A case study in delusion: How conspiracy theorists reacted when the myth of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death crumbled
When Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg underwent surgery for cancer this winter, she was forced to be absent from the Supreme Court and the public eye for many weeks as she recovered. She maintained an ample workload during this time — in fact, wrote more majority opinions during her time away than any of her colleagues.
But despite the ample evidence that her work continued, conspiracy theorists began spinning tales about her secret death. Some speculated that she was clandestinely being kept alive in a medically induced coma on an indefinite basis, to deny Trump the ability to appoint a replacement.
Now that she has returned to work on the bench in public view, those conspiracy theories, shared with the hashtag #wheresruth, have largely faded away. (They persisted past her first public appearance in early February, with the conspiracists predictably dismissing the accounts of mainstream reporters who had seen her as “fake news.) But the conspiratorial habit of mind persists, and it undoubtedly won’t be cowed by this refutation.
SCOTUSblog, the rigorous chronicler of the Supreme Court’s activities, decided to run a case study of sorts on these conspiracies. In a new post, it described how it tracked 82 influential Twitter accounts with 10,000 or more followers who had shared the conspiracy theories or fed into them by questioning the official story about Ginsburg’s absence from the court.
It wanted to answer a simple question: Once the falsity of Ginsburg’s death was revealed, how many of these users would share the news with their followers and pour water on the flames of conspiracy that they had fanned?
The results are not particularly encouraging.
Of the 82 accounts SCOTUSblog tracked, it found that only 10 updated their followers after news of Ginsburg’s public appearances broke.
James Woods, for example, the most high-profile person SCOTUSblog tracked, issued this tweet on Jan. 29:
As citizens we have a right to a fully seated United States Supreme Court. The fact that #RuthBaderGinsberg is literally missing in action is troubling. Considerations of her personal well-being aside (we wish her good health), Americans need to be apprised of her viability.# p #9_19 # ad skipped = true #
— James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) January 29, 2019# p #10_19 # ad skipped = true #
After Ginsburg returned to the court, though, he celebrated her reappearance:
Always happy to see a victory over cancer. It is a dreadful disease and every survivor is a gift to us. https://t.co/s53pFz24MP# p #12_19 # ad skipped = true #
— James Woods (@RealJamesWoods) February 20, 2019# p #13_19 # ad skipped = true #
But when SCOTUSblog contacted many of the other Twitter users to see if they would update their followers with the new information, most were much less willing than Woods was to correct the record.
Around 50 percent of those it reached out to ignored the blog’s inquiries. For many of those who did respond, the replies were not encouraging:
Ten users insisted on further proof. This was the largest category of rebuttal from those who did respond to our outreach.# p #16_19 # ad skipped = true #
For example, Stephen Miller (@redsteeze), with over 170,000 followers, told us, “Going to need to see photographic or video proof of her from the bench before I do something like that. OH RIGHT.. SCOTUS doesn’t allow cameras. How convenient.” Miller then tweeted a screenshot of our DM and his response. (Because of this tweet, we use his name. We won’t reveal users behind other DMs, which are private communications.) A second user, with over 350,000 followers, responded, “And I’m wondering if you have updated video of this. Until then, you can miss me the he said she said BS.” A third user, with over 35,000 followers, added, “When you provide me with a current, 10 minute one on one interview with Justice Ginsburg holding a newspaper with a current date on it I will update my followers that she is in fact alive, well, and functioning at ‘full steam’. Until then I remain skeptical of the situation.” There were seven other responses in a similar vein.# p #17_19 # ad skipped = true #
Four users disputed the need for any clarification. For example, a user with over 125,000 followers wondered, “Why should I? [My followers] can read the news. They are well aware.” This user has consistently tweeted remarks disparaging the credibility of media reports.# p #18_19 # ad skipped = true #
Perhaps most distressingly, two users actually insisted that Ginsburg is actually dead, SCOTUSblog reported. And only two of the users the blog contacted clearly (though begrudgingly) informed their followers that the rumors were wrong.