The media likes to lecture Americans about the increasing threat to democracy posed by ‘conspiracy theories.’ The term, historically relegated to UFOs and the JFK assassination, has picked up steam in recent years as it seems to have obtained some political usefulness. Early examples include the Hillary Clinton private email server, spying on the Trump 2016 Presidential campaign, and the contention that Trump-Russia collusion was a product of the Clinton campaign’s opposition research. In each of these instances, dismissing allegations of wrongdoing as conspiracy theories proved more useful than trying to dispute what later turned out to be reality.
The response proved so effective for politicians and campaigns that now mainstream media and technology companies have adopted it as a key tactic to suppress politically damaging stories. But what happens when these conspiracy theories turn out to be true? It seems to be happening more often and consistently in one ideological direction.
For years, the mass media named, shamed, and censored those who proposed that a lab leak, rather than a wet market, was the source of the COVID-19 pandemic. For example, look at what they did to Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR). However, a State Department memo from April 2020 analyzed the possible origins of COVID-19 and determined a lab leak from the Wuhan laboratory was the ‘most likely’ coronavirus source. Additional facts unearthed by congressional sources reveal Dr. Anthony Fauci lobbied his academic colleagues to work to suppress the lab leak theory as a fringe conspiracy theory.
Mask mandates have also been an extremely controversial policy, with internal government emails and scientific literature providing mixed views on their efficacy in fighting the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), has been on both sides of the fence of the mask debate and real world data shows a minimal impact at best when comparing states that implemented mandates and those that did not. But the mass media have consistently shamed and tech companies have aggressively censored as purveyors of a conspiracy theory those not sold on the efficacy of masks.
The Hunter Biden laptop is real. When this news first broke, the now infamous “50 former intelligence professionals,” were quick to label it Russian disinformation. However, plenty of evidence existed prior to the election that it was really Hunter Biden’s, including confirmation from individuals, such as Hunter’s business partner, Tony Bobulinski, that emails to and from them were legitimate. But much of the mass media dismissed it, and Twitter and Facebook censored it, limiting knowledge of it from spreading. A poll has shown that this censorship may have had an impact on the 2020 election. Only recently, long after the election, have major media outlets acknowledged it is true.
Yet as recently as two weeks ago, even asking media elites about Hunter’s laptop, Trump campaign wiretapping, and the COVID lab leak theory earned one the label of conspiracy theorist and drew a strong rebuke as a peddler of misinformation.
While public officials using this defense to protect their reputations is irritating and the technology companies censoring information for similar reasons may be cause for changes to tort law, the intervention of powerful government agencies in the last year is arguably unconstitutional and a violation of Americans’ civil liberties.
The first major instance came when Attorney General Garland issued his now infamous school board memo. The memo directed the FBI to involve itself in local school board meetings under the auspices of anti-terrorism statutes due to supposed threats and/or violence directed against board members. However, it quickly became apparent that the FBI/DOJ was actually targeting the speech of parents, when, on October 14, 2021, another memo, released by the U.S. Attorney in Montana, directed law enforcement to “contact the FBI” if a parent calls a member of a school board simply “with intent to annoy” which “may serve as a basis for a prosecution” under federal law. Garland and the DOJ/FBI were forced to disavow the latter memo, since it directly targeted simple and non-threatening speech.
Sadly, the story has not ended there. Secretary Mayorkas and the Department of Homeland Security have followed up on AG Garland’s memo with a campaign to label and target “false or misleading narratives” as misinformation worthy of federal investigation. The agency has appeared to enlist community-based organizations and technology firms to assist their efforts, with a primary focus on COVID and election integrity “misinformation.”
The American public may be left to wonder if there is a concerted effort to stamp out speech harmful to the political interests of the current administration. But that is probably just another crazy conspiracy theory.
Adam Turner is the Director of the Center to Advance Security in America.