The most obvious corrective to conspiracy theories is the facts that people can see with their own eyes
The truth hurts, but lies kill. The past 12 months have demonstrated that with a terrifying clarity. Lies about Covid, insisting that it was a hoax cooked up by the deep state, led millions of people to drop their guard and get infected. And one big lie about the US election – claiming that Donald Trump had won, when he’d lost – led to the storming of the US Capitol and an eruption of violence that left five dead.
The impact has been so swift, events rushing by in a blur, that it’s easy to miss the significance. On Wednesday, Donald Trump – already only the third US president in history to be impeached – was impeached again. In the first 222 years of the country’s existence, impeachment happened only once. Now that most severe, vanishingly rare of sanctions has struck twice in a single year.
In the past, the impeachment process unfolded at a slow crawl: 11 months separated the day Bill Clinton vowed he’d never had “sexual relations” with Monica Lewinsky and the vote in the House of Representatives to try him for high crimes and misdemeanours. This time it happened in a week, the speed a function of two unusual circumstances: first, the accused has only days left in office; second, those House members were witnesses, Congress the scene of the crime.
Unusual too is that this decision was not taken on wholly partisan lines. Ten Republicans broke ranks to put Trump in the dock. Though that only emphasises that 197 Republicans did not: they apparently find it acceptable for a president to incite a violent insurrection against the nation’s democratically elected assembly.
Next comes a trial in the Senate. The conventional wisdom says that it will fail – that most Republican senators, terrified of their party’s Trump-worshipping base, will follow the lead of the 197 rather than the 10 – especially once Joe Biden is sworn in at noon on Wednesday and the urgent need to remove Trump from power has faded.
Still, it’s possible that the cannier Senate Republicans will adopt the icy cynicism of Mitch McConnell – who briefed that he is open to convicting the president – and seize the chance to be rid of the Trump incubus once and for all. If enough of them vote guilty, then in a second vote the Senate can bar him from holding public office ever again. Ambitious Republicans, eyeing the 2024 contest, are already gaming out that scenario – some of them perhaps within Trump’s own family. Has Ivanka pulled out of attending Biden’s inauguration because she wants to remain viable with the base? If so, she’ll first have to contend with her brother, Donald Jr.
And yet, even if Republican leaders manage both to banish Trump and prevent a dynastic succession, they will not be rid of him. It’s become a truism to say that Trumpism will linger, but there is an even more direct legacy that will hang around like a foul stench. That is the fiction that propelled those crowds to break into the halls of Congress: the big lie of the stolen election.
“The lie outlasts the liar,” wrote the eminent historian of Nazism Timothy Snyder. If Trump’s supporters continue to believe that their man won big last November – and even now only 22% of Republicans consider the election free and fair – there is no reason why their anger at that theft should abate over the next four years. On the contrary, it will grow and fester, demanding payback in 2024, by force if necessary. Snyder notes darkly that 15 years separated the invention of the big lie that Germany lost the first world war thanks to a Jewish “stab in the back” and Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy to power. Myths endure.
All of which raises a much bigger question than what to do with Donald Trump: what to do about the big lie and, more deeply, about the climate in which millions have come to believe it’s true. There has been much diagnosis of the post-truth phenomenon that Trump came to embody, but what about a remedy?
A first requirement is to tailor the treatment. The philosopher Prof Quassim Cassam, author of a study of conspiracy theories and their appeal, distinguishes between the producers and consumers of such fictions. The pedlars of lies may have a casual, smirking insouciance towards the truth, but that’s not true of their audience. Those who stormed Congress were not dismissive of truth’s importance; on the contrary, they were prompted to act because of what they believed to have been a vital, hidden truth.
The task, then, is not to restore public regard for veracity so much as to equip citizens to distinguish between what’s factually true and what is false. To that end, the philosopher has an unexpected suggestion. Get those who swallow conspiracy theories to ask of those supplying them the very questions they usually direct at the supposedly lying establishment: cui bono? Who benefits from this version of events? What’s their agenda? Except now they won’t be interrogating the BBC or the New York Times but the likes of Alex Jones and the disseminators of the QAnon fantasy. What exactly are they getting out of spinning these tales? A tidy profit, for one thing.
Similarly, one might also ask the believers, what’s in it for you? How does believing the Q Anon story that a Satan-worshipping ring of paedophiles controls the US government help you? How does it address any of the underlying problems in your life? If you feel life and opportunity have passed you by, how does subscribing to Q Anon help? Perhaps it provides a spurious kind of explanation, but it doesn’t make your lot any better. Admittedly, a university professor is not perhaps the ideal carrier of that message. Better, says Cassam, might be a former conspiracy theorist, someone who has broken free.
The most obvious corrective to lies are the facts that people can see with their own eyes. Few people still insist Covid is a hoax when they or a loved one are in intensive care. But the next best thing is verifiable information about your immediate community. It’s no accident that the rise of conspiracy thinking and post-truth has coincided with the decline of local news: 265 local titles have closed in the UK since 2005. Into that vacuum have rushed unverifiable, often abstract assertions about the state of the country or the world, spread by social media. With no full account of the reality around you to check against, those assertions can take root.
The media is clearly central in all this. In the US, two separate epistemic universes now exist side by side – an MSNBC realm, in which Biden won fair and square; and a Fox News (and now Newsmax and One America News Network) one, in which Trump was robbed. In the US, it’s easy to succumb to nostalgia for the old “fairness doctrine” that demanded balance from the broadcast networks until it was scrapped under Ronald Reagan in 1987. If that were revived, and extended to cable, it might break down the divide, restoring at least a shared basis of agreed facts. Dream on, say the experts: that genie will not return to its bottle. Others suggest a more immediate fix: lobby advertisers to boycott fact-deniers such as Fox, starving them of funds.
Still, cable news is only part of the story. Separate silos of knowledge exist and are entrenched just as much on Facebook and Twitter. A more realistic demand might be for external audits of those platforms, opening their algorithms in particular to public view, says the specialist in digital journalism Prof Emily Bell. Why not make transparent the process that ensures falsehoods spread six times faster than the truth on Twitter? While we’re at it, Bell suggests serious investment in the “civic infrastructure of knowledge”, from libraries to new forms of local reporting that might hold power to account.
None of these ideas represents a perfect answer. The point is, the twin crises of Covid and Trump have exposed the mortal threat posed by lies and the long war on truth. Now the truth must defend itself – and fight back.
Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist.
This article was originally published on The Guardian Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.