TMI: Why Conspiracy Theories Offer Too Much Information

MyPillow, anti-vax, and the Arizona audit all have one thing in common: endless, incomprehensible details

This past week, MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell held a three-day cyber-symposium in Sioux Falls, S.D. In the lead up to the conference, he claimed that he would show proof that China hacked the 2020 election, thereby stealing the election from Donald Trump. 

Attendees were shown computer screenshots purporting to be evidence of election cyberattacks:

Cybersecurity expert Rob Graham attended the conference, and said he was never given the data that Lindell had promised:

Even Lindell's ostensible allies said he didn't prove his wild theory. Lindell's "red team" cyber expert, Josh Merritt, told the Washington Times that he couldn't prove Lindell's claim of a China hack. Moreover, Merritt said that Lindell's offer of $5 million to any in-person attendee who could disprove his claims was now off the table. Former Trump adviser Steve Bannon slammed Lindell, saying that he didn't "bring the receipts" to prove actual election fraud.

The conference fiasco shows a larger way conspiracy theories operate. Conspiracy theorists offer a lot of data that appears to be evidence but on closer inspection, is simply trying to prove a big lie. The volume of information is much greater than one can handle, overwhelming the viewer. Presenting a large volume of information has three purposes. First, it is an attempt to persuade people that there is a lot of evidence behind the conspiracy theory. Second, it is an attempt to show that the situation is so confusing that nothing else can be believed, disorienting the viewer. Third, it puts the purveyor of misinformation in a position of power because the purveyor has the ability to make sense of it all.

This strategy is present in a number of conspiracy theories that pervade public life. Anti-vaccine conspiracies have this feature, too. In a large private Facebook group for "natural cures," I found a 182-page PowerPoint presentation designed to discredit vaccines, showing "essential information you need to know to be fully informed." This document is simply too long to examine. (As they say on the Internet, tl;dr.) However, to someone who is anti-vaccine, because of its length and detail, it could appear as evidence supporting their belief.

The first impeachment hearings of Donald Trump provided a warning of how politicians can use conspiracy theories to obscure simple truths. Democrats offered a straightforward allegation of quid pro quo: Trump tried to pressure Ukraine by withholding military aid to get the country's leader to dig up dirt on his political rival, Joe Biden. Only initially did Republicans argue that the quid pro quo didn't happen; then they shifted their defense. Republican members delivered a slew of conspiracy theories which were unrelated to the impeachment charge. They claimed that Ukraine colluded with the Clinton campaign and that the FBI and Barack Obama spied on the Trump campaign.

The tactic of bombarding with complicated evidence in order to prove a lie is likely to resurface later this month as a report of a review of Marciopa County, Ariz. ballots -- funded by pro-Trump groups -- is expected to be published. The so-called audit has been going on since April and finished up earlier this month. The audit is being conducted by a group, Cyber Ninjas, with no experience in reviewing elections, and whose CEO has embraced conspiracy theories of election fraud. The New Yorker's Jane Mayer observed the audit and reported, "Some inspectors used microscopes to investigate surreal allegations: that some ballots had been filled out by machines or were Asian counterfeits with telltale bamboo fibres." As has been going on throughout the audit, purveyors of disinformation will undoubtedly try to use details from the review to spread the lie that the election was stolen from Trump. 

Nothing in the report is going to change the plain fact that Biden beat Trump in Arizona. An Associated Press review found 182 cases of potential fraud out of 3 million votes cast in Arizona, with just four leading to charges. That's hardly enough to sway an election. But that won't stop people from trying to marshal spurious information to prove a big lie.

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