Conspiracy theories have always existed, but in recent years they have been getting more numerous and more troublesome. There is a new tendency of conspiracy theorists to target regular people as well as public figures such as politicians and celebrities. This can raise havoc in these people’s lives, so they are fighting back by filing lawsuits. If they can prove actual damages they have suffered there is a good chance this new class of plaintiffs will win these suits, which may change the national dialogue for the better.
In the past non-public figures have not attracted the harmful and hateful rumor-mongering that goes along with conspiracy theories. But the more these theories attack ordinary people the more they are hiring lawyers to represent them.
For example, there is a group of parents whose children were murdered in the Sandy Hook massacre who now are suing Infowars founder Alex Jones. Jones has become famous for spreading conspiracy theories, and has claimed that the Sandy Hook parents faked their children’s deaths.
Brennan Gilmore, a Virginia activist who made a video of the attack that killed Heather Heyer at the Charlottesville protests last summer, is also suing Jones and a blogger behind the Gateway Pundit conspiracy website because they have been spreading bogus claims and theories that have tainted Gilmore’s reputation.
One of the most prominent conspiracy theories involved Seth Rich, a Democratic National Committee staffer who was murdered in July of 2016 in Washington. The police said it was a botched robbery.
Rich’s family members are now suing Fox News and others for spreading conspiracy theories that Rich was responsible for the hack of Democratic National Committee emails that were given to WikiLeaks to harm Hillary Clinton. The conspiracy theory says that Rich was murdered as retaliation for stealing the DNC emails.
Brad Bauman, a PR professional who voluntarily served as the Rich family’s spokesperson, is now suing a series of conservative figures for defamation. He alleges in the lawsuit that the defendants spread conspiracy theories about him saying he was hired by the DNC to cover up the plot to murder Rich.
Bauman’s case illustrates the way conspiracy theories can grow more complicated and strange over time. Theories don’t go online and die. Rather, what happens is the number of people targeted for harassment and abuse expands significantly.
“Having watched what Brad went through,” Melissa Ryan, a friend of Bauman’s, said, “gave me a new understanding for the kind of hell that conspiracy theories can wreak on a person’s life that I wouldn’t have understood otherwise.”
Bauman’s legal complaint says that after Rich’s murder the right-wing rumor mill began to focus on Bauman, saying that he was an agent working for the DNC to help cover up Rich’s murder. Bauman’s suit says he was then harmed by internet trolls who gave out his home address and other private information.
He has said that articles on right wing websites and social media have caused him emotional distress and damaged his business.
In the age of the internet, conspiracy theories work by using extreme complexity and huge amounts of content that nobody has the time to look at. They also use unproven claims and insinuations to push outrageous ideas. This disorients people so they give up even trying to understand the truth.
“They’re undermining the ability of the average American to discern what is true, what is false, what to believe and what not to believe,” Bauman said.
Conspiracy theories are now being brought to court to correct false or damaging assertions and to impose financial consequences on people who spread the theories.
In their lawsuit, the Riches say they “seek to help prevent similar malicious and reckless conduct to protect future innocent victims from similarly becoming political fodder.”
Whether that will work remains to be seen. In the meantime, the number of conspiracy theories which target ordinary private citizens continues to expand through social media, blogs and internet forums. More must be done to protect these people but at least through the courts individuals are able to fight back which provides hope that the national dialogue will change.
I am a lifelong Democrat with a passion for social justice and progressive issues. I have degrees in writing, economics and law from the University of Iowa.