A few days ago, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore was accused of initiating sexual encounters with four girls between the ages of 14 and 18 decades ago, including one encounter with a 14-year-old girl when he was 32.
Moore's defense is a conspiracy theory.
He tweeted that this was a political attack by the "Obama-Clinton Machine's liberal media lapdogs." In other words, he’s claiming there is an overarching story that explains the real truth, and it has to do with Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the liberal media working together to concoct evidence that he’s a pedophile.
Hannity hosted Moore on his radio show and allowed him to paint the allegations as a political attack. Hannity later went on his Fox News show and spent 15 minutes lecturing his viewers about why they should give Moore the benefit of the doubt, and he somehow included Bill Clinton and 25-year-old Freddie Gray, who died in Baltimore police custody, in his argument.
Hannity’s defense of Moore was egregious enough that some advertisers dropped their sponsorship of his show.
But looking at Hannity's history, this was hardly surprising.
I analyzed the past two years of transcripts from Hannity, his Fox News program that airs every weeknight, and found a show that peddles conspiracy theories more than any other news show in the US. Hannity often mirrors the language of online conspiracy forums, and it's only gotten more frequent since Hannity's friend and fellow conspiracy theorist Donald Trump became president.
I measured this by analyzing the overlap between Hannity’s show and the top posts from Reddit's /r/conspiracy forum. (More on the methodology at the bottom of this post.)
This data is even more astounding if you consider that Hannity is a one-hour show airing only on weekdays, while many of the other top shows, like MSNBC Live and CNN's New Day, air for multiple hours each day.
Now, just because a show appears on this list doesn't mean it peddled conspiracy theories. For example, if the president tweets out a conspiracy theory and the program covers it, then the show would make an appearance on this list. That said, there's only so much you can talk about a conspiracy theory before you cross the line into legitimizing it.
That's what Hannity does. He takes conspiracy theories and gives them a platform; he encourages his viewers to distrust their ears, because the media and liberals are collaborating to mislead Americans.
But here's the kicker: There's evidence from Hannity's past that shows he doesn't even care if these theories are true; all he cares about is whether they feel true to his viewers, because that’s all that matters at the ballot box.
So when Hannity told his viewers that Moore may not have assaulted a 14-year-old girl — that it's possible the mainstream media and liberal strategists made this up to take down a political opponent — many believed him. He made it feel true that this was made-up.
A few days later, pollsters asked people in Alabama whether the news about Moore made them more or less likely to support him.
About 33 percent said it made no difference. About 29 percent said they were more likely to vote for him (which as Vox’s Ezra Klein explained likely signals they don’t believe the allegations).
Hannity's job in the Trump administration: Clinton conspiracy theorist
President Trump and Sean Hannity share a similar mindset that it's okay to say things they don't really mean — to joke, to lie, to be hypocritical — because underneath the words, between the lines, is a greater message. In fact, it was Hannity who helped Trump push his conspiracy theory that Barack Obama wasn't born in the US.
And with Trump in the White House, Hannity has continued to help Trump push his conspiracy theories. In fact, it's gotten far worse since right before the election:
Instead of these stories being about Obama, however, they are now about Hillary Clinton.
And Trump has followed suit on occasion, retweeting Hannity when he teases his program with stories like this one:
Trump has even peddled conspiracy theories of his own:
All of this "Russia" talk right when the Republicans are making their big push for historic Tax Cuts & Reform. Is this coincidental? NOT!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 29, 2017
And they put forward these theories at specific moments. When we look at the timing, Clinton conspiracy talks seem to be a favorite way for them to deal with the scandals the Trump administration faces:
We know Trump not only watches Hannity but actually calls him after his show quite frequently. According to the Los Angeles Times, this has led to at least one policy proposal.
That means these conspiracy theories aren't just delivered to the living rooms of voters; they are echoed through the halls of the White House; they are repeated through the phones of the West Wing.
It "wasn't true ... but it felt true"
My colleague David Roberts wrote an essay about how the US is undergoing an epistemic breach — the disintegration of a shared understanding of truth. One reason for this splinter is that the rise of right-wing media "swept those gatekeepers away," Roberts writes.
The way Hannity treats truth is a concise example of this. He tells stories that chip away at the trust we have for institutions. He targets people who are especially susceptible to conspiracy theories.
A recent study found that people who have more political knowledge are less likely to believe in conspiracy theories. But that's not true for every group. When the researchers just looked at conservatives who don't trust the political system — in short, Hannity's audience — they were more likely to believe in conspiracy theories when they have more political knowledge.
It's very possible Hannity knows this — that he doesn't really believe some of these conspiracies but sees information, regardless of its veracity, as a political tool.
There's an excerpt in Hannity's 2002 book that gives us an interesting insight into how he thinks about this.
He writes that shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he got a chain email from someone claiming to be a University of North Carolina student. The student said he had watched a stunning video in class. It was of Oliver North, the Marine officer convicted in the Iran-Contra affair, testifying before the Senate and explaining that he had bought a $60,000 home security system because he was afraid of a terrorist. "His name is Osama bin Laden," North says in the video.
This hearing, 15 years before bin Laden orchestrated an attack that would kill nearly 3,000 Americans, left such an impression on Hannity that he put it in the beginning of his book.
But here's how he wrote about it (emphasis mine):
Turns out the interchange wasn't true. Not entirely, at least. But it felt true. That's why so many people read it and forwarded it to their friends.
This was fake news before fake news. But to Hannity, that wasn't the interesting part. Rather, it was that given his understanding of the world, this email felt true.
It wasn't true, but it felt true.
Hannity pulled a similar move in 2011, when he helped Donald Trump promote the hypothesis that then-President Obama was not born in the United States. It was the storyline that kept Trump in the political spotlight — a racist dog whistle that still had half his voters, in 2016, convinced Obama was not born in the US.
But shortly thereafter, Hannity admitted to GQ, "Some people wanted to make an issue of it. I never thought it was legitimate personally."
I scraped the top 1,000 posts of Reddit's /r/conspiracy forum and grouped similar posts. From there, I came up with keywords and contextualizing words that helped me detect when a news program might be talking about one of these theories; this was a manual process, since many Reddit posts are often just image links. This helped me find about 100 search terms. Using those curated words, I searched transcripts of cable television news from the TV News Archive using the Television Explorer tool from the GDELT Project. This gave me every instance in which the keywords were used within four sentences of the contextualizing words.