Senator Ed Markey went on CNN earlier this month and appeared to break major news in the investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. “There are very strong allegations the Russians had relationships with people inside of the Trump campaign,” the Massachusetts Democrat said. “In fact, subpoenas have now been issued in northern Virginia with regard to General Flynn and General Flynn’s associates. A grand jury has been empaneled up in New York.” While it was known that federal prosecutors in Virginia had subpoenaed associates of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, the grand jury investigation was news to political reporters who were watching.
Fake news, it turned out. Pressed later for details, Markey’s office revealed the source of the bad information:
Louise Mensch is a British journalist, but only her Britishness is unquestioned; whether she can rightly be called a journalist is up for debate, for she has become a chief promoter of Russia-related conjecture online, principally on Twitter. The Palmer Report is a fellow-traveler.
Markey’s mistake was the latest and perhaps most prominent example of the rise of conspiracy-mongering on the left, prompting some to worry that liberals are heading into the same fever swamps that have swallowed up the Republican Party. “Mensch and The Palmer Report are part of a disturbing emerging trend,” the New Republic’s Sarah Jones wrote after the Markey incident. “Liberals desperate to believe that the right conspiracy will take down Donald Trump promote their own purveyors of fake news.”
The left ought to be concerned about this trend, but some have gone so far as to apply a false equivalence to conspiracy-mongering. The Russia theories haven’t taken hold among Democrats in nearly the same way that countless right-wing theories—like those about Barack Obama or Seth Rich—have gripped the Republican imagination. That’s because the two parties are fundamentally different: Only one of them acts responsibly when faced with politically convenient, but obviously fantastic, stories.
Vox’s Zack Beauchamp calls it the “Russiasphere.” For an article last week, he interviewed political scientists about this “new and growing sector of the internet that functions as a fake news bubble for liberals.”
They worry that the unfounded speculation and paranoia that infect the Russiasphere risk pushing liberals into the same black hole of conspiracy-mongering and fact-free insinuation that conservatives fell into during the Obama years.
The fear is that this pollutes the party itself, derailing and discrediting the legitimate investigation into Russia investigation. It also risks degrading the Democratic Party — helping elevate shameless hucksters who know nothing about policy but are willing to spread misinformation in the service of gaining power.
There’s no doubting the existence and growing popularity online of conspiratorial—and borderline demented—commentary on Russia. Mensch often veers into surrealistic fan fiction, saying she believes Russian President Vladimir Putin “murdered” Andrew Breitbart in 2012, “funded riots in Ferguson” against police violence, and entrapped Anthony Weiner in a sexting scandal with a 15-year-old girl. Simple common sense tells us it doesn’t take a Russian plot to get Weiner to send inappropriate photos of his penis, and Weiner’s recent guilty plea only further complicates Mensch’s theory.
The “key danger,” Beauchamp wrote, is “that this sort of thing becomes routine, repeated over and over again in left-leaning media outlets, to the point where accepting the Russiasphere’s fact-free claims becomes a core and important part of what Democrats believe.” We should worry that Democrats will fall for the likes of Mensch, just as Republicans fell for Alex Jones, but Beauchamp’s analysis is weakened by a false equivalence. “The basic thing you need to understand, these scholars say, is that political misinformation in America comes principally from partisanship,” he wrote. “People’s political identities are formed around membership in one of two tribes, Democratic or Republican. This filters the way they see the world.”
Brendan Nyhan, of The New York Times’ Upshot, made a similar case in February:
A simple explanation for this shift is that misperceptions often focus on the president and are most commonly held by members of the other party. Just as Republicans disproportionately endorsed prominent misperceptions during the Obama years (like the birther and death panel myths), Democrats are now the opposition partisans especially likely to fall victim to dubious claims about the Trump administration.
In other words, losing the presidential election made Democrats more likely to blame secret conspiracies for the state of the world, while making Republicans less willing to indulge these sorts of claims. If you don’t believe me, just compare your social media news feeds with what you saw during the campaign—or ask yourself who you think is behind the news you are seeing.
It’s true to an extent that, “pure independents” notwithstanding, partisanship drives conspiracy-mongering on both ends of the political spectrum. But it’s also the case that the two tribes are very different. There are no easy parallels between Democrats’ and Republicans’ propensity for believing conspiracy theories. The anti-Trump theories haven’t traveled nearly as far as anti-Obama and anti-Clinton ones have because the left and right are not symmetrical political tendencies in America.
Democrats are much more heterogeneous than Republicans, which makes it harder to spread conspiracy theories among their ranks. While the Republican Party is solidly a party of the right, with some variation between the Tea Party wing and conventional conservatives, but within a narrow spectrum. Democrats are divided into factions that run from Bernie Sanders leftists to Hillary Clinton liberals to Heidi Heitkamp centrists, and even have earned temporary support from a smattering of Never Trump conservatives like David Frum, who voted for Hillary Clinton.
The ideological mishmash of the Democratic Party helps explain an interesting fact about the Russia conspiracy theorists themselves: They often aren’t from the left at all.
