Elaborate lies spreading through U.S. can’t be dismissed as ‘conspiracy theories’

August 15, 2022 5:45 am

Radio host Alex Jones records a video in front of the Virginia Capitol the night before a major pro gun rally. This week, a Texas jury awarded the family of a Sandy Hook school shooting victim $45 million in a lawsuit against Jones (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury).

Journalists have a problem with “conspiracy theories.”

I put the phrase in quotes because writers, editors and headline writers have a problem with those consecutive words — “conspiracy theories” — in their writing. It’s not because they are being duped into believing farcical truths about the world.

Journalists are lumping all kinds of gaslighting, misinformation, disinformation and lying into a bucket with an innocuous and playful label: Conspiracy theories. In the process, they excuse the deception of presidents and charlatans (along with presidents who are charlatans).

Alex Jones, the sinister Infowars radio host, seems conjoined with conspiracy theories. This week a Texas jury awarded the family of a Sandy Hook school shooting victim $45 million in a lawsuit against Jones. The parents suffered under Jones’ lies for years, as he falsely accused the survivors of being complicit in the staged deaths of their children. This judgment came after Jones’ legal team accidentally spilled the contents of his cell phone to the opposition’s legal team.

Those bumbling events spurred countless news stories, in which journalists and commentators called Jones “a conspiracy theorist and radio host,” “fiery conspiracy theory peddler,” and “the supplement-slinging conspiracy theorist.”

If so many journalists have settled on the phrase, what is my problem with using it in this way, especially when it comes to Jones?

As someone who has spent decades grading essays by high school and college students, I hate to do this to you, but let’s refer to a definition. I can’t count how many times I have sighed and raised my eyes to the heavens when reading an essay that leans on a definition like I am about to do. But bear with me.

Let’s consult Merriam Webster.

“Conspiracy theory” noun : a theory that explains an event or set of circumstances as the result of a secret plot by usually powerful conspirators. 

Do you notice anything there? Because I do.

The definition ignores the vital element of Jones’ speech: It is false.

By allowing Jones’s speech to be a “theory,” we journalists are saying to our readers, “Judge for yourself whether the words of this radio host are true. We don’t feel quite qualified to arbitrate what Jones has claimed. That 9/11 was an inside job. That Sandy Hook was a fake slaughter of school children. That the military is using perfumes to prevent men from becoming fathers.”

When writing stories about Jones, these journalists referred to the menu of words available and reached for “conspiracy theory.” They left behind much better options that I have already used here: lies, deception, misinformation, disinformation, gaslighting, plus words like falsehood, untruth and many more.

We, as journalists, are similarly weak when writing about other people who lie publicly and ostentatiously for their own profit or advancement. A headline writer labeled lies about a military coup following President Joe Biden’s swearing in by saying, there was “no evidence to support” the social media misinformation.

The news media’s famous navel gazing about what to call President Donald Trump’s disinformation from the presidential lectern during his first days in office led to only a handful of outlets to accurately describe his words: as lies. (Notice that the preceding link is published in the New York Times’ opinion section.)

Why is the press willing to fact check picayune details of tax plans in real time during debates, yet we label flagrant fictions with direct consequences on real people as “theories?”

Many journalism classrooms and newsrooms confuse “objectivity” with “observation.” We teach young journalists to avoid being descriptive when observations about truth and fiction are necessary to serve the reader.

Journalists have a duty to spotlight deceptions — especially lies that are elaborate, public and persuasive. These are not conspiracy theories.

It would be convenient here to super-charge my argument by saying the trafficking in so-called conspiracy theories is worse than ever right now. However, it seems likely that we constantly perceive ourselves in a misinformation cloud, breathing in noxious stories about the grand cabal of overlords controlling minds, politicians and military. Grand schemes describing such conspiracies were more common, according to studies, decades ago.

There are useful elements to the phrase “conspiracy theories.” There are many elaborate fictions in the world, and they deserve to be called out. These lies rely on our skepticism in institutions, whether government, religion or political parties. It’s plausible — if not alluring — to believe that powerful forces are arrayed against us. These stories surround us.

Even so, it’s clear that we need something more specific to call this modern strain of damaging false narratives.

One column this week in Politico by media writer Jack Shafer stresses Jones’ financial incentive to lie. “Alex Jones and the Lie Economy,” reads the headline, a phrase that also scores points for stressing that Jones is lying.

Weave together all of the strands of deceptive speech like this, and it’s clear that we need a new word or phrase to communicate this: false narratives about how powerful conspirators are plotting against the common man told by deceptive hucksters who have a personal, and often financial, incentive to lie. 

Our English vocabulary might not contain a word or phrase with these particular, if familiar, contours. If we have such words, I can’t conjure them.

What’s clear to me is that the words we have don’t ring true.

A version of this commentary was originally published by the Kansas Reflector, a States Newsroom affiliate.

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Eric Thomas
Eric Thomas

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association, a nonprofit that supports student journalism throughout the state. He also teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. He lives in Leawood with his wife and two children.