Covering conspiracy theories and those who spread them has always been a tricky proposition for journalists. If you are in the business of trying to publish what’s true, how do you treat things that are untrue without amplifying them? When is the right time to write about them and what is the right way to describe them accurately? How do you decide which ones are not worth debunking and which are? In an age of social media, how do you do all this without inadvertently encouraging the spread of falsehoods?
The last few years – indeed, the last few months – have brought new challenges. A number of candidates running for Congress this year have expressed a belief in QAnon, a far-right conspiracy theory that there is a deep-state element within the federal government that is working against President Donald Trump and running pedophilia rings, among other things. The conspiracy theory is disconnected from reality, and it could – and has – led to violence.
[pullquote align=center]This year, the number of QAnon adherents running for office requires local journalists to be aware of the conspiracy theorists’ manipulation tactics and look for ways to cover the issues without amplifying their messages.[/pullquote]
National reporters in recent years have become used to the challenges of covering politicians who give voice to conspiracy theories. President Trump has tweeted them. But local and regional newsrooms need to grapple with it, too. A woman who has promoted QAnon messages is a leading candidate for a U.S. House seat in northwestern Georgia. Republicans have nominated another QAnon proponent in Oregon as their party’s candidate for the U.S. Senate. A Colorado candidate who has expressed belief in QAnon recently upset a five-term Republican House member in that state’s primary. Media Matters for America, a progressive group that monitors right-wing misinformation and propaganda in media outlets, has been keeping a running list of congressional candidates who have espoused or otherwise shown support for QAnon.
As The New York Times reported in February, QAnon “has found footholds in the offline world.” And they aren’t exactly hiding themselves; people regularly show up at Trump rallies and other public events with “Q” T-shirts, hats and signs.
That’s not to say that conspiracy theories haven’t been around forever – they have. As Joseph E. Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami, wrote in the 2019 book “Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them,” journalists “always think that the high point of conspiracy theorizing is now.”
It’s also not new that people who promote conspiracy theories would run for public office, said Joan Donovan, research director at Harvard Kennedy’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. Notoriously, former Ku Klux Klan leader and Holocaust denier David Duke in 1989 won a seat in the Louisiana legislature, where he served for one term, and has run for other posts since.
In fact, running for office is a way that media manipulators try to grab press attention, Donovan said.
“It’s part of the hoax,” she said. “We’ve seen white supremacists do this many times. It’s a sure fire way to get attention and then drag whichever reporter into a back and forth about free speech or whatever frame they are using as cover to spread propaganda.”
This year, the number of QAnon adherents running for office requires local journalists to be aware of the conspiracy theorists’ manipulation tactics and look for ways to cover the issues without amplifying their messages.
The question is how to do that. Uscinski and other experts we consulted say conspiracy theories should be the subject of newsroom discussions so that journalists can decide what standards and best practices to use in writing about those theories and the people who subscribe to or might be persuaded by them.
And the best time to dive into this difficult topic is ahead of time, before the crush of deadline. A breaking news situation is not the moment to debate whether and how to identify someone as a conspiracy theorist and the precise language to use in describing them. Doing it on deadline can result in a small number of people making decisions too quickly, and getting it wrong.
Once the right people are in the room – the relevant reporters and assignment editors, headline writers, social media editors and those who oversee style, standards and ethics – here are five items to put on the agenda for that conversation.
1. Will we cover this conspiracy theorist at all? If so, how often do we mention it?
In covering a falsehood or a person spreading one, experts in disinformation say journalists should identify a “tipping point,” or the moment when a falsehood or a person promoting it is so widely exposed that ignoring it is no longer an option, regardless of how preposterous it is. (First Draft has a good discussion of the tipping point concept in this October 2019 report.)
But when a politician who subscribes to QAnon has a platform – and, potentially, a place on the ballot – tipping-point considerations become less relevant. Voters need to know who these people are and what they believe. The question then becomes one of frequency and intensity of coverage: How often will you mention the person’s beliefs? Does it warrant its own story? Should reporters seek to interview this person about how they might bring their beliefs to bear in governing? Is it worth it, or would it just give them a larger platform that really isn’t warranted?
