Most conspiracy theories sprout and spread spontaneously. But the Benghazi theories, like those about Obamacare death panels, have been seeded and nurtured by Republican conspiracy entrepreneurs. (More)

The Benghazi Entrepreneurs

Like me, you may have thought the conspiracy theories about last September’s tragic attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi pretty much dried up with Mitt Romney’s infamous stumble in the second presidential debate last October, and were put to bed with President Obama’s victory in November.

Republicans have never given up on it. Yesterday Mike Huckabee said Benghazi will end Obama’s presidency if Republicans hold the House and win the Senate in 2014. New York Post columnist and PJ Tattler blogger Michael Walsh wrote Sunday “that blunder may now bring down the man who never should have been president in the first place, for grotesque dereliction of his duty as commander-in-chief.” Screenwriter and PJ Tattler blogger Roger L. Simon also believes the president will be impeached.

From breathless exposés about the evolution of the administration’s initial talking points, to factually impossible claims that the White House canceled a rescue mission that could have saved the lives of Ambassador Chris Smith and three others at the consulate, to the latest charges that President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton silenced dissenting witnesseswitnesses whose lawyers are longtime Republican operatives – Benghazi is an ever-evolving conspiracy theory that Republicans desperately need to make plausible enough to justify the removal of a president whose legitimacy they have never accepted.

“Conspiracy entrepreneurs”

In an excellent 2008 working paper, law professors Cass Sunstein and Adrian Vermeule explored how conspiracy theories are born and sustained. Most arise spontaneously through what the authors call “our crippled epistemologies” and “information cascades.”

Simply, most of us do not have first-hand experience for most of what we think we know. Instead, we rely on the opinions of others. If Allen says X, and if Betty has no strong evidence to the contrary, and if Betty cares what Allen thinks about her, then Betty will probably agree with X. When Allen and Betty say X to Carl, who also has no strong evidence to the contrary and who also cares what Allen and Betty think of him, Carl will usually agree with X as well. When enough people in their group agree with X, that becomes the group consensus and indeed a belief in X may become a condition for inclusion in that group.

As Sunstein and Vermeule write:

Some such theories seem to bubble up spontaneously, appearing roughly simultaneously in many different social networks; others are initiated and spread, quite intentionally, by conspiracy entrepreneurs who profit directly or indirectly from propagating their theories…. Some conspiracy entrepreneurs are entirely sincere; others are interested in money or power, or in achieving some general social goal.

They also note that these theories tend to grow more extreme through a process known as group polarization. Decades of studies have shown that groups tend to move from cautious and/or indifferent initial beliefs to more certain and committed expressions of those beliefs. “It might be X, I guess, for what it’s worth” becomes “It is X, absolutely, and X is very important!”

“A fake president”

Last week the NRA elected Jim Porter as their new president, a man who called Barack Obama “a fake president.” It’s not an isolated belief. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli said in the GOP believe President Obama stole the election, 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney said President Obama bought the election by giving people stuff, and ForbesPeter Ferrera called 2012 a failure of democracy.

Many false beliefs are trivial, like children’s beliefs in the Tooth Fairy. But Sunstein and Vermeule caution that we should not ignore conspiracy theories. Most conspiracy theorists merely harrumph among themselves, but others act on those beliefs, as happened with alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev. When almost half of Republicans agree with the statement “in the next few years, an armed revolution may be necessary to protect our liberties”, and Adam Kokesh is organizing an armed march on our nation’s capital “to put the government on notice”

… we should not ignore Republican conspiracy theory entrepreneurs. They want Barack Obama out of the White House – the 2012 election bedamned – and this week’s Benghazi hearings and demands for impeachment are their least threatening option.

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Happy Tuesday!