A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.
If you found yourself online this weekend, you know what a terrible place it was. Jeffrey Epstein’s death unleashed a torrent of conspiracy theories online, some of which were propagated by individuals with sizable platforms and influence, including the President of the United States.
In the age of the Information Wars, everything is weaponized for political purposes — and Epstein’s death was no different. Platforms like Twitter, which continue to allow vile conspiracy theories to trend, make it easy for misinformation and conspiracy theories to spread quickly, and reach new audiences.
And, while I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it needs to be said: With the 2020 campaign approaching, and with bad actors continuing to pollute our information ecosystem, things are going to get worse.
Trump’s shameful retweet
“President Donald Trump on Saturday promoted a conspiracy theory linking the Clinton family to the death of multimillionaire and accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein, the latest instance of Trump propagating baseless conspiracy theories and falsehoods,” Jeremy Diamond reported on CNN.com.
Others added fuel to fire
Trump was not the only high-profile person who fueled the conspiratorial flames. Immediately after news broke of Epstein’s death, other politicians and high-profile members of the media also stoked speculation about what might have happened.
>> Wise words from ProPublica reporter Dara Lind: “If you have a blue check you really owe it to society not to tweet assertions that aren’t clearly labeled as baseless speculation. That goes 10x if your bio identifies you as a journalist.” I couldn’t agree more.
“Our information system is poisoned”
There are few journalists who understand the current moment as well as Charlie Warzel. On Sunday, he published a piece in NYT about how “our information system is poisoned.” It’s a must-read.
“It’s increasingly apparent that our information delivery systems were not built for our current moment,” Warzel wrote, “Especially with corruption and conspiracy at the heart of our biggest national news stories (Epstein, the Mueller Report, mass shootings), and the platforms themselves functioning as petri dishes for outlandish, even dangerous conspiracy theories to flourish.”
“Where does this leave us?” Warzel asked. “Nowhere good.”
The challenge for newsrooms
One of the challenges this current moment has repeatedly presented newsrooms is whether or not to cover a deranged conspiracy theory making the rounds online. On one hand, newsrooms generally don’t want to give oxygen to baseless theories. On the other hand, they are often amplified — as was the case this weekend — by the President of the United States himself. It’s a tricky situation, and one with no good answer.
Sharing is still promoting
Over at WaPo, Abby Ohlheiser published an excellent story about the “dangerous cycle” that allows conspiracy theories to contaminate the news. She pointed out, “Sharing a meme to condemn it is still a share. Retweeting a racist tweet to shame its writer still gives the tweet more eyeballs.”
As Ohlheiser explained, “Conspiracy theories aren’t fueled by facts; they are fueled by attention.” So the problem for newsrooms becomes: How do you cover this stuff?
Unfortunately, Ohlheiser notes, “Years into Trump’s presidency, the people who are the smartest about how the Internet works still don’t have a great answer for how to deal with his tweets — in particular, those that spread misinformation, racism or hold a megaphone for fringe voices. So the media remains in a cycle: As Trump tweets or retweets, the tweets become news, Trump tweets more about the news, and the media covers those tweets, too, inevitably sharing them with the 78 percent of Americans not on Twitter.”
Please don’t do this
To that end… One easy thing for journalists to keep in mind is to avoid simply repeating the conspiracy theory with the only commentary being that Trump peddled it. That only helps to amplify and spread the misinformation. Don’t do Trump’s bidding for him and amplify his deranged messages without putting them in proper context.
I saw a lot of reporters on Saturday evening doing this when Trump retweeted the anti-Clinton conspiracy theory. The tweet Trump retweeted was all over my feed — not from Trump, but from journalists pointing out Trump retweeted it. The industry really has to get better at understanding how bad faith actors are exploiting journalistic instincts and rules to further their agenda.
“I’m not going to show you the tweet”
Someone who got it right on Sunday was Jake Tapper. Noting that Trump’s behavior is “no longer just irresponsible and indecent,” but “dangerous,” Tapper avoided showing his audience the repugnant tweet Trump shared. “I’m not going to show you the tweet,” Tapper said. He added that it was a “deranged conspiracy theory.”
Conway’s spin will leave you dizzy
Someone who declined to acknowledge how untethered from reality Trump’s behavior on Twitter was on Sunday was none other than Kellyanne Conway. Appearing on Fox, Conway said she thinks “the president just wants everything to be investigated.” When pressed again, she repeated that talking point.
All this had me wondering again: What’s the point of putting Conway on television? Is there anything Trump can do that she won’t spin to defend?
>> George Conway replied on Twitter to @PopeHat who said he was blocking conspiracy theorists: “obviously you’re not interested in a full investigation…”
Sciutto and Swalwell’s point
An outstanding point from Jim Sciutto: “This is about both partisan politics & broader loss of confidence in govt.” Sciutto noted, “When I was in the Middle East (the former conspiracy theory capital) that was the fuel: folks didn’t trust authorities so assumed a plot behind every event.”
Democratic Rep. Eric Swalwell made a similar point on Sunday in remarks that Donie O’Sullivan flagged to me. He said the conspiracy theories floating online about Epstein reminded him of what happens in “third-world” countries where “no one trusts the government” and there’s a “conspiracy theory behind everything that the government does or everything that happens in society.”
Where do we go from here?
That’s the million dollar question. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answer. I’m not sure there is an answer. Things are going to continue to get worse. We are dying of a disease that we don’t yet have a cure for.
FOR THE RECORD
– MSNBC host Joe Scarborough lashed out at CNN’s Andrew Kaczynski after Kaczynski tweeted that Scarborough had engaged in “reckless speculation” about the circumstances surrounding Epstein’s death… (Mediaite)
– Trump has “sent highly unusual, Sharpie-written notes to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at least twice,” Jonathan Swan reported. “One of the notes was a torn-out Bloomberg Businessweek cover featuring a portrait of Justin Trudeau…” (Axios)
– Jeanine Pirro and Matt Gaetz got into a contentious back-and-forth on Pirro’s show Saturday… (Mediaite)