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A list of powerful men linked to Jeffrey Epstein fuels conