Most of us, when growing up, were exposed to the Aesop's fable "The Boy Who Cried Wolf." The story — in which a boy repeatedly pretends to have seen a wolf and loses all credibility, causing people to ignore him when he really is attacked by a wolf — was presumably meant to be a tale warning children about the dangers of lying.
But President Donald Trump and his minions appear to have learned the lesson backwards or upside down: If you have a real wolf that you want to hide, then your best bet is to cry wolf until people wouldn't know a real wolf even if it was staring them in the face.
Last week, while much of the cable news and White House reporter pool was obsessing over flash-in-the-pan Anthony Scaramucci (I'm guilty too!), a far more important story was spooling out at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. A businessman named Bill Browder was explaining what he learned working in Vladimir Putin's Russia. His testimony could provide the information that brings together a true understanding of what's really going on with Trump and Russia.
Browder's testimony is complicated, but it's important because he offers substantive evidence about what Putin may have wanted from Trump — quite likely in exchange for hacking the Democratic National Committee and spreading lies and propaganda meant to undermine Hillary Clinton. That would be the lifting of American sanctions under the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 U.S. law meant to punish a group of Russian officials who were responsible for the murder of Sergei Magnitsky, a lawyer investigating government corruption who died in prison in 2009.
Browder and other experts believe the Magnitsky sanctions affect Putin directly, who may be hiding overseas money through intermediaries affected by the actions. Browder also told senators that the lawyer who met with Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner in that infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower, Natalia Veselnitskaya, is the "point person" for lobbying against these sanctions. Donald Jr. has admitted that the meeting was arranged to gather Russian information that might be damaging to the Clinton campaign and that they discussed the issue of Russian "adoptions," which is a euphemism or proxy for the Magnitsky sanctions.
Phew, that's a lot -- worse yet, it's hard to write that without the creeping feeling that half the people reading this are writing me off as some kind of loony conspiracy theorist, with my outrageous tales of the president of the United States possibly enmeshed with murderous Russian oligarchs. And why shouldn't they? It sounds almost as nutty as some of the blatantly false conspiracy theories of the last few years, from accusations that Hillary Clinton was involved in a child rape ring run out of a pizza parlor to accusations that Barack Obama somehow faked his birth certificate, 40-odd years after the fact.
Fake conspiracies, it turns out, are Trump's best weapon for hiding the actual conspiracy it looks like he or his staff actually engaged in.
“The landscape has basically been saturated with fairy tales, conspiracies and deliberate disinformation," Angelo Carusone, the president of Media Matters, explained to Salon. "When you have a large portion of the news cycle being consumed by a conversation around conspiracies . . . people get fatigued.”
Polling backs up Carusone's observations. Voters are fatigued and confused by the Russia story, and a majority of them don't seem to understand that there is now pretty close to smoking gun-level proof of collusion (especially with Donald Trump Jr.'s email exchange) between the campaign and Russian agents.
For a couple of decades now, right-wing media has seeded fake conspiracy stories into the mainstream media to demonize political opponents and sow doubts about politically inconvenient facts. This, Carusone argued, escalated under Trump, who has used his growing media power to drive an overwhelming number of conspiracy theories into the mainstream, including rumors that Clinton's health was failing, that millions of undocumented people voted in the 2016 election and that there's some uncovered scandal regarding Clinton's (sigh) emails.
The net effect is to make evidence-driven, rational people hyper-skeptical of anything that sounds like a conspiracy theory, even those, like the Russia scandal, which aren't conspiracy theories at all.
So when a journalist tries to publicly piece together what's going on with Trump and Russia, "you sound like a crazy person, because the audience has been hardwired to believe that all conspiracies are akin to Alex Jones’s inter-dimensional demon," Carusone said, referencing the Infowars host's claims that Democratic politicians are conspiring with hell-spawn to control the country. (After all, can any of us prove that isn't true?)
It's frustrating, because the grim truth of the matter is that some conspiracies are real. Watergate, as Carusone noted, was a real conspiracy. George W. Bush's White House invented evidence to hoodwink the public into supporting the invasion of Iraq. Most white-collar crimes are conspiracies. That includes some that Trump himself has been involved in, such as the conspiracy to con people into paying for fake classes at Trump University.
There was also clearly some kind of conspiracy to spread conspiracy theories on behalf of the Trump campaign, though how deep it goes is still not clear. And it's this conspiracy that shows how effective fake conspiracy theories can be at obscuring real-life conspiracies that are actually happening.
During the Democratic National Convention, a conspiracy theory — which turned out not to be true — spread like wildfire: People claimed that leaked DNC emails "proved" that the Democratic Party had conspired to steal the nomination from Bernie Sanders and hand it to Clinton. The story was one of many that, it later turned out, were being seeded by Russian agents who were using WikiLeaks as a cut-out to stoke baseless paranoia.
The DNC did not conspire to throw the primary to Sanders. Russian agents, likely on Putin's orders, did conspire to spread fake stories in order to sow discord on the left. But with all the flying accusations back and forth, it's no wonder that many people give up trying to look at the evidence and instead believe whichever story they want to believe — which is how we have a small but loud number of anti-Clinton leftists proclaiming that the fake conspiracy is real and the real conspiracy is fake.
It's dizzying, but it's effective. More disturbingly, it's clear that Trump's team has become highly skilled at weaponizing fake conspiracy theories to stir up noise and sow widespread confusion.
Fox News' Sean Hannity, for instance, has been tightly wound into the Trump campaign and administration since Trump started seriously running for president. Hannity has functioned more as a communications arm for the Trump campaign (and now the White House) than as an independent journalist. He is also a reliable purveyor of fake conspiracy theories that just so happen to emerge whenever new developments in the Trump-Russia scandal are reported.
This month, as Media Matters reported, Hannity has been sowing the theory that the meeting between Veselnitskaya, Donald Trump Jr., Kushner and various Russian agents was actually a setup by the Democrats, aimed at making the Trump campaign look bad. Hannity was also the main purveyor of a conspiracy theory accusing Democrats of murdering a DNC staffer named Seth Rich (who, in Hannity's universe, was also responsible for leaking the party's emails). Hannity pimped that lie at the same time that Trump apparently admitted to obstructing justice by firing FBI Director James Comey in an effort to shut down the Russia investigation.
How can an average person who doesn't work in journalism or law enforcement or politics, and doesn't have the time to sift through original sources and lengthy testimony transcripts, figure out what tales of conspiracy are probably real or at least plausible, and which ones are almost certainly fake?
There's not really a good answer to the question. Carusone had some useful suggestions, such as getting news from NPR instead of cable news that leans too heavily on speculation instead of facts. Cable news channels, for instance, devoted 13 times as much airtime to Clinton's phony health story as they did to the real story about Trump's corrupt dealings with the Trump Foundation.
Still, this problem is way too big to deal with on an individual level. There's simply too much misinformation out there, and it's unreasonable to expect ordinary people to know how to tell truth from the lies. Even around the Russia scandal, there's a bunch of noise and nonsense coming from anti-Trump conspiracy theorists like Louise Mensch, which only makes it more difficult for the facts -- which would admittedly sound preposterous if they weren't true -- to rise to the surface.
I wish I had the answers, but I'd be lying. Which would be inappropriate in a piece about the evils of lying! But diagnosing the problem is at least a first step in the right direction.