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The new Jeffrey Epstein files have set off a fresh round of conspiracy theories

A picture of Jeffrey Epstein from July 8, 2019, when federal prosecutors charged the financier with sex trafficking of minors. Epstein died later that year by suicide while in federal custody.
Stephanie Keith
Getty Images
A picture of Jeffrey Epstein from July 8, 2019, when federal prosecutors charged the financier with sex trafficking of minors. Epstein died later that year by suicide while in federal custody.

This week's unsealing of court records relating to Jeffrey Epstein's alleged associates has brought about a new wave of conspiracy theories about the late, disgraced financier. Epstein, who died by suicide while awaiting trial on federal sex-trafficking charges, is a perennial favorite in conspiracy-minded communities because of his ties to the wealthy and powerful and the speculation surrounding his death.

Some false accusations tried to tie other high-profile figures who weren't named in the documents to Epstein. Many other discussions centered around the idea that whatever the public is shown about Epstein isn't the real story.

Conspiracist logic often functions as an inversion of the cliche that 'seeing is believing,' according to Jenny Rice, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Kentucky, who has researched conspiracy theorist communities devoted to the 9/11 attacks.

"You can only believe the things that you can't see," she explained. "The things that we are shown are deliberately produced and delivered to us and therefore are not trustworthy."

Examples from this week include those pushing the idea that a school shooting that took place in Iowa on Thursday was actually a staged event meant to distract the public from the Epstein list. Elsewhere the list itself is cast as a distraction from new alleged evidence of election fraud that proves Donald Trump is the rightful president.

Contradictions like these are common in the world of conspiracist beliefs, especially in the era of social media, where decoding and interpreting news events is often participatory and communal.

"It's almost like a form of world-building collaboratively," said Rice. "I'm a researcher myself, so I totally understand the thrill of researching and discovering. And though I do it through academic means, a lot of conspiracy theorists find the same kind of joy in discovering."

The contradictory theories that swirl around Epstein when he reappears in news headlines just go to show how malleable and useful his story has become in conspiracy-minded communities.

"When we did surveys on the Epstein conspiracy theories, what's interesting about them is that they kind of cross the ideological spectrum. A lot of conspiracy theories tend to be located firmly on one side or another, and this one really, it's because he was so prolific in his social context and the pictures of him with Donald Trump and pictures of him with Bill Clinton," said Eric Oliver, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

Oliver has been researching conspiracy theories since 2006 and says the share of the population that believes in conspiracy theories of one kind or another has stayed fairly consistent. They're also a constant throughout history, he says.

"I think that's the big difference of what's happening now, is that and then I think you also have readily available media sources...that regularly pose as news sources," says Oliver.

He and other researchers sometimes use the phrase "conspiracy entrepreneurs" to describe people or organizations that gain money and influence by spreading conspiracist beliefs. It's a business model with some built-in advantages.

"You know, conspiracy theories don't get to a point where they say, okay, mystery solved. Our work here is done. Because to a certain extent, you know, part of what draws in people to conspiracy theory is that it is unending," said Rice.

Unfortunately, she added, while conspiracy narratives can appear to focus on legitimate social issues, they also tend to detract from constructive political engagement. The potential for conspiracy theories to influence politics is increasingly concerning for Oliver, who points to two recent examples.

"January 6th and mobilization of people storming the Capitol around January 6th. Would that have happened without conspiracy theories around this?" he said. "The second one would be, of course, resistance to vaccines around COVID and sort of denial about the basic scientific evidence around COVID."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Lisa Hagen
Lisa Hagen is a reporter at NPR, covering conspiracism and the mainstreaming of extreme or unconventional beliefs. She's interested in how people form and maintain deeply held worldviews, and decide who to trust.