Conspiracy theories, particularly in the United States since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, operate in proximity to politics. Recently, they have started to become more and more partisan. Since 2016, there have been numerous partisan conspiracy theories circulating on the Internet—notably, Pizzagate and, more recently, the Wayfair conspiracy. Pizzagate culminated in an act of potential violence by a conspiracy theorist in 2016 when Edgar Maddison Welch entered the pizza shop that allegedly was harboring children and facilitating acts of abuse against children, with a loaded rifle. When he found no children (and no basement where it was purported that the children were located), he gave himself up to the police.
The Wayfair conspiracy materialized on a Reddit conspiracy page, where a user noticed that there were $10,000 dollar cabinets listed on the furniture store’s website with names that matched the names of missing children. The user subsequently advanced the idea that Wayfair was selling missing children, and they only did so tentatively, saying, “Is it possible Wayfair involved in Human trafficking with their WFX Utility collection?”. Still, the post went viral, regardless of the fact that over 800,000 children go missing in a year and that almost any conceivable name will be contained in that 800,000.
Both pizza-gate and Wayfair are partisan conspiracy theories that overtly implicate one political party. Pizzagate was explicitly aimed at Democrats, naming Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and others within the Democratic National Convention of committing acts of pedophilia. The Wayfair conspiracy is explicitly aimed at Republicans, accusing President Trump, his administration, and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) of using the furniture website to traffic children.
These conspiracy theories function by taking a tenuous connection—without evidence—and producing an arbitrary and unrelated conclusion. In the case of Pizzagate, it was leaked emails discussing pizza parties at the White House, which were transformed into a conspiracy theory that asserted that those conversations regarding the pizza parties were actually covertly about pedophilia. The Wayfair conspiracy began because there were unreasonably, and disproportionality priced cabinets and other furniture on their website, and since Wayfair supplies beds to detention facilities for migrants, the conspiracy concluded that the expensive cabinets must be a ploy to sell children missing from those facilities.
The virality of the Internet assists the circulation of these partisan conspiracy theories and enables them eventually to traverse the marginal Internet forums where they ordinarily begin and spread to mainstream news outlets. Partisan conspiracy theories tend to rest on the partisans’ own confirmation bias that their particular party is morally superior and the opposing party is evil or morally bankrupt. And this is a result of the binary party system: If one invests in their beliefs and aligns their moral and ethical approach to their political party, then the party that opposes it becomes the antithesis to their moral and ethical values. This is why the Left must remain involved in a dialectic, incessantly challenging ourselves in order to not simply become reactionary.
Yet, this is not merely a symptom of non-critical partisan alignment; it is also a way for those that are not politically involved or informed to confront the political scene. The sensationalist component of conspiracy theories makes it easier for people to approach politics, and since the acts that the politicians are accused of (pedophilia, child-sex-trafficking) are ubiquitously condemned, it also enables easier judgment. That is why these conspiracy theories have been perpetuated by many apolitical or mainly non-political influencers and other users of apps like TikTok; everyone is against the acts that were ostensibly committed, and it takes absolutely no political involvement or knowledge to condemn it.
For a person that is politically involved, there is no reason to subscribe to the tenuous and non-empirical claims of partisan conspiracy theories against politicians, because they have their own convictions concerning politicians and their actions. For instance, why condemn President Obama and Secretary Clinton for their involvement in a non-existent pedophilia ring, when they could be condemned as war criminals for civilian deaths in the Middle East, along with offensive and superfluous wars? The same is applicable to President Trump. It makes little sense to accuse him of baseless claims of trafficking children when he has perpetuated President Obama’s drone program that continues to kill civilians in the Middle East—and engaged in an offensive strike against Iran. Both have also let thousands die due to not implementing some form of nationalized healthcare and instead allowing for-profit, free-market health insurance to remain.
The largest database of published and recorded English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, posits that the term “conspiracy theory” first appeared in 1909 in the American History Review. However, conspiracy theories are not strictly a contemporary phenomenon; they have been occurring since written history. According to Jan-Willem van Prooijen, a researcher and associate professor at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam that reviewed data on conspiracy theories in the U.S., “The core conclusion that emerges from these data is that conspiracy theories have not increased over time.” To emphasize the historical precedent of conspiracy theories, he also cites anti-Semitic conspiracy theories which he claims date back to medieval times, when Jews were accused of obstructing the crusades and spreading diseases such as the plague.
Modern conspiracy theories tend to emerge from a fundamental distrust between citizens and those in positions of power. This is likely why these two examples of partisan conspiracy theories—pizza-gate and the Wayfair conspiracy—are aimed at those that are currently in power, specifically the respective incumbent presidents: Barack Obama and Donald Trump. It is evident that modern conspiracy theories emerge from a fundamental distrust because most conspiracy theories are counter-narratives that are in contention to the official stance on an event, for instance, the conspiracy theories on JFK and the Warren Commission that concluded there was only one shooter. This indicates distrust in the information provided by those in positions of power and the official narrative; they are no longer considered the arbiters of truth.
There may not be more conspiracies circulating, but their dissemination has become much easier and their audience much larger.
Yet, the distinction between a conspiracy theory and a non-conspiratorial explanation of an event is only semantic. “Conspiracy theory” has become a derogatory term to undermine the validity of an assertion, but the term itself is not indicative of the content of the assertion. I am not suggesting that every conspiracy theory should be taken seriously, nor am I suggesting that everything labeled as a conspiracy theory should be outrightly dismissed. Sometimes (maybe even most of the time), distrust of government figures and institutions is warranted, and asserting an opinion that is in contention with the official stance is entirely appropriate. An assertion should be judged by the merit of the claim, and the evidence that either vindicates or discredits the conclusion.