By Emma Reilly
Conspiracy theories can be entertaining, especially those that seem particularly ridiculous or obviously untrue. That being said, conspiracy theories exist because there are people who believe them — sometimes wholeheartedly. In the political sphere, passionate belief in conspiracy theories can take a dangerous turn.
As exemplified by the indictment of Tina Peters — a Colorado county clerk involved in an election security breach in that state — conspiracy theories can bleed into reality when people buy into them.
“Peters’ case is particularly worrisome to many who run elections as a sign that insiders might act upon…conspiracy theories, further undermining confidence in the voting process,” NPR said.
Peters’ case relates particularly to former President Donald Trump’s false claims that election fraud caused him to lose the 2020 presidential election. Bolstered by a slew of misinformation spread by both the Trump administration and average Americans, this theory inspired high levels of contention during that election season.
In disrupting the security of voting processes in her county, Peters transformed Trump’s claims of election tampering from a ridiculous conspiracy to a potential reality — although her manipulation seems to have been inspired by a desire to aid the Trump campaign, rather than undermine it.
According to NPR, Peters was influenced by Trump’s misinformation campaign and was interested in restoring votes for the incumbent candidate.
While Peters’ actions are concerning and threatening to the United States’ secure voting procedures, it is the actions taken by groups of conspiracy theorists that present the biggest threat to politics.
“It’s convenient and comforting to think of conspiracy theorists as isolated loners…it seems appropriate to view adherents as outcasts clumped together around society’s drain,” The Washington Post said. “But that is often not the reality.”
The group of Trump supporters present at the January 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol Building were “not solely composed of fringe extremist types, but rather, included ‘middle-class and, in many cases, middle-aged people without obvious ties to the far right,’” according to a study conducted by the University of Chicago.
Conspiracy theorists, closely tied by ideas most others dismiss as ridiculous, can spread misinformation and manipulation through their ranks with ease.
In Peters’ case, “information from [voting] machines and secure passwords were later shared with election conspiracy theorists online,” NPR said. “Shortly after the data was leaked, Peters appeared at an event put on by MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, one of the leading promoters of the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was rigged.”
By speaking at the event about claims of election fraud, and by leaking sensitive information to online supporters of those false claims, Peters made a much broader impact. This demonstrates that the danger of political conspiracy theories is not an isolated one.
Communities informed by misinformation can spiral out of control. It starts with one local county clerk spreading sensitive voting information in an attempt to sway election results. Before we know it, Americans are storming the Capitol Building — many of them motivated by a conspiracy theory even more complex than claims of voting fraud.
It is important to remember that conspiracy theorists are not uninformed extremists that can be immediately dismissed. Rather, theorists can be anyone, and they may pose a threat to the integrity of American politics if beliefs become actions.
Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Featured Photo Caption: Protesters in Raleigh, N.C. organized a “Stop the Steal” protest in 2020. Similar protests sprung up nationwide as conspiracy theorists bought into the Trump administration’s false claims of election fraud.