You can put away your tin-foil hat now, the public service announcement advised. Those things we told you were ‘conspiracy theories’ are actually true, a White House spokesperson said on Wednesday.
If you missed that announcement, don’t feel out of the loop: it hasn’t happened yet. But bit-by-bit, things not so long ago we were told were true have in recent years been disproven. At the same time, news that was considered too unsettling or disruptive was “de-bunked” by experts.
These days, the difference between a “right-wing conspiracy theory” and “settled science” is just a few months or years.
We now live in an age where the terms “misinformation” and “disinformation” are freely cast about like blinders to avoid the sight of unpleasant truths. But it may be helpful to apply a more critical lens to these words, just as congressional Republicans did last year when the Biden administration tried to create a special disinformation governance board in the Department of Homeland Security to be headed by a 34-year old expert on the subject.
The track record so far suggests the bureaucrats of the federal government are the last people we want in charge of policing what is and is not “misinformation” or “disinformation.”
Take, for instance, five “misinformation” narratives that turned out to be true:
Hunter Biden’s Laptop – During the 2020 presidential election, 50 former intelligence officials signed a letter stating that news about Hunter Biden’s laptop reported by the New York Post was likely Russian disinformation. FBI officials told Twitter as much, though the blame game there continues like ping-pong as the current House committee on the weaponization of government hears conflicting takes from witnesses. Bottom line: they were all wrong. The laptop is real, and it really was Hunter’s. Big oops. Unsurprisingly, not one of the people who falsely claimed the laptop was Russian disinformation has suffered an iota of professional consequences for misleading the American people in order to influence an election.
COVID-19 origin from lab-leak – Speaking with FOX News Bret Baier on Tuesday night, FBI Director Christopher Wray admitted that the bureau knew “for some time” that the COVID-19 virus originated from a lab in Wuhan, China. On Sunday, we learned the Department of Energy had reached the same conclusion. Ever since COVID-19’s outbreak in early 2020, those who said it originated in China were branded as racists or conspiracy mongers. Now, suddenly, the DoE, Wray, and a host of “authoritative” sources are openly admitting a fact that would have gotten you censored on social media for stating two years ago.
Masking prevents the spread of COVID-19 and natural immunity is not an adequate defense. Both of these claims were central to U.S. government policy as well as those of states in enacting masking requirements and vaccine mandates. These beliefs were basically a core religious tenet of the Covidians, and the fervor of their faith explains why we saw Maine high school kids playing basketball, for example, with cloth masks on. Recent studies show both officially accepted truths are indeed misleading. A new, authoritative study states that masks have close to zero impact on the virus’ spread, and The Lancet, a prominent medical journal, has just come out with a report indicating there is essentially no real difference between the effectiveness of natural immunity and that of the vaccine when it comes to catching COVID-19.
Russia installed Donald Trump as president –Beginning in the summer of 2016, the Hillary Clinton campaign aggressively pushed the narrative that Russian collusion propelled Donald Trump eventually to defeat her that November. Then, a fabricated “Steele Dossier” was presented to the FBI after the election prompting a major investigation of then-President Trump.
Led by former FBI director Robert Mueller, that probe led to the prosecution of a dozen or so individuals (disclosure: I was one of them) on process crimes totally unrelated to the original claims against Trump. But in 2019, Mueller ultimately determined the Trump campaign had not colluded with Russia. Earlier this year, the FBI arrested one of its own senior counter-intelligence officers involved in the probe who himself, they charge, was on the payroll of a powerful Russian oligarch. In other words, a top FBI agent was colluding with Russian oligarchs while investigating the false claim that Trump colluded with Russian oligarchs. What a coincidence!
Russian Bots Boost Right-wing Social Media – Throughout the 2020 election, newspapers of record claimed over and over again that whichever narrative was benefitting Trump or conservative candidates was, actually, part of a sinister plot by Russian bot networks. Sinister though Russia undoubtedly is, the narrative that bot networks manipulated from Moscow were shaping American news cycles unraveled this year when we learned the truth about Hamilton 68.
Hamilton 68 was a group led by some of the crustiest Washington, D.C. establishment figures. They claimed to have a proprietary model that proved — proved! — Russians were trying to help conservatives by manipulating Twitter. But, thanks to the Twitter Files, we now know that the “proprietary model” was total junk science. The model did not show any Russian shenanigans but instead showed normal conservatives tweeting about normal things. Nonetheless, the newspapers that breathlessly reported Hamilton 68’s scam findings have not issued retractions or corrections.
Bonus: The Iraq War – Governments telling lies isn’t a partisan trend, either. In 2004, the United States invaded Iraq on the basis of lie: that Saddam Hussein was hiding weapons of mass destruction. Former Bush administration CIA director George Tenet even called this assertion a “slam dunk.” Mainstream media outlets eagerly banged the drums of war. Yet the sources of that intelligence have subsequently been discredited.
In promoting his new book about Republicans entitled “The Destructionists” on NPR this past August, Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank took Terry Gross down his dark narrative of derangement in the GOP.
From Newt Gingrich to Karl Rove to Donald Trump, Republicans have been all about conspiracies, he argues. The problem with his analysis, though, is that the more we learn, the more apparent it becomes that the current crew in power are not being forthcoming.
In holding them to account, Republicans need to be careful about both hyperbole and red herrings. There are plenty of answers we still deserve, and if we stay focused – and balanced – more will certainly be revealed.