In a jail cell over the weekend, accused sex offender Jeffrey Epstein committed suicide.
That is the official story on the death of Jeffrey Epstein. But it’s not the popular story. Many believe that Epstein’s death involved the nefarious intervention of one of his former friends, including high-powered politicians like former President Bill Clinton or current President Donald Trump.
Why is it that conspiracy theories have taken hold in the wake of Epstein’s death? What does it have to tell us about our society today? One popular conservative analyst explained in detail yesterday why the Right has taken to conspiracy theories so readily in recent years, up to and including condoning the ePresident’s retweeting of this one about the Clintons.
Social Media to Blame?
Before we discuss that, though, it’s important to point out the role social media plays in these events. Thirty years ago, if you believed that the moon landing wasn’t real or that Pepsi was responsible for John F. Kennedy’s assassination, you were pretty much on your own. Unless you could convince your friends, you had no way to communicate with other people who thought like you.
Now, with the advent of social media, it’s very easy to communicate with like-minded conspiracists. That’s why hashtags like “#trumpbodycount” and “#clintonbodycount” trended over the weekend. People expressed an unorthodox opinion, other people saw their opponent, and whether in jest or in truth joined in the fray.
That doesn’t mean conspiracy theories are social media’s fault. But it is a reason why they are so widespread these days. There are simply better ways to communicate now than there ever have been before, and that has some unintended consequences.
The Press: Conspirators in Chief?
But one conservative analyst thinks the rise of conspiracy theories on the Right isn’t just the result of social media. Ben Shapiro, a popular political commentator, explained on Monday that the rise of conspiracy theories amongst conservatives has much to do with the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories on the Left.
Shapiro started by clarifying: “The media were all over Trump for retweeting the conspiracy theory, and that’s fair… Trump deserves every bit of scrutiny he’s getting. It’s really gross… if Barack Obama had done it, then we would all be up in arms on the Right.”
But he went on to explain how the Left’s embrace of certain conspiracy theories as fact led many on the Right to be unjustly distrustful of the “official narrative” the media presents. Specifically, he cited two popular conspiracy theories on the Left.
The first is the frequent suggestion by many Democrats and the media at large that Stacey Abrams, former minority leader of the Georgia state house, lot a rigged election in November of 2018 when she fell short of the governorship by 50,000 votes. The media would meet any similar suggestion that widespread voter fraud decided an election by a Republican candidate with derision. But with Abrams, they embrace the theory.
More topically, Shapiro tackled the narrative that Michael Brown, the young man whom a police officer shot and killed in Ferguson, MO five years ago last weekend, was unarmed and surrendering when the officer shot him. Despite two separate investigations concluding otherwise, many Democrats refuse the narrative. This past weekend, several Presidential front runners in fact embraced that Brown’s death was murder, even though no charges befell the officer responsible.
5 years ago Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael was unarmed yet he was shot 6 times. I stand with activists and organizers who continue the fight for justice for Michael. We must confront systemic racism and police violence head on.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) August 9, 2019
What’s the Problem?
The fact that, when it is convenient for them, high-profile Democratic candidates abandon the “innocent until proven guilty” standard upon which America founded its justice system is problem enough. But the bigger problem, as Shapiro points out, is that the media promulgate these narratives as if they are fact.
“Conspiracy theories on the Right are treated with precisely the sort of disdain that they merit,” Shapiro explained. “Conspiracy theories on the Left are treated as perfectly normal rhetoric. And then you wonder why people on the right react strongly to the media condemning Trump over conspiracies?”
Shapiro’s point is precisely correct. The issue isn’t that anyone should let Trump off the hook. It is dangerous and, prior to this administration, almost inconceivable that the President would promote a conspiracy theory from the bully pulpit. And no one should ignore that it’s happening. But as Shapiro concludes, it is important to challenge all conspiracy theories wherever they appear, on either side of the aisle.
“Again, Trump is dead wrong… that’s silly, there’s no evidence to it… [But] the conspiracism isn’t just on the right, and if you actually want to bring down the temperature, then you’re actually going to need to call it out whenever you see it on both sides.”