University of Utah history professor discusses dangers of conspiracy theories

University of Utah Professor Robert Goldberg speaks to students about understanding conspiracy theories. (Tessa Westlund)

University of Utah history professor Robert Goldberg gave a speech at UVU’s Brown Bag discussion series warning students to understand the dangers of conspiracy theorists in the political landscape.

Goldberg talked about special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into the 2016 Trump campaign and the election’s ties to Russia, and how President Donald Trump has attempted, according to Goldberg, to discredit the investigation with over a thousand tweets and public comments.

“The irony of all this is the Mueller investigation has found a real conspiracy of at least 12 Russian operatives and some Americans,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg said modern conspirators have no need to search for details because they get their information from broad claims without proof.

“In the past, conspiracy theorists produced libraries of books, articles, video tapes and audio tapes to reveal complex plots,” Goldberg said, “for they believed that the devil is in the detail.”

But times have changed, and Goldberg said many people don’t use the internet for knowledge and fact checking — rather, they go to have their opinions validated by a website that will reinforce those beliefs.

“His conspiracy is short hand. His claims command national and international attention and are unmediated,” Goldberg said about Trump’s public speaking style.

He criticized the way Trump speaks to crowds.

“His conspiracy theories are not about persuasion, Trump is not trying to convince anybody of anything,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg said Trump isn’t trying to convert anyone because he is talking to those who have already converted.

Goldberg said both right-wing and left-wing people have taken to all forms of media to create what he called an echo chamber of people repeating Trump’s ideas, and that the margins and extreme ideas have become mainstream.

“Let us not dismiss conspiracy theories as harmless or merely foolish, nor lighten the long tradition of conspiracy thinking in America,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg said conspiracy thinking demonizes public officials and can harbor feelings of distrust toward public officials.

Many conspiracy theorists don’t believe their opponents are only wrong, they believe they betrayed America, he said.

“The response to this in my mind for the majority of Americans, is education about the dangers of conspiracy thinking,” Goldberg said.

Goldberg urged students to educate themselves on the problems conspiracy theories can have on the political level. He said people should not allow conspiracy thinking to become conventional wisdom.

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