Horseshoe Media: Conspiracy Theorists On The Far-Right And Far-Left Are Indistinguishable

Pro-Trump conspiracy theorist pushers have gained popularity by playing to the extremes of both the left and right wings

Fake News Anchor wears tin foil hat while spreading conspiracy theories

In a recent Vice News weekly report, Isobel Yeung “looks at what’s driving the media’s battle over facts and the polarization of the American public in the Trump era.”

To do so, Yeung decided to speak with Mike Cernovich, a popular conspiracy theorist who gained perceived legitimacy with the election of Trump and developed a unique following on both the far-left and far-right based on his eclectic collection of views, which range from uncompromising nationalism to support for single-payer healthcare.

Then, Yeung spoke to a team of researchers at MIT’s media lab, whose remarkable research put some definitive data to the troubling trends that Cernovich embodies.

Eugene Yi and his team of researchers analyzed millions of Tweets throughout the 2016 campaign to create this graphic. Yi describes the data visualized in the graphic below as, “people on Twitter who are following each other; the red indicates Trump supporters, the blue the Clinton supporters, and the green the Sanders supporters.”

The thin lines between dots in the above graph represent issue-based connections between Clinton, Trump, and Sanders supporters.

Another graph produced by Yi and his team, pictured below, brings the same data into clearer focus, highlighting differences in the severity of the echo chambers within which Trump and Clinton voters isolated themselves during the campaign.

Vice correspondent Isobel Yeung described the data as depicting users who are, “clustered into tribal networks.” Similarly, Yi observed that “Trump supporters are connected and very tightly clustered into their own information world.”

Cernovich didn’t need a team of MIT researchers to tell him this, as he observed during his interview with Yeung that, “right now there’s no shared set of facts in the country.”

Yi also noted that the average Trump supporter, “tweets four times more,” than the average Clinton supporter — an interesting correlation between Twitter use and Trump support, which doesn’t necessarily imply causation but appears worth exploring further.

This research appears to support the “horseshoe theory,” of political ideology, first put forward by French author Jean-Pierre Faye in 2002. Essentially, the theory posits that as modern institutions have developed, political ideologies have begun to take the form of a bent horseshoe, rather than a straight line ranging from the far-left to far-right.

While we might conventionally consider far-right and far-left voters to have fundamentally different beliefs, according to the horseshoe theory they share many key motivating factors — particularly the desire for a chaotic overthrow of the current regime, to be replaced by a more absolutist version of their ideal system.

With income inequality in the United States growing at a steady clip over the past four decades, the horseshoe of our political spectrum has been bent increasingly inwards, with more voters growing discontent as costs of living rise and shifting closer to the ends of the horseshoe than the middle.

As Rantt Deputy Managing Editor Remy Anne highlighted in an insightful piece, this trend began to become apparent with the Tea Party movement and came to a head in the 2016 Presidential campaign with the rise of two populist, anti-establishment candidates who both capitalized on growing discontent with the status quo.

Anne’s argument is exemplified almost perfectly in Yi’s first graph, which takes the rough shape of a horseshoe and depicts Trump voters concentrated on the far-right end of the curve, Clinton voters spread along the left half of the curve, and a smattering of Sanders voters spread out among the far-left, far-right, and the interim space between the two poles.

Despite their relative obscurity before, many of the online voices who clustered towards the far-right, and a few on the far-left, of the horseshoe were unexpectedly catapulted into the national dialogue when Trump won the election.

Survivorship Bias And Pandering To Both Ends Of The Horseshoe

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Economics professor Larry Smith describes survivorship bias as our tendency to, “make judgments about what we should do based on the people who survived, totally ignoring all the guidance from the people who failed”

Because a key part of Donald Trump’s rise to power was his rejection of the fundamental idea of facts, any opinion-hawking conspiracy theorist who flattered his ego during the campaign earned his praise and was therefore validated within his cult.

When Trump won, these conspiracy theorists burst into the mainstream, earning passes to the White House briefing room and asserting their credibility based on the assumption that they must possess some crucial insight those who didn’t support Trump must lack.

