch claimed in an April post. “In exchange, Page was authorized directly by Trump to request the help of the Russian government in hacking the election.”
Another post, allegedly based on “sources with links to the intelligence community,” claimed that Trump, Mike Pence, and Paul Ryan were all going to be arrested on racketeering charges against “the Republican party” owing to collaboration with Russia.
“Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, who was the ‘Designated Survivor’ at the inauguration of Donald Trump (yes, really) is likely to become President,” Mensch writes.
She’s also suggested that Anthony Weiner was brought down as part of a Russian plot to put the Clinton emails back in the news:
I can exclusively report that there is ample evidence that suggests that Weiner was sexting not with a 15 year old girl but with a hacker, working for Russia, part of the North Carolina hacking group ‘Crackas With Attitude’, who hacked the head of the CIA, and a great many FBI agents, police officers, and other law enforcement officials.
And that the protests against police brutality in Ferguson were secretly a Russian plot:
Mensch is quite combative with the press. When I asked her to email me for this piece, she refused and called me a “dickhead.” But she’s backed up by an array of different figures, who spend a lot of time swapping ideas on Twitter.
One of them is Schindler, the former NSA spook. A former Naval War College professor who resigned in 2014 after a scandal in which he sent a photograph of his penis to a Twitter follower, he thinks Mensch doesn’t get it right all the time. But he does think she was onto the truth about Trump and Russia “long before the MSM cared” (the two have been amiably chatting on Twitter since 2013).
“Louise has no counterintelligence background, nor does she speak Russian or understand the Russians at a professional level, and that makes her analysis hit or miss sometimes,” he told me. “That said, very few people pontificating on Kremlingate have those qualifications, so if that’s disqualifying, pretty much everyone but me is out.”
Schindler’s role in the Russiasphere is essentially as a validator, using his time working on Russia at the NSA to make the theories bandied about by Mensch seem credible. Schindler peppers his speech with terms pulled from Russian spycraft — like deza, short for dezinformatsiya (disinformation), or Chekist, a term used to describe the former spies who hold significant political positions in Putin’s Russia.
This lingo has become common among the Russiasphere, a sort of status symbol to show that its members understand the real nature of the threat. Schindler and Mensch will often refer to their enemies in the media and the Trump administration using the hashtag #TeamDeza, or accuse enemies of being Chekists.
Claude Taylor is the third core member of the Russia sphere. He’s a DC-area photographer who claims to have worked for three presidential administrations; his role is to provide inside information into the alleged legal cases against the president. He also routinely claims to have advance knowledge what’s happening, even down to the precise number of grand juries impaneled and indictments that are on the way.
These anonymous intelligence community tip-offs lead him to tweet, with certainty, that Trump is finished. His tweets routinely get thousands of retweets.
These three — Mensch, Schindler, and Taylor — form a kind of self-reinforcing information circle, retweeting and validating one another’s work on a nearly daily basis. A quick Twitter search reveals hundreds of interactions between the three on the platform in recent months, many of which reach huge audiences on Twitter (judging by the retweet and favorite counts). They’re also reliably boosted by a few allies with large followings — conservative NeverTrumper Rick Wilson, the anonymous Twitter account Counterchekist, and financial analyst Eric Garland (best known as the “time for some game theory” tweetstormer.)
The Palmer Report, and its creator, little-known journalist Bill Palmer, is kind of a popularizer of the Russiasphere. It reports the same kind of extreme, thinly sourced stuff — for instance, a story titled “CIA now says there’s more than one tape of Donald Trump with Russian prostitutes” — often, though not always, sourced to Mensch and company. This seems to personally irk Mensch, who has occasionally suggested the Palmer Report is ripping her off.
Yet nonetheless, Palmer appears to have built up a real audience. According to Quantcast, a site that measures web traffic, the Palmer Report got around 400,000 visitors last month — more than GQ magazine’s website. The Russian prostitute story was shared more than 41,000 times on Facebook, according to a counter on Palmer’s site; another story alleging that Chaffetz was paid off by Trump and Russia got about 29,000.
This stuff is real, and there’s a huge appetite for it.
These theories are spreading because the Russia situation is murky — and Democrats are out of power
To understand how Democrats started falling for this stuff so quickly, I turned to three scholars: Dartmouth’s Nyhan, the University of Exeter’s Jason Reifler, and Temple’s Kevin Arceneaux. The three of them all work in a burgeoning subfield of political science, one that focuses on how people form political beliefs — false ones, in particular. All of them were disturbed by what they’re seeing from the Russiasphere.
“I’m worried? Alarmed? Disheartened is the right word — disheartened by the degree to which the left is willing to accept conspiracy theory claims or very weakly sourced claims about Russia’s influence in the White House,” Reifler says.
The basic thing you need to understand, these scholars say, is that political misinformation in America comes principally from partisanship. People’s political identities are formed around membership in one of two tribes, Democratic or Republican. This filters the way they see the world.
“Misinformation is much more likely to stick when it conforms with people’s preexisting beliefs, especially those connected to social groups that they’re a part of,” says Arceneaux. “In politics, that plays out (usually) through partisanship: Republicans are much more likely to believe false information that confirms their worldview, and Democrats are likely to do the opposite.”
In one study, Yale’s Dan Kahan gave subjects a particularly tricky math problem — phrased in terms of whether a skin cream worked. Then he gave a random subset the same problem, only phrased in terms of whether a particular piece of gun control legislation worked.
