(Eli Rosenberg and Abby Ohlheiser, Washington Post)

Robert Barnes has been a reporter and editor at The Washington Post for more than 30 years. For the last 12, he’s covered the Supreme Court…

This week he experienced something he says was a first in his career: a storm of commentators, many anonymous, swarming his social media accounts and email inbox to tell him something he saw with his own eyes and reported in The Washington Post did not actually happen: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, alive and well, attending a performance about her life at a museum in Washington – her first public appearance since she underwent cancer surgery in December.

A falsehood has been spreading in dark corners of the Internet, that Ruth Bader Ginsburg is dead – and in the hours after he published his report, conspiracy theorists pelted Barnes with their doubt-mongering. Photos were not allowed at the event, so one of the doubters emailed Barnes 21 questions about Ginsburg’s appearance – the size of her security detail, what gender they were, for example – telling Barnes that if he did not answer every single one of them, then it was a sign his article was not to be believed.

Barnes had unknowingly run into a distinct facet of the modern news cycle: a small but vocal crowd of fired up commentators organising online around a conspiracy theory with political undertones.

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Conspiracy theories about political figures are not new, but social media and other digital tools that allow for and, at times, encourage their wide dissemination have given them a new prominence in the Trump era. Though it is impossible to know how large these groups are, the disruption they cause far exceeds their size, due in part to visibility social media algorithms lends to ideas that fire people up, regardless of their veracity.

But there is often more to these movements than they first seem

QAnon, the shorthand for a tale that fantasises about a vast, “deep-state” conspiracy aimed at thwarting President Donald Trump, was presented as an organic movement when it burst into mainstream consciousness last summer. But reporting later showed that some of the main groups that had spread it were profiting off the attention it helped bring them.

The Pizzagate conspiracy theory spread through the fringes of right-wing Internet culture to twitter, where it was amplified by people with huge followings – and also, as it turns out, Russian bots. And the conversation after major news events, like the Parkland shooting in Florida last year, is routinely distorted by complex processes that lend themselves to gaming and manipulation, experts say, though specific actors and motivations can be hard to immediately discern. They include spurious accounts, trending hashtags supported by bot networks, and opaque algorithms that surface buzzy content and commentary – no matter what the facts are.

Two anonymous Twitter accounts were behind the edited snippet of video about an encounter between a group of Catholic high school boys and a Native America activist that went viral, for example. One of the accounts was later booted from Twitter after the service said it was manipulating the conversation.

Doubt about Ginsburg’s health

In Ginsburg’s case, doubt about her health began to spread around the time she missed the court’s first case, Jan. 7, as she recovered from surgery on Dec. 21. It appears to have originated on the message boards that house the QAnon theory. An anonymous but influential account posted a stew of doubt-mongering, wondering about Ginsburg’s “real medical diagnosis,” and wondering what kind of “off-market drugs” were sustaining her.

“The clock is ticking,” the commenter wrote. “PANIC IN DC.”

There was no panic in the District of Columbia.

The mini empire of amplifiers, profiteers, and fame seekers who benefit from QAnon’s small but passionate audience went to work. Soon, videos questioning the official line on Ginsburg’s health were the top search results for the justice’s name on YouTube. An online petition to impeach her failed to meet a 5,000 signature goal.

But its real boost came when a couple of right-wing personalities with large social media followings engaged it. Ben Garrison, a prominent pro-Trump cartoonist, tweeted about Ginsburg’s whereabouts, musing on his blog about whether liberals would ever keep her death “a secret,” so Trump couldn’t fill the seat with a conservative.

Fox News reported her death

Fox News show Fox & Friends aired a graphic that briefly said she had died, though it quickly apologised and said it was a mistake. James Woods, an actor who is a mainstay of the conspiracy-laden parts of the pro-Trump Internet, helped to get the hashtag #WheresRuth trending on Twitter on January 28. Two days later, Sebastian Gorka – a former adviser of President Trump’s – tweeted to his 700,000 followers “Still no sign,” noting the State of the Union was about a week away.

And then the theory started to draw mainstream coverage – another way that conspiracy theories spread, even when they are properly fact-checked, debunked and contextualized, experts say. And the Twitter hoaxes continued. An anonymous account shared an old photo of the presidential hearse carrying Ronald Reagan past the capitol building, writing “Prominent DC Funeral Home vehicle seen leaving the Ginsberg estate . . . what’s going on?”

The conspiracy theory lives on in the algorithms. YouTube is still recommending “RGB dead,” as one of its autofill searches. Twitter’s autofill recommendations for “RBG” have an even wider selection: “#RBGWhereYouBe,” “#RGBProofOfLife,” and “RBG dead.”

Ginsburg did not attend the State of the Union Tuesday night

Neither did Justices Thomas, Alito, Sotomayor or Breyer. The conspiracy theory may be given more oxygen by her absence.

If hoaxers were seeking attention for the theory, they certainly have succeeded. Targeting reporters like Barnes with wide followings online is a good way to start. Other reporters who saw Ginsburg on Monday night at the performance were hit with the same flood of replies and emails.

After the Parkland shooting, Whitney Phillips, a Mercer University professor who studies online culture, told the Post that conspiracy theorists and hoax spreaders are “really good at seeding a story with an establishment outlet so they can bring that prize back to those far-right circles.” People know that journalists are on Twitter, searching for news and story ideas. It’s considered a victory when those fringe conspiracies are amplified into the mainstream by a reporter attempting to debunk them. After the QAnon theory went viral, for instance, conspiracy theorists were delighted by the mainstream attention.

The Supreme Court has been the target of conspiracy theories before

After Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly at a Texas ranch in 2016, conspiracy theories swirled about the nature of his death, and whether he was murdered as a political hit. The theories, which have no grounding in evidence, live on today.

The Supreme Court doesn’t have another public session until Feb. 19, Barnes said, noting that specialists said there’s a six to eight week recovery typically expected for the procedure Ginsburg had undergone.

“It seems logical that she would be back for it,” he said.

Barnes said he’s less offended by the suggestion that he was fooled by a body double than that he made up Ginsburg’s appearance last night.

“Feeling grateful for tweeters who say I, and many others, saw RBG body-double, as opposed to those who think I lied,” he wrote on Twitter. “They won’t be happy if she skips speech tonight, as she has Trump’s first 2. Thomas and Alito not likely either, but, I swear, also alive.”


Author: ANA Newswire