Conspiracy theories are much in the news, most notably the QAnon tangle of claims about the Deep State, child-trafficking, and cannibalism. Although the details change, allegations of secret machinations have been a staple of American politics since before the Revolution. Some are harmless entertainment, but others foster bigotry, discord, and even violence.
In the 1940s, a committee of intellectuals tried to figure out how to mitigate the impact of the more sinister theories. The Commission on Freedom of the Press met from 1943 to 1946, funded mainly by Time Inc. and chaired by University of Chicago president Robert Maynard Hutchins. Although the principal focus was freedom and responsibility in the mainstream media, Hutchins Commission members also discussed conspiracy theories spread by word of mouth, fringe publications, and other channels.
Among the most prominent theories then was The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery purporting to be a secret Jewish plan for world domination. (Some QAnon supporters today cite The Protocols.) The French philosopher Jacques Maritain, one of the Commission’s foreign advisers, declared that works like The Protocols poison the public mind. Nobody disagreed with him. The question was what could be done about it. Commission members contemplated four approaches.
The first was to hold conspiracy-mongers criminally or civilly liable. The government prosecutes those who sell tainted food without awaiting an outbreak of food poisoning, said historian Arthur M. Schlesinger Sr.; it should likewise act preemptively to stop anti-Semitic conspiracy theories before they spark violence. But First Amendment scholar Zechariah Chafee Jr. questioned whether the average juror was competent to determine the validity of The Protocols. Others raised the theory that FDR had intentionally allowed the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbor in order to get the United States into the war. Were jurors qualified to figure out what the president knew and when he knew it? Or would they simply follow their partisan leanings, with Democrats defending FDR’s honor and Republicans impugning it? Punishing the spread of conspiracy theories, then, seemed problematic.
The second possibility was private-sector entities to fact-check conspiracy theories. Blue-ribbon commissions of esteemed citizens, or else “rumor clinics” staffed by experts, would conduct investigations and announce their conclusions. Hutchins Commission members worried, though, that the process sometimes could simply raise the visibility of obscure theories and other times could dignify hateful theories by treating them as a topic of reasonable debate. Citizens’ commissions and rumor clinics seemed to be no panaceas.
The third possibility was to prohibit anonymous speech. People could promulgate The Protocols or other conspiracy theories; they would just have to reveal their names and their affiliations. A disclosure requirement doesn’t infringe free speech, said communications scholar Harold D. Lasswell; it’s “a weapon of democracy.” He acknowledged, though, that whistleblowers and others sometimes legitimately need anonymity. In addition, one of the staff researchers, a staunch anticommunist, suggested requiring magazines to disclose each writer’s links to radical organizations—a step toward blacklisting. Disclosure could be a two-edged sword.
Finally, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wondered if there might be some other way for a community to condemn hateful conspiracy theories. Neutrality—blithely tolerating the intolerant—wasn’t the answer. “Is it sufficient to say that people are entitled to their prejudices?” he said. “This leads to a society in which there is agreement on nothing but freedom—anarchy.”
The Commission on Freedom of the Press, in sum, identified four approaches for combating conspiracy theories: law and courts, nongovernmental fact-checkers, disclosure requirements, and some other form of social disapprobation. All four remain with us in the QAnon age. Some people want to punish those who spread baseless theories, either criminally or civilly. Fox News played a role in spreading a conspiracy theory about a Democratic National Committee employee who was murdered in 2016, and his family has sued the network. PolitiFact, FactCheck.org, Snopes, and other organizations operate as de facto rumor clinics. As for source disclosure, Facebook describes itself as “a community where everyone uses the name they go by in everyday life.” Niebuhr’s call for other forms of social condemnation is answered by the efforts to stigmatize those who spread conspiracy theories, such as the pressure on political candidates to disavow their QAnon backers.
The intellectuals of the Hutchins Commission deliberated in a far different time, not just pre-internet but pre-television. Yet 75 years later, we’re still relying on the approaches they identified for mitigating the impact of conspiracy theories.
Stephen Bates is an associate professor in the Greenspun School of Journalism and Media Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.