There’s a sad truth about the human mind and conspiracy theories: our memory of them is extremely sticky. Studies find that debunking them can even be counterproductive, as people remember the conspiracy and forget the debunking. What does seem to work is confronting the conspiracy head-on rather than passively, and doing so with a credible source (preferably someone from the believer’s own camp or ideology).
So it is all the more disappointing when responsible media outlets get this balance wrong. Take a story last week on Vox, entitled, “The Democratic Party’s Risky Bet on Joe Biden”. The piece focuses not on the objectively perilous aspects of his candidacy (age, history, proneness to gaffes) but on a Trump-peddled conspiracy: that the former vice-president was soft on corruption in Ukraine because his son, Hunter (pictured, on right, with Biden), worked for the country’s gas company, Burisma. The article acknowledges that the claim is “obviously, risibly false” (Biden actually cracked down on corruption in Ukraine while in office) but notes it is being exploited by his opponents – and is thus a weakness.
From a political standpoint there’s some truth to this: Donald Trump has turned the Ukraine focus onto Biden to such a degree that it’s having an impact on voters. But nowhere does this Vox article mention just how deplorable this state of affairs is, and that such false narratives need to be pushed back on aggressively, credibly and repeatedly. Instead, readers are left with a sense that the Ukraine affair is a reason to vote against Joe Biden and for his opponent in the Democratic nomination race, Bernie Sanders.
Is this really what we’ve come to? Treating conspiracy theories as a political weakness? The sad reality is there will be plenty of media outlets intentionally peddling false narratives in the coming months. Which is all the more reason for responsible ones to work tirelessly to counteract them.