On Wednesday, political watchers were inundated not with results from the Iowa caucuses, pictures of cheering supporters and disappointed candidates consoling dejected volunteers, but with conspiracy theories, which swarmed up out of the swamps of the internet like so many disease-bearing mosquitoes.
Unlike in 2016, however, they seemingly did not emanate from a nondescript building somewhere in Russia. Rather, Twitter and Facebook were pulsing with posts from prominent supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., claiming that the true results of the Iowa caucuses were being suppressed to hurt their candidate.
Their theory seemingly runs like this: Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was the puppet master behind a grand conspiracy months in the making, designed not to overturn the will of the voters per se but solely to deny Sanders a grand victory speech after the caucus and before the New Hampshire primary.
Buttigieg — runs the conspiracy theory — with the help of the Democratic Party Establishment, the developer of the app that was supposed to be used to tally the results of the caucuses and somehow the Iowa Democratic Party (and details on this are fuzzy) manipulated the app (or the entire process) to fail so he could gleefully declare victory and begin his march to New Hampshire with people believing he had won when he hadn't, thereby sucking up more money and media time than he deserved.
And it wasn't just Twitter bots and your uncle who thinks the moon landing was faked who were promoting this version of events. Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., a Sanders supporter, retweeted a version of this conspiracy promulgated by an "independent journalist" and Sanders supporter (who argued in 2016 that Donald Trump might well be a better president for liberals than Hillary Clinton). He argued that Buttigieg "gave" money to the company that made the dysfunctional caucus reporting app and therefore must be involved; the company in question does consulting work for campaigns. Sanders surrogate Shaun King did much the same. Cable news hinted at the theories; MSNBC's Chris Hayes questioned David Plouffe — who serves on the board of a nonprofit that has invested in Shadow, the company behind the app — live on air. Trump's campaign manager, Brad Parscale, called the process "rigged," while Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump joined in on Twitter.
The surge of conspiracies flooded into the local newspaper, where I work; our inbox filled with mail from readers demanding that we uncover the corruption that was hurting Bernie Sanders. One such correspondent's missives — errors from the original — ordered us to get to the bottom of it all: "…the clueless voting public is typically had with the usual Dog & Poney show ( you never see the manipulating puppiteers behind the curtain ) !!! YES, this is a dirty Bernie political assasination underway, so don't be fooled !!!"
Despite calls for calm and relentless, exhausted fact-checking, the conspiracies are still breeding. The fantastic lies spread faster than the truth, and Twitter and Facebook have done little to nothing to stop them. But then, how can they? We've spent three years suggesting that this was the work of botnets and deliberate misinformation campaigns from the Russians and Cambridge Analytica — and some were — and not from fans of a candidate who were confused to discover that not everyone in the world believes what they do.
The groundwork for the Iowa-based conspiracies was laid in 2016, when the Sanders campaign complained about inconsistencies with the caucus process. They had every right to, because running a caucus is an impossible thing, as people vote with their bodies by getting into groups and counting off, and people often leave too early, further stymieing the counters. This year, those problems were compounded, as many people were confused about rule changes put into place for transparency's sake. That, along with problems with the smartphone app that was supposed to let precinct captains report results, meant that the counts out of the caucuses were inconsistent on the night of the votes, and the party decided to slow down, count the paper records and get it (at least close to) right.
But with no clear answers in the first-in-the-nation contest, which many were counting on to propel their candidates into the lead spot, conspiracy theorists rushed to the deck of our democracy like sailors in a storm.
Vote-counting difficulties aren't, however, limited to the Democratic caucus — which is necessary for the conspiracies to hold real water. In 2012, Mitt Romney was declared the winner of the Republican caucus, which used a secret ballot. But the numbers were inconsistent then, too, and the precinct captains were called to return vote tallies that some of them had held in ice cream buckets. In a recount, Rick Santorum won.
Conspiracies swarmed then, too, but they weren't as amplified by the echo chamber of the internet (partly because fewer people used social media). America then was less afraid.
Perhaps, however, it's easier today to believe in a conspiracy than the fact that your democracy was never that democratic. It's far more comforting to spin a faceless specter of terror than face the fact that maybe this system we call America isn't working. This isn't a glitch. This was how we designed it. We designed a complicated and exclusionary process that disenfranchises women, people with disabilities, people of color and people who have to work multiple jobs.
What we are seeing after the caucuses isn't an error; it's a feature of the democratic system.
The only "conspiracy" at work here is one of cynicism and broad disenfranchisement — of everyone, not a few Sanders supporters. It's a conspiracy of exhaustion that is supposed to make us feel less powerful. And we do; it's working. Even as the results are released, questions will remain. And the only thing that will end this crisis of confidence in the system is the next, new crisis of confidence in our system.