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Conspiracy theories are not passive in the age of Trump

Robert  Goldberg, director of the Tanner Humanities Center and Professor of History at the University of Utah, visited UVU as the guest speaker for the Appomattox Project  to discuss the role of conspiracy under the current U.S. president Wednesday, Feb. 20 in the Clarke Building.

“My concern is that the Trump Administration, which not only propagates conspiracy but is also involved in conspiracy things, is going to make things worse,” Goldberg said.

Citing a Pew Research poll started in 1958 to track public trust in government, Goldberg analyzed the decline of public confidence in the U.S. government.

“Public trust in the government to do the right thing is at an all-time low,” said Goldberg.

“When asked if the people trusted the government to do the right thing all the time or most of the time, respondents positively said, ‘I trust the government to do what’s right,’” said Goldberg.

That Pew Research poll has been conducted every year from 1958 to 2018. According to the data published as of 2018, only 18 percent of surveyors believe the government is trying to do the right thing all or most of the time.

Goldberg attributed the decline in trust to an increased influence of conspiracy in today’s politics on the internet. He said, “We don’t go to the internet for information; we go to the internet for confirmation.”

According to Goldberg, many people no longer visit websites like Breitbart News, Infowars.com and Fox News to increase their understanding of a particular topic but rather to confirm and validate their own political beliefs before engaging in a conversation with someone else. The danger, he said, is that these stories may not be accurate or reliable.

The power, Goldberg warned, of conspiracies comes from the fact that some conspiracies are indeed true and eventually proven.

“[Conspiracists] compile mounds of evidence, diagrams, appendices, footnotes to prove and to persuade people to a conspiracy,” Goldberg said.

The danger of conspiracies with Trump stem from the lack of evidence in the conspiracies perpetuated by the president.

“The details are important. [With Trump], no proof is necessary, no proof is given. In sound bites and 250 character tweets… he rapidly spins and immediately disseminates conspiracy claims.”

An example of this, Goldberg says, is the video interaction between a White House intern and CNN Correspondent Jim Acosta.

The clip, doctored by Infowars.com, increased the perceived conflict between Acosta and the intern by highlighting and accelerating the reporter’s movements in a way perceived by many to attack the young intern by aggressively “chopping” at the intern’s arm while she attempted to take the microphone from Acosta.

The video was debunked by graphics and video experts as “fake” after the video made its way to the White House briefing room, and it was published by Press Secretary Sarah Sanders as legitimate.

Goldberg said people mistook this information at correct even when it was in reality not.

To combat the influence of conspiracy, Goldberg emphasized education as the important factor.

“We cannot let conspiracy thinking become the conventional wisdom,” Goldberg said.

News editors and organizations recommend looking to multiple sources to gain a better, factual understanding of events as they play out. Sources like the Wall St. Journal, the Washington Post, CNN and the New York Times provide fact checking sources to claims made by the President and U.S. government leaders.

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