The results were fascinating. For the people who got the skin cream problem, there was no correlation between partisanship and likelihood of getting the right answer. But when people got the same question, just about gun control, everything changed: Republicans were more likely to conclude that gun control didn’t work, and Democrats the other way around. People’s political biases overrode their basic mathematical reasoning skills.
“[Some] people are willing to second-guess their gut reactions,” Arceneaux says. “There just aren’t that many people who are willing to do that.”
In real-life situations, where the truth is invariably much murkier than in a laboratory math problem, these biases are even more powerful. People want to believe that their side is good and the other evil — and are frighteningly willing to believe even the basest allegations against their political enemies. When your tribe is out of power, this effect makes you open to conspiracy theories. You tend to assume your political enemies have malign motives, which means you assume they’re doing something evil behind the scenes.
The specific nature of the conspiracy theories tends to be shaped by the actors in question. So because Obama was a black man with a non-Anglo name, and the Republican Party is made up mostly of white people, the popular conspiracy theories in the last administration became things like birtherism and Obama being a secret Muslim. This was helped on by a conservative mediasphere, your Rush Limbaughs and Fox Newses and Breitbarts, that had little interest in factual accuracy — alongside one Donald J. Trump.
There have been random smatterings of this kind of thing catering to Democrats throughout the Trump administration, like the now-infamous Medium piece alleging that Trump’s Muslim ban was a “trial balloon for a coup.” But most conspiracy thinking has come to center on Russia, and for good reason: There’s suggestive evidence of an actual conspiracy.
We know that Trump’s team has a series of shady connections to the Kremlin. Some of Trump’s allies may have coordinated with Russian hackers to undermine the Clinton campaign. But we still don’t know the details of what actually happened, so there’s a huge audience of Democratic partisans who want someone to fill in the blanks for them.
“Conspiracy entrepreneurs are filling the void for this kind of content,” Nyhan says. “If you’re among the hardcore, you can follow Louise Mensch, and the Palmer Report, and John Schindler and folks like that — and get an ongoing stream of conspiracy discourse that is making some quite outlandish claims.”
This kind of thing is poisonous. For Republicans, it made their party more vulnerable to actual penetration by hacks — the “Michele Bachmanns” and “Sean Hannitys,” as Nyhan puts it. It allows unprincipled liars and the outright deluded to shape policy, which both makes your ideas much worse and discredits the good ones that remain. In the specific case of the Russia investigation, the spread of these ideas would make the president’s accusations of “fake news” far more credible.
Luckily for the Democratic Party, there isn’t really a pre-built media ecosystem for amplifying this like there was for Republicans. In the absence of left-wing Limbaughs and Breitbarts, media outlets totally unconcerned with factual rigor, it’s much harder for this stuff to become mainstream.
But hard doesn’t mean impossible. The most worrying sign, according to the scholars I spoke to, is that some mainstream figures and publications are starting to validate Russiasphere claims.
For instance, after the New York Times published the Mensch piece back in March, former DNC chair Donna Brazile tweeted out the story, with a follow-up thanking Mensch for “good journalism”:
A current DNC communications staffer — Adrienne Watson — favorably retweeted a Mensch claim that the Russians had “kompromat,” or blackmail, on Rep. Chaffetz:
Two former Obama staffers, Ned Price and Eric Schultz, favorably discussed a Palmer Report story aggregating Mensch’s allegations about Chaffetz (“interesting, if single-source,” Price tweeted). Larry Tribe, an eminent and famous constitutional law professor at Harvard, shared the same Palmer Report story on Twitter — and even defended his decision to do so in an email to BuzzFeed’s Joseph Bernstein.
“Some people regard a number of its stories as unreliable,” Tribe wrote of Palmer. Yet he defended disseminating its work: “When I share any story on Twitter … I do so because a particular story seems to be potentially interesting, not with the implication that I’ve independently checked its accuracy or that I vouch for everything it asserts.”
And Keith Olbermann made a popular video for GQ based on Taylor’s allegations about imminent arrests, adding that “Claude and his sources know their stuff.”
What you’ve got are prominent media figures, political operatives, scholars, and even US senators being taken in by this stuff — in addition to the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of ordinary people consuming it on Twitter and Facebook. These people, too, are letting their biases trump interest in factual accuracy.
This is the key danger: that this sort of thing becomes routine, repeated over and over again in left-leaning media outlets, to the point where accepting the Russiasphere’s fact-free claims becomes a core and important part of what Democrats believe.
“Normal people aren’t reading extensively about what Louise Mensch claims someone told her about Russia,” Nyhan says. “The question now is whether Democrats and their allies in the media — and other affiliated elites — will promote these conspiracy theories more aggressively.”
That’s how the GOP fell for conspiracy thinking during the Obama years. There’s nothing about Democratic psychology that prevents them from doing the same — which means the burden is on Democratic elites to correct it.
Democratic partisans and liberal media outlets are the ones best positioned to push back against this kind of stuff. Rank-and-file Democrats trust them; if they’re saying this stuff is ridiculous, then ordinary liberals will start to think the same thing. Even if they just ignore it, then the Russiasphere will be denied the oxygen necessary for it to move off of Twitter and into the center of the political conversation.
“Scrutiny from trusted media sources and criticism from allied elites can help discourage this kind of behavior,” Nyhan says. “It won’t suppress it — there are always places it can go — but on the margin, allies can help limit the spread of conspiracy theorizing inside their party.”
So that’s the key question going forward: Will the mainstreaming of the Russiasphere speed up — and birth something like a Breitbart of the left? If so, it’ll create an environment where the people most willing to say the most absurd things succeed, pulling the entire Democratic Party closer to the edge — and leaving liberals trapped in the same hall of mirrors as conservatives.