Professor: Donald Trump Uses "Strategic" Misinformation That Funnels Conspiracies into the Mainstream
In an article in the Washington Post the other day, Paul Farhi explored how Donald Trump, the Republican frontrunner for the party’s presidential nomination, is helping conspiracies theories and fringe ideas enter into the mainstream by engaging in uncritical repetition of bad ideas from unreliable internet sources. Prof. Jeffery Hemsley of Syracuse University told Farhi that Trump engages in “strategic” misinformation in order to reflect back to ignorant and biased voters the bad ideas they already believe (or are primed to believe) are true:
So for many centrists and those on the left, Trump seems crazy. But for a segment of those on the right, Trump speaks to them. If Trump is using poor sources for his information, that isn’t really a problem for his audience. That is where they are getting their information, too.
The confluence of Trump and the craziest members of the fringe led to the strange situation where Trump appeared on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s radio show to talk with the man who rants about elites who venerate trans-dimensional clockwork elves accessible through drug use, among other conspiracies. (The elves are almost certainly a slightly garbled version of Terence McKenna’s DMT-visible Machine Elves. But just for kicks: Jones grew up in Rockwall, Texas, home to the infamous Rock Wall, a natural formation that creationists believe to be an artificial construction and evidence of antediluvian giants in America.)
What’s interesting is that the various professors and pundits Farhi interviewed seem extremely interested in the process of how biased and uneducated audiences approach information and evaluate the credibility of sources now that it seems to have political repercussions. But these are the same trends that have been operating in the growing audience for fringe conspiracies for decades.
Ancient Aliens star Giorgio Tsoukalos, for example, is hardly any different than Donald Trump except in degree. Both men are pompous, vain, obsessed with their hair, and eager to inflate their accomplishments to impress the gullible. They are also quick to anger and hold grudges for decades at a time. Both claim to be accomplished authors despite not having written any books. (Tsoukalos claims to be the “author” of a PowerPoint presentation, while Trump hires ghostwriters for books he signs off on.) Most importantly, both are uncritical megaphones for repeating bad ideas that other people make up and they have no incentive to check. Trump, notoriously, repeats information he reads on racist Twitter feeds (such as fake “statistics” about Black crime originating on white supremacist websites) while Tsoukalos merrily repeats whatever other ancient astronaut theorists (especially Erich von Däniken) tell him, regardless of its logic. Both men similarly use misinformation to bond themselves to their fans and develop a cult of personality based on a cycle of media appearances and outrageous claims. In both cases, there is very little difference between the faulty statistics and twisted facts Trump employs and the mangled ancient texts and misinterpreted art Tsoukalos talks about; it is all bad data transformed into worse ideas and fed to an audience that is unable or unwilling to separate emotion and ideology from evidence.
Trump is different in that he took for his material political conspiracies rather than their close cousins, extraterrestrial conspiracies, and rode the outrage he generated to a commanding poll presence. But we shouldn’t forget that the same conspiracies Trump tacitly endorses are part of the same constellation of fear that scholar Michael Barkun has convincingly shown to be deeply woven into the fringes of radical conservatism. Ancient astronauts and UFOs are simply the sillier side of the same vocally ignorant anti-government ideology that yields birtherism, Jade Helm, and any number of other conservative fantasies.
In short, something like Trump was inevitable from the moment establishment conservatives began to cynically use conspiracy theorists and their ideas to rile up the base and get out the vote. Eventually, when everything is portrayed as a conspiracy, only a conspiracy theorist will satisfy voters.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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