Donald Trump’s path to the White House was paved by his embrace of conspiracy theories, most notably the “birther” lie. Sarah Jones of the New Republic warns that an alarming number of Trump’s liberal detractors are following suit
Aaron Mate: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. Donald Trump’s path to the White House was paved by his embrace of conspiracy theories, like the claim President Obama was not born in the US, and therefore, an illegitimate president, but now some of Trump’s opponents are falling into the same trap. In liberal circles, the desire for Trump to leave the White House is fueling a culture of online conspiracies. This is not just random Twitter or chat room users. Its proponents include journalists, political operatives, Pulitzer Prize winners, Hollywood celebrities, and even sitting politicians. My next guest wants it all to stop. Sarah Jones is a social media editor of The New Republic, and she wrote a recent piece called Stop Promoting Liberal Conspiracy Theories on Twitter. Sarah, welcome Sarah Jones: Thanks for having me. Aaron Mate: Thanks for joining us. Tell us about what prompted you to write this, in my opinion, very important piece. Sarah Jones: Frustration, mostly. As you correctly noted, of course, Trump’s ability to manipulate conspiracy theories and the fears that propel these conspiracy theories is certainly one of the reasons behind his campaign’s success, and arguably, of course, one of the reasons that he’s president now. This combined with his ongoing war on facts, ranging from climate denial and everything else, and his war on the media, I’m particularly disappointed to see a corresponding trend among, at least, the liberal internet. Aaron Mate: Let’s talk about some of the key players. The most famous one is, arguably, Louise Mensch, a former British politician, now an executive at News Corp, who has a wide following, has made all kinds of claims, including that Putin murdered the founder of Breitbart, Andrew Breitbart. I believe she also said that the Ferguson protests were partly a Russian operation. Tell us about who she is and what kind of influence she has. Sarah Jones: Right. She’s a really interesting figure. She was a conservative member of parliament in the UK, so she’s actually not a liberal herself, at all. If you’re familiar with British politics or with her record at all, it was very strange to see her rebrand, not necessarily her politics, but become embedded in this particular pocket of the liberal internet that was looking for any possible theory that could take down Donald Trump. She has no qualifications to comment on Russian politics or national security or anything of the sort, but she speculates so widely and so broadly that she’s starting to say things that people basically wanted to hear, and I think that was one of the reasons behind her success, and because she was a member of parliament, I think that lent her some air of credibility that she didn’t necessarily deserve. Aaron Mate: Yeah, and what’s amazing is, in her campaign to tie Russia to Trump, she’s been embraced by prominent democrats, including Donna Brazile, formerly the head of the DNC. Donna Brazile tweeted out an article of Louise Mensch and said, “Thank you for good journalism.” Sarah Jones: Right. As a journalist, that’s extremely frustrating to hear, because what she’s doing isn’t actually journalism. It’s not reporting at all. None of these people, nobody I mention in my piece, is doing journalism, and that’s a major red flag. If these claims are only appearing on Twitter or on blogs and they haven’t been run through a fact checking project or they aren’t deeply sourced, then that should tell you that this report is, at the very least, flawed, and might be just completely fabricated. Aaron Mate: Your piece also points out that it’s gotten to the point where even sitting politicians and their aids are citing these conspiracy theorists on Twitter, and citing their claims to make claims about Donald Trump that, of course, that have not been proven. Sarah Jones: That’s correct. Senator Ed Markey unfortunately made that mistake. I think that was inevitable, the way that things were going, but obviously it is very concerning. It was easier to dismiss this when this was just basically people popping up on Twitter, because they do have very real concerns and very real fears and it’s obvious that Trump is corrupt and it’s obvious that there is some sort of Russia connection at this point. People are desperate for answers, but when it starts to pop up in statements that are made by sitting politicians, people you would expect or hope would know better, then that’s a major cause for concern. Aaron Mate: What do you think is driving the people who are the biggest proponents of conspiracy theories? Do you think they’re earnest citizens trying to get at the truth, or is there something more cynical going on? Do you think that they know that they’re being deliberately misleading and that they’re taking people towards what, inevitably, will be a dead end, given that so many of these conspiracy theories have no basis? Sarah Jones: It’s a good question. I wish I was psychic, at least in this area. If I had to speculate, I would say it’s probably a combination of two things, or two kinds of people, rather: people who do earnestly believe the things that they’re saying, and people who are deliberately fabricating things or exaggerating their credentials in a bid to boost their own profiles. As for who’s who, I think that’s not quite as clear sometimes, but I would argue that’s probably what we’re seeing at work. Aaron Mate: Yeah. Your piece cites journalists like Sarah Kendzior, who has a huge following, and now even appears on major media outlets like MSNBC. Louise Mensch, who we talked about before, she was published in the New York Times on the op-ed page there. In terms of getting attention for one’s own personal brand, it’s become advantageous to embrace conspiracy theories no matter how specious. Sarah Jones: Yeah, I think that’s accurate. I think it is because people are so desperate to hear that there is one cool trick for taking down Donald Trump. We all want to believe that that’s true, and of course that’s fertile ground for people who want to set themselves up as an expert in this way. I would just caution people to exercise an unusual amount of caution, maybe. Aaron Mate: It’s very easy and dangerous to armchair psychoanalyze, but I have to think that one factor behind why this is so popular is that people are, as you say, so scared of Trump, and so people want answers easily. It’s easy just to hold onto some kind of outlandish theory that might get rid of him rather than take on the hard work it takes to be involved politically, as an activist or as a citizen engaged in politics. It’s challenging. Sarah Jones: It is very challenging, and I’m not sure you can totally get away from the psychological analysis a little bit, because we are talking about politics and that’s wrapped up into it. I think what I would just tell people is that you aren’t wrong to think that the system is rigged. It is rigged, and it is corrupt, and Donald Trump is corrupt, and it is big and scary. You are right to be concerned about it, but it’s going to take years of sustained hard work to undo the damage that he has done and fight the ideology that is coalescing around him. It’s not going to be one of Eric Garland’s mega Twitter threads that really takes him down. It’s going to be the hard work of supporting progressive candidates, maybe running for office yourself, but most of all, boosting reporting that is well-sourced and is accurate and has been through this fact checking process, so that you are promoting facts and not fabrications. Aaron Mate: On that point, I have to note that Mother Jones just received, I think, a quarter of a million dollars from a major funder towards a new news project geared towards uncovering Trump’s connections to Russia and Russian influence on our politics, so that’s a reflection, at least, of where one segment of the liberal media, the progressive media, is going with its reporting and funding choices. Final comment, Sarah, as we wrap up this segment on why we should stop promoted liberal conspiracy theories. Sarah Jones: I would just urge people to think before they retweet. In my post, I list a few guidelines just to keep in mind as you’re navigating the internet right now, and I would urge people to think carefully about who they’re promoting. I would urge them to have high standards for the people that they’re anointing as experts, and to really look at their credentials and their body of work to see if they have a claim to be an expert in that field. Yeah, just to make sure that you are boosting real reporting and real journalism, and to remember that it’s more important than ever to make sure that you are spreading truth and facts. Aaron Mate: Sarah Jones, social media editor of The New Republic. Her recent piece, Stop Promoting Liberal Conspiracy Theories on Twitter. Sarah, thank you. Sarah Jones: Thank you. Aaron Mate: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.