The answers to these questions will depend on the circumstances – the individual, the community, the audacity of their claims, and the relative danger of their beliefs. As always, editorial judgment will be the decider. The important thing is that this discussion should be held in advance.
While journalists should always consider whether they are amplifying a fringe view, the online world has pushed QAnon to a new and broader audience, said Brendan Nyhan, a political science professor at Dartmouth College whose specialties include misinformation and media coverage of politics.
“QAnon has become harder to ignore. Candidates believing in the conspiracy theory is a matter of public concern that justifies serious reporting,” he said in an interview. “It’s not just a fringe story like when some Trump fans wore ‘Q’ T-shirts to a rally. These are people who could be serving in Congress.”
[pullquote align=center]Journalists need to figure out how to talk about the issue in a way … that makes a very clear and convincing case that QAnon is false.[/pullquote]
He said reporters need to find the delicate balance between avoiding coverage of QAnon candidates altogether in an effort to avoid giving them oxygen and writing about the conspiracy theory as if it’s some sort of policy position.
“Journalists need to figure out how to talk about the issue but in a responsible way,” he said, “that limits amplification and includes a very clear and convincing case that QAnon is false.”
What should newsrooms do in cases where the QAnon candidate has little chance of winning? Amplifying them is probably not worth it. One the other hand, journalists sometimes cover no-hope candidates because they don’t want to prejudge the outcome. Instead of dismissing them, newsrooms need to have a serious conversation about these people, in particular, Nyhan said.
Similarly, it is tricky to strike the right balance when a candidate espouses conspiracy theories but later disavows them, as did the Colorado candidate, Lauren Boebert. She recently responded to a statement from the Democrats’ House campaign committee about her QAnon affiliation by tweeting “QAnon=Fake News” and “Not a follower.”
One clear path to establish a candidate’s record of past support and assess whether he or she is being truthful in disavowing the conspiracy theory and the people behind it is through looking at their support, their social feed, their rhetoric and connections.
2. What precise wording will we use?
If a politician in your coverage area is promoting a conspiracy theory, precision in describing it is important. Sentence structure and word choice are critical. The experts we consulted cite three reasons for that.
Take QAnon again as an example. How should newsrooms describe it, precisely? Uscinski argues that the best descriptions are probably candidate-specific.
“Conspiracy theories are like fan fiction, so anyone can make up any version of it any time they want,” he said. “So if you say QAnon is a conspiracy that says A-B-C-D-E, for some people it might say those things; for other people it might mean F-G-H-I, because they’ve contorted it to mean what they want it to mean.”
“So if you’re writing about a particular candidate and they express a belief in something, it’s better to ask them what their belief is specifically and not ascribe what you think the prototypical believer might believe to that person.”
Second, journalists try so hard to make sense of things that in trying to describe a conspiracy theory, they might do so in a way that makes it more reasonable than it actually is. In the face of trying to explain something that’s irrational, an “understandability bias” takes hold, potentially undermining the message that the conspiracy theory is actually not rational at all.
Travis View, who writes about conspiracy theories and hosts a podcast called QAnon Anonymous, said he has seen journalists under-describe QAnon as simply a conspiracy within the “deep state” whose members are all working together to oust Trump. But that actually sounds relatively benign compared to some of the things QAnon-ers actually spread – the pedophilia angle, for example, or the notion that high-level military intelligence officials are releasing secret messages about an epic war between good and evil.
“QAnon is so outside the realm of conventional political discourse that in the attempt to relate it to what people can understand, it can make it seem more reasonable or down to earth or believable than it actually is,” View said. In fact, QAnon beliefs can lead to extremism, which can lead to dangerous behavior, he said.