Beauchamp’s article focuses on three major conspiracy theorists: Mensch, the Observer’s John Schindler, and photographer Claude Taylor, who tweets under the handle @TrueFactsStated. Of the three, only Taylor is anything close to a liberal Democrat. Mensch was a Conservative member of Parliament and until recently led Heat Street, Rupert Murdoch’s attempted Breitbart imitation. Schindler is a former National Security Agency analyst with hawkish foreign policy views. In 2015, National Review wrote, “Schindler has amassed a loyal following, particularly among conservatives, for his blunt missives on cyber-security, foreign policy, and intelligence.... Conservative pundits and scholars alike have made Schindler their go-to authority on national-security matters. He’s featured regularly on conservative talker Hugh Hewitt’s popular radio show, and his blog posts are often cited in top Republican consultant Rick Wilson’s commentary.” Wilson, as it happens, is another member of the Russiasphere cited in Beauchamp’s article, along with the anonymous Twitter account @counterchekist, whose author identifies as Republican.
In other words, the Russiasphere is not particularly liberal—nor are liberals especially fond of the Russiasphere. Debunkings of Mensch and company have become standard fare in left-wing, liberal, and centrist publications (Beauchamp’s own article is an example of the genre). Current Affairs describes Mensch as “legitimately paranoid and deluded.” BuzzFeed has counted 210 people and organizations that Mench has accused of being under Russian influence, dryly remarking that “in many cases, she lacks strong, or any, evidence connecting her targets” to Russia’s campaign to influence the 2016 election. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi described Mensch as “a noted loon.” And the former Obama aides who host the podcast Pod Save America have warned their listeners to avoid these conspiracy theorists.
“Luckily for the Democratic Party,” Beauchamp correctly pointed out, “there isn’t really a pre-built media ecosystem for amplifying this like there was for Republicans. In the absence of left-wing Limbaughs and Breitbarts, media outlets totally unconcerned with factual rigor, it’s much harder for this stuff to become mainstream. But hard doesn’t mean impossible.” The most “worrying sign,” he added, “is that some mainstream figures and publications are starting to validate Russiasphere claims.” As evidence, he cited scattered cases of prominent liberals briefly giving credence to the conspiracy theorists. The New York Times published a Mensch op-ed column, one that was criticized by the Times’ own reporters. Donna Brazile, former chair of the Democratic National Committee, tweeted Mensch’s article and thanked her on Twitter “for good journalism.” And Markey, the Massachusetts senator, parroted the grand jury lie while on CNN.
But Markey’s mistake illustrates the difference between Democrats and Republicans: He apologized. There still exists a feedback loop on the left, so when a prominent person falls for a conspiracy theory, they are challenged by the media and willing to correct themselves. Conversely, conservatives tend to adhere to a “no apologies” ethos that makes admitting error verboten.
The few scattered cases of liberals echoing the Russiasphere are minuscule compared to the vast infrastructure that’s spreading conspiracy theories on the right. First and foremost there is Trump, the erstwhile birther who has continued to promote conspiracy theories from the White House, like his claim in March that he was wiretapped by Obama. That lie, which originated from right-wing radio hosts Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh, gained currency thanks to Trump’s pulpit and the power of partisanship: A CBS poll in late March found that 74 percent of Republicans believed it was “very” or “somewhat” likely that Trump’s campaign was wiretapped or otherwise surveilled by the government.
Beyond Trump, major conservative figures like Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the House, and Fox News’ Sean Hannity are spreading the most dishonest smears imaginable. Gingrich and Hannity have both recently pushed the lie that Seth Rich, the slain Democratic National Committee staffer, was murdered because he provided DNC emails to Wikileaks.
“We have this very strange story now of this young man who worked for the Democratic National Committee, who apparently was assassinated at 4 in the morning, having given WikiLeaks something like 53,000 emails and 17,000 attachments,” Gingrich said Sunday on Fox and Friends. “Nobody’s investigating that, and what does that tell you about what’s going on? Because it turns out, it wasn’t the Russians. It was this young guy who, I suspect, was disgusted by the corruption of the Democratic National Committee. He’s been killed, and apparently nothing serious has been done to investigative his murder.” Neither Gingrich nor Hannity have apologized.
Whereas left-of-center publications have criticized Mensch, most conservative outlets have been silent about the Rich conspiracy theory (National Review, The Weekly Standard) or have given voice to it (The Federalist); The Daily Caller, in a rare exception, refers to the Rich conspiracy theory as “debunked.” Conservative media tends to be strongly tribalist and self-pitying, adhering to the idea that liberal bias is the biggest problem in news coverage. Such ideological tunnel vision disinclines these outlets right to counter conspiratorial thinking in their own ranks. It doesn’t suit their narrative about the “lamestream media,” and it’s bad for business.
Figures like Mensch are pests, but they will almost certainly not gain the same audience on the left that Alex Jones and Hannity command on the right. The key members of the Russiasphere have Twitter followings in the hundreds of thousands, at most. Hannity hosts a primetime show on what was, until recently, the most watched cable news network in the country; he has millions of viewers. The real lesson to learn from Mensch and company is not that the left is suddenly falling for conspiracy theories with the same fervor as the right has for decades. It’s that these theories can be largely smothered if you have a vibrant and diverse political party that is open to debate and beholden to a fact-based press. The tragedy of modern American politics is that only one of the two major parties fits that bill.