As the global pandemic has reminded us with tragic ferocity in recent years, viruses can, despite our best efforts, be extremely destructive and difficult to contain, especially as our world becomes increasingly crowded and interconnected.
And unfortunately, this is not only true for physical viruses like COVID-19, but also for viruses of the mind. In the age of instant global communication, it’s easier than ever for ideas – even lies and delusional fantasies – to spread like wildfire and do massive damage before they’re exposed. and demystified.
As University of Kansas journalism professor Eric Thomas observed in a recent essay for the Kansas Reflector, the term we most often use to describe this phenomenon – “conspiracy theories” – is almost always a improper term. To dignify, for example, the monstrous lies and delusions of deeply disturbed and dishonest individuals like Alex Jones with such a term, notes Thomas, is to pervert the English language.
When journalists use the word “theory,” he points out, it implies that there is some plausibility to an idea that readers need to consider and weigh. But, of course, when Jones claimed the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre was faked, he wasn’t advancing a theory; he was telling a blatant and extremely destructive lie.
As Thomas writes:
“Journalists have a duty to bring to light deceptions, especially elaborate, public and persuasive lies. These are not conspiracy theories.
For another classic example of this phenomenon at work, see the paranoid and blatantly false beliefs that have come to plague so many Donald Trump supporters regarding the 2020 presidential election and the issue of election integrity more generally. .
Across the country, peddlers of crazy “theories” have been spreading lies that the contest was somehow robbed, working to intimidate election officials and would-be voters with new criminal laws , to access data from voting machines and attempt to enter elections in search of imaginary corruption. The posters kids are declaring for this alarming phenomenon are the ones Trump narrowly lost in 2020 — Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Wisconsin — but even here in North Carolina, a state he won in 2020, activists and Trump-inspired “watchers” have pursued an aggressive campaign to harass election officials, invade polling places and even inspect voting machines.
Indeed, as Policy Watch reporter Lynn Bonner reported last week, a State Board of Elections survey of local councils after the May primary found many such incidents:
“Fifteen county election officials reported in the survey that they had problems with observers — some identified as Republican observers — during the primary. Some of the violations were minor, like an observer talking to a voter he knew. Others reported observers following poll workers driving from polling stations to election headquarters, wanting to take photos at polling sites, interfering with voters and distracting poll workers.
Other incidents were more serious. In Wayne County, an observer had to be kicked out when she tried to stop a voter from inserting their ballot into a tabulator. Republican observers also objected to curbside voting — incorrectly calling it “ballot harvesting.”
In Alleghany County, an observer got into an altercation with a voter. In Davidson County, observers argued they should be able to stand behind machines to watch people vote. Pasquotank poll workers said they were intimidated.
As Policy Watch reporter Clayton Henkel reported in May, Surry County has also been a particular hotbed of election paranoia, with Trump loyalists repeatedly airing savage and unsubstantiated allegations.
But across the state and the nation, reports continue to emerge of election officials and volunteers being confronted and harassed, and in many cases abandoning their life-saving work in response.
Fortunately, as Bonner also reported, the state board took the results of its investigation to heart, recognized the danger of such paranoid actions, and proposed a modest new set of security measures that would keep observers polling stations at a safe distance, would protect polling workers and ensure the integrity of the vote.
As she explains, election observers are not supposed to speak to voters or election workers, except for the chief justice. They are supposed to be in an area of the polling station where they can see and hear interactions between poll workers and voters, but they are not allowed to enter a voting booth, try to look at ballots or to take pictures.
The new proposal states that observers must not be close enough to documents to see confidential voter information or ballots, must remain in a designated area, and cannot use gates designated for precinct officials or one-stop shops. Observers who create a disturbance by entering and leaving a polling place multiple times during a four-hour shift could be removed by the Chief Justice.
The Bottom Line: This is a sad commentary on the state of our politics and the paranoia that is currently gripping so many Americans that they are needed, but hopefully these simple, common-sense rules will be finalized soon and will act, like a vaccine, to slow the spread of these dangerous delusions that threaten our democracy.
Rob Schofield, director of NC Policy Watch, has three decades of experience as a lawyer, lobbyist, writer and commentator. Republished from NCPolicyWatch.org.