[pullquote align=center]Avoid vague descriptions. They don’t help people understand the conspiratorial mindset, and they can also lead people to investigate on their own, generating search queries that can help spread the conspiracy.[/pullquote]
At the same time, experts say, it is important to avoid vague descriptions. They don’t help people understand the conspiratorial mindset, and they can also lead people to investigate on their own, generating search queries that can help spread the conspiracy, said Aimee Rinehart, deputy director of the U.S. office of First Draft, which fights disinformation. (First Draft is partly funded by Craig Newmark Philanthropies, which is also a funder of the American Press Institute.)
“You might write ‘candidate X, a supporter of a conspiracy community’ but that will likely drive up searches for ‘Candidate X AND conspiracy,’ and thereby create a trending search term, which gives a conspiracy theory like QAnon even more reach,” she said.
In writing about QAnon generally (as opposed to referring to an individual candidate’s beliefs) each newsroom will describe it differently, and reporters and editors will have to decide how they want to do it, given the context of how it will be used in stories.
At the Associated Press, whose stylebook is followed by many news organizations, the company is developing an entry for QAnon, said Karen Mahabir, the head of fact-checking. But she provided this general definition: “QAnon is a conspiracy theory centered on the baseless belief that President Donald Trump is waging a secret campaign against enemies in the ‘deep state’ and a child sex trafficking ring run by satanic pedophiles and cannibals. Some extreme supporters of Trump adhere to the theory, often likened to a cult.”
Here are some other recent examples:
- Wrote The Guardian’s Julia Carrie Wong: “More than just another internet conspiracy theory, QAnon is a movement of people who interpret as a kind of gospel the online messages of an anonymous figure – ‘Q’ – who claims knowledge of a secret cabal of powerful pedophiles and sex traffickers. Within the constructed reality of QAnon, Donald Trump is secretly waging a patriotic crusade against these ‘deep state’ child abusers, and a ‘Great Awakening’ that will reveal the truth is on the horizon.”
- The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss put it this way: “At its heart is the baseless notion that President Trump is secretly working to bring about a ‘Great Awakening’ to expose an elite cabal of child sex abusers — including prominent political figures in Washington — that has been concealed by intelligence agencies, or ‘the deep state.’”
- Writing in The New York Times, Justin Bank, Liam Stack and Daniel Victor provide what they call a short version: “Q claims to be a government insider exposing an entrenched, international bureaucracy that is secretly plotting all sorts of nefarious schemes against the Trump administration and its supporters. The character uses lingo that implies that he or she has a military or intelligence background.” They then go on to provide a longer version also.
3. The importance of tone
It’s also important not to take a mocking tone or lump QAnon adherents into a “crazy pot,” said First Draft’s Rinehart. “A passionless, clear explanation is likely to be the best suited for people to read and absorb this information. The next paragraph can detail what QAnon is, or what it might mean in that locale.”
Abrasive language will only feed suspicions that the journalist is part of a liberal media with an agenda, she said.
In his book, Uscinski wrote that there is a common trope in recent news reporting: “look at the latest conspiracy theory and the idiots who believe them.”
“Such stories have become a mainstay in recent journalism, but they may do more harm than good by bringing to the fore ideas that have few followers and needlessly castigating people who are on the fringe of society,” he wrote.
He also advises against using language associated with mental illness in describing people who subscribe to conspiracy theories, which can further stigmatize people with true mental health issues.
Dartmouth’s Nyhan agreed, saying it is important to avoid blaming people for their beliefs.
“We need to be empathetic and understanding of how people can fall victim to false claims in politics,” he said. “It happens to everybody. Journalists should avoid being condescending to people who may have been taken in.”
4. How can we show the public what’s at stake?
People might think of conspiracy theories and the people who promote them as harmless, and some are. But there are often dangerous ramifications to their spread.
Last year, the FBI for the first time identified conspiracy groups, including QAnon, as domestic terror threats. In a memo from the bureau’s Phoenix Field office, agents listed a number of cases in which people acted on conspiracies with violent acts, some fatal.
“The FBI assesses these conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace, occasionally driving both groups and individual extremists to carry out criminal or violent acts,” states the document, which was first reported by Jana Winter for Yahoo News in August 2019.
The bureau’s list included the December 2016 “pizzagate” shooting in which a 28-year-old man from North Carolina fired a single shot from an AR-15 rifle in a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor as part of an attempt to investigate the baseless conspiracy theory that children were being held as sex slaves in the restaurant. No one was injured, but customers and employees were terrified. Despite numerous stories in the media debunking the theory, it lives on to this day and recently has found new life on TikTok, according to a New York Times story last month.
The experts we talked to suggest that any discussion of the impact of conspiracy theories should mention the damage that can be caused by people who get taken in by them. That includes damage to themselves, said View, citing the pizzagate shooter.
“He was a young man who basically fell down the rabbit hole and derailed his life in a major way, because he got radicalized by this online nonsense,” he said.
With a political candidate, physical danger might not be involved, but showing the stakes means letting voters know what they’ll get if the candidate wins.
In Georgia, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the U.S. House candidate who has spread QAnon messages, is already being shunned by the Republican Party leadership after Politico uncovered a series of videos in which she expressed racist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic views.
Greene came in first in the June 9 primary in Georgia. She and the second-place candidate, who received just over half the number of votes she did, will go head to head in a runoff August 11. If she wins then, she will likely win the November election, given that the district is considered safe Republican territory.
“Journalists who are covering candidates operating way outside the normal bounds of acceptable political behavior have an obligation to explain to readers the downside of such behavior if they actually win,” said David Hawkings, a longtime congressional journalist who is now editor-in-chief at The Fulcrum, a nonprofit news site that focuses on dysfunctions plaguing American democracy and how to reverse them.
Decisions about who ends up sitting where in committees “is not an egalitarian system,” Hawkings said. By the time new members of Congress show up for their orientation, their reputations are pretty much already locked in place inside the Capitol.
“Unless reporters tell their audiences now about the consequences of out-of-bounds styles,” he said, “they might be really surprised when the person they just elected ends up getting shunned in Washington, powerless to be an effective member by getting assigned to some obscure and minimally powerful committee and never getting invited into the rooms where it happens.”
5. Can the circulation of conspiracy theories locally help us see reporting paths and fill gaps in people’s understanding of the real world?
People sometimes turn to conspiracy theories to help make sense of a complex world – and the world is certainly a complex place right now, given the spread of the coronavirus and the resulting political and economic tumult.
“Some people find comfort in resorting to a conspiracy theory whenever they have a sense of a loss of control or they’re confronted with a major adverse event that no one has control over,” the cognitive scientist Stephan Lewandowsky from England’s University of Bristol told ProPublica’s Marshall Allen earlier this year.
So when a particular conspiracy theory takes hold in a community – maybe a politician who spreads one is popular, or it gets wide circulation locally on social media – that can tell journalists something about what local people are most worried about, said First Draft’s Rinehart.
[pullquote align=center]A politician who is successful in spreading a false message about gun control, for example, might indicate that people in the community are worried about gun rights.[/pullquote]
Wide adoption of a conspiracy theory or support for a conspiracy theorist might indicate voids in the community’s knowledge that could then be backfilled with good, explanatory journalism, she said. For example, a politician who is successful in spreading a false message about gun control might indicate that people in the community are worried about gun rights.
Another possibility, said Nyhan, is that because primary elections are “low-information, low-turnout affairs,” some people may not even know a QAnon-promoting candidate has won. Then in the general election they may vote on partisan loyalty, so they will not really know what they’re getting. That makes it even more important to report out that candidate’s beliefs during the general campaign.
While every situation – and every audience – is different, experts like Uscinski say it is important to apply consistent standards, and to agree on those standards up front. He suggests journalists be careful not to label something a conspiracy theory that isn’t, and vice versa, and urges them to use the same standard for every politician.
“Journalists need to set up clear standards for what they are going to consider true and not true, and what they’re going to challenge and not challenge and to decide where the burden of proof lies, and do those things in advance,” he said. “That way you’re not applying scrutiny one time in one way, then one time in another way.”
For related resources about reporting on elections this year, join API’s Trusted Elections Network.