In reality, outside observers who pick sides in elections are simply betting on a candidate either because they support them on principle, or because they believe their odds of success to be superior.

It’s entirely possible that picking the winning side in an election might mean an observer possesses some sort of valuable insight, but this insight would still have to be demonstrated independent of their winning bet.

For example, political strategists and candidates whose ideas drive public debate likely possess genuinely valuable insights into public opinion and often remain voices in the public dialogue long beyond their careers in electoral politics.

On the other hand, the individual writers who each represent distinct, overlapping factions that Trump, Bannon, and their motley crew of nationalist ideologues unified into one cult to win the White House possess no valuable insight. They pursue the same conspiratorial logic and stories they always had, the only difference is that now they can act like an insider after picking the winning side for once.

Thanks to their winning bet, it may not matter that many of the repeated claims made by conspiracy theorists on both the far-left (such as Caitlin Johnstone, who blocked me on Medium after I pointed out logical flaws in her writing) and the far-right (Cernovich, Jones, etc.) are proven counterfactual by mainstream sources.

One recent spark between the two ends of the horseshoe came to life when Jim Hoft, an alt-right white nationalist, tweeted an article by far-left conspiracy theorist Caitlin Johnstone, who is one of the top writers in Medium’s Politics section.

It definitely doesn’t matter to the followers of Cernovich, Johnstone, and other theorists that they abandoned their Seth Rich conspiracy in May when the single dubious source on which they all relied, Kim Dotcom, failed to follow through with conclusive evidence proving the conspiracy.

Rather than apologize to the family of the murdered Democratic staffer whom they subjected to agonizing conspiracies that their son had leaked information and was killed in retaliation by the Clintons, they simply went quiet when their nonsense leads dried up.

Because unlike genuine journalists, conspiracy theorists don’t rely on the widely accepted standard “two-source rule” for reporting information, and they never publish retractions when their writing is proven counterfactual. Nor do they care about the practical impact of their conspiracies, even when they inspire individuals to take up arms and engage in what they consider to be vigilante justice.

As long as the fiction these authors peddle panders to both the far-left and far-right’s paranoid conception of a world driven by corruption and conspiracy, these authors only gain credibility with their followers when traditional news organizations try to tear them down.

The seemingly distant ideologies of writers on the far ends of the horseshoe share crucial overlap when it comes to their isolationist tendencies and a shared rejection of both the claim that Russia meddled in American elections and the results of any investigations into Russian interference.

These authors know exactly who their audience is, which is why Cernovich didn’t mind taking an interview with Vice, and Alex Jones knew he had nothing to lose by appearing on NBC to be cross-examined by Megyn Kelly. For those who play to the extremes of the spectrum, in today’s self-segregated media landscape, there truly is no such thing as bad press.

With audiences that don’t bother to sufficiently cross-check their claims against the sources Trump labels “fake news,” conspiracy theorists’ strategy of refusing to admit to committing flagrant, arguably intentional, factual errors to advance their agendas mythicizes them within their cults as infallible truth-seekers engaged in a David versus Goliath battle, or an “information war,” as Alex Jones would call it, against Big Brother.

The consequences of this fundamental split in our political ideologies, driven by a diversified media landscape, self-selection of news sources, and survivorship bias, include the dehumanization of political opponents, and the reinforcement of ideological echo chambers that continue to drift further apart.

The inescapable problem with a population that falls mostly on the far ends of the horseshoe is that there is no common ground to be found, and therefore no peaceful progress to be made.

When we fail to take the incremental steps and strike the compromises that are inherent in any democratic system, everybody suffers — no matter where on the spectrum they fall. Essentially, one way or another, this is not sustainable.

Unless this trend is somehow reversed, which might be possible considering the massive amount of power Google, Twitter, and Facebook wield over the information we consume and therefore the outcomes of our elections, the consequences for our society will be devastating.

According to some historians, we’re headed for another civil war, which doesn’t sound surprising in light of the ever-escalating culture war that has taken center-stage in Trump’s reality-TV version of American politics.

Opinion // Culture / Journalism / Media / Politics