Disinformation, Conservative Denial, and Conspiracy Theories

  • Why would the GOP block research into misinformation? Hmm.;
  • The pattern of conservative science denial: delay, deflect, downplay;
  • CNN on how how conspiracy theories are tearing American families apart;
  • With concluding thoughts about the idea of responsible citizenship.

This is perhaps more telling than the Republicans realize.

Washington Post, 23 Sep 2023: Misinformation research is buckling under GOP legal attacks, subtitled “An escalating campaign, led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and other Republicans, has cast a pall over programs that study political disinformation and the quality of medical information online”

The GOP is *for* misinformation? How else to construe this? And why would that be? Surely they don’t say it quite so plainly; how do they explain their concern?

Academics, universities and government agencies are overhauling or ending research programs designed to counter the spread of online misinformation amid a legal campaign from conservative politicians and activists who accuse them of colluding with tech companies to censor right-wing views.

It seems fairly clear that the GOP thinks what others call misinformation are actually “right-wing views.” This says a lot.

The escalating campaign — led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and other Republicans in Congress and state government — has cast a pall over programs that study not just political falsehoods but also the quality of medical information online.

Followed by examples of programs at Stanford and the NIH.

Academics and government scientists say the campaign also is successfully throttling the years-long effort to study online falsehoods, which grew after Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election caught both social media sites and politicians unaware.

Interviews with more than two dozen professors, government officials, physicians, nonprofits and research funders, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their internal deliberations freely, describe an escalating campaign emerging as online propaganda is rising.

So, where is the Republican rationale, beside the claim above about right-wing views? Actually, this is a long article, perhaps a front-page investigatory journalism piece. (I subscribe to WaPo online, but I don’t see the print edition.) Let me skim just a bit.

The rest of the piece goes into gruesome detail about how the Republicans challenge academic studies and harass researchers. And there seems to be no defense by Republicans except to equate misinformation (based on science) with “right-wing views.” This is not a surprise. Conservatives do ideology (right-wing views) despite evidence and science.


Conservative denial of science has been going on for decades, and it has a predictable pattern.

Vox, Avishay Artsy, 22 Sep 2023: A climate scientist on how to recognize the new climate change denial, subtitled “Delay, deflect, downplay, and other ways fossil fuel companies block climate action.”

(I recognize the name Avishay Artsy! He’s been a reporter for KCRW, in LA, and KQED, in the Bay Area.)

The headline and subtitle says it all. It’s a pattern by conservatives and corporations selfish of their own interests, at the expense of the common good and even the long-term survival of the human race, for decades. It goes back at least to the tobacco companies denying and deflecting evidence that smoking causes lung cancer; they did so simply to protect their own profits.

The piece is an interview with Michael Mann, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, author of a new book Our Fragile Moment: How Lessons from Earth’s Past Can Help Us Survive the Climate Crisis, to be published Tuesday.


Another long piece, recalling earlier pieces about people shocked by how their parents were drawn into the paranoid universe of Fox News.

CNN, Donie O’Sullivan, 23 Sep 23: Her son was an accused cult leader. She says he was a victim, too. subtitled “How conspiracy theories are tearing American families apart.”

(Homepage headline: “How a fringe theory about JFK, Trump and Jesus wrecked lives and tore apart families”. Via CNN Does Deep Dive Into QAnon/JFK Is Alive Cultists.)

“Now the family tree goes like this,” the man on the tape extolled confidently. “John John and Trump are cousins. And Trump’s uncle is JFK Sr., and Joe Kennedy, who is also not dead. And Trump’s father is General George Patton, and his brother is Mussolini.” Colleen Protzman listened on, despondent. The man talking on the tape was her son, Michael Protzman. “And the thing is,” she said, “he believes that.”

Her son had become the leading figure in a QAnon off-shoot that believed John F. Kennedy Jr., who died in a plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard in 1999, was alive and secretly working with Trump to save the United States from an evil cabal. To better understand how online misinformation is affecting American families, CNN spent the past year tracking Protzman and his followers for a documentary that will air on CNN as part of The Whole Story with Anderson Cooper series.

And another quote:

After a few years, Michael’s worldview had extended to conspiracy theories about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre.

“I think he became more isolated,” his mother said. “And the more isolated he became, the more he needed his family to agree with him, to believe everything that he believed. And we didn’t.”


I still don’t have a good provisional take to explain such people, except to recall my big general conclusions and principles. Humans are not by nature rational creatures; we are tribal creatures whose perceptions, even conspiratorial ones, enhance survival (in part by being members of groups) but which are not accurate perceptions of the world.

And it’s been the overcoming of this pattern, the examination of evidence and the gradual perception of the actual, real world, that has brought about the Enlightenment and the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions, that have greatly enhanced humanity’s condition — even if, ironically, the expansion of the species now threatens to extinguish the natural world. This is the great philosophical and existential conundrum of our time. But retreating into conspiracy theories is the very opposite of helping to solve this problem. It’s the complete absence of any attempt to be a responsible citizen, of the nation, or of the world.

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