A general rule of thumb: when something seems too good to be true, it typically is. That often doesn’t stop people from really, really wanting it to be true.
Last week, a ‘blue check’ Twitter account in the name of a man called Jon Cooper tweeted that a news source called ‘Jewish News USA’ was reporting that President Trump’s family and close advisers were pushing him to resign. The conspicuously false tweet has since been deleted. Cooper, whose Twitter bio all but implies that he’s a Joe Biden staffer (he isn’t), has a history of interspersing his Twitter account with ‘breaking news’ stories that have no basis in reality. As liberal commentator Yashar Ali warned his followers, ‘Jon just tweets bullshit. Don’t believe a thing he says.’ That didn’t stop Cooper’s tweet from going massively viral. Twitter has yet to do anything about the ‘verified’ stamp on Cooper’s account. Perhaps they’re a bit preoccupied with suppressing the New York Post’s Hunter Biden scoop?
It’s not just that. Read far enough back in popular liberal tweets and far-left news outlets, and you’ll glean that Don Jr would be in jail by now, that Anthony Kennedy had a back-room resignation deal involving the Trump family’s personal finances and that Amy Coney Barrett will be calling the Vatican and Opus Dei before she makes any judicial decisions. Oh, and Russia is behind everything.
I consider myself to be an overeducated liberal, for better or for worse. And it’s evident that many educated liberals think that falling victim to misinformation and conspiracy theories is an issue for the political right alone. After all, there’s nothing close to the mainstream left that resembles QAnon (or has gotten the same amount of media exposure). When conspiracy theories do pop up among liberal lawmakers, like the DC councilman who alleged that a shadowy cabal of wealthy Jews controls the weather (really), they tend to get dismissed as a fringe novelty and something that few people actually believe.
These days, I find myself regularly recommending author and media personality Kurt Andersen’s 2017 book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, if only to make the point that the United States has always been kind of nuts. But there’s one part of the book that I make a point to highlight on the regular: Andersen asserts, correctly, that most of the most prominent fringe media and misleading partisan information in our current era comes from the right side of the ideological spectrum, but he warns the left that they are by no means immune to it.
This is important. While Trump is behind in the polls, he may well win a second term. The last time he won, lefty Twitter abounded with ‘game theory’ and other wild claims from a now mostly-but-not-quite marginalized cadre of self-styled commentators, today widely referred to as ‘Resistance grifters’. It went on for years — remember when Michael Avenatti was taken seriously? With another presidential election on the horizon, regardless of the results, I want to encourage my fellow liberals to please, please, please try not to go off the deep end this time. Don’t just follow along with baseless speculation that suits your own narrative about how evil and conniving the other side of the aisle is. In other words, don’t let your own QAnon take root.
I had a front seat to just how susceptible the left is to conspiracy theories, and how narrowly they avoided developing the same problem with misinformation that the right currently has: I hung out on leftist message boards in the wake of 9/11. As a deeply uncool teenager who was just getting interested in politics, these now-defunct forums were hotbeds of interesting information about priority issues, local and national elections, polling, debates, all kinds of things that were presented in a far more interesting light than they would have been in a high school civics class. But in late 2001, they were also full of claims that the Bush family had orchestrated 9/11, following on the heels of the allegations that Jeb Bush had rigged the results of the 2000 presidential election in Florida for his brother. (Look, if Jeb! had been able to pull that off, why did he let himself get so badly embarrassed in the 2016 primaries? Please clap.)
These crackpot theories never gained traction on the left because, in this pre-dawn phase of social media, the left lacked a key medium that the right had on lock: talk radio. (Air America, we hardly knew ye.) I can only imagine how crazy it would have gotten if social media had been a thing. But instead of ‘Bush did 9/11’ bubbling up into the mainstream from the left, it instead became a talking point for Alex Jones and the anti-establishment, anti-neocon right. As evidenced by the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow and Alex Jones sell some of the same questionable health products, clearly on some issues the pendulum of crazy can swing either way.
The right, too, has mastered engagement on Facebook, as evidenced by a ‘Facebook’s Top 10’ ranking compiled by journalist Kevin Roose that often shows a complete domination by right-wing commentators. I think this is a nuance that gets lost a lot in the controversy over whether Facebook is biased against conservative media: conservative media is a lot better at exploiting it in the first place, and presumably disseminates more viral misinformation as a result.
There’s another factor that tends to give Democrats an ‘out’ on confronting conspiracies and misinformation on the left: the American far left has an actual, organized political party in the form of the Greens, even though they don’t have the stature they did in the Ralph Nader era. It’s easy to pin far-left craziness on Jill Stein’s acolytes and claim it’s not a problem for the Democrats.
But just because the left hasn’t co-opted social media channels or talk radio like the right doesn’t mean that liberals aren’t at risk of falling for misinformation or conspiracy theories. A lot of mainstream Democrats are in denial about this, meaning it’s more likely to sneak up on them unexpectedly. Engagement with misleading content on social media is on the rise compared to 2016, according to research.
Letting Twitter fantasies run amok about the Trump presidency going down in flames can inoculate audiences to the growing creep of craziness. If they’re going to be the party of the adults in the room, Democrats need to snuff this misinformation out rather than ignore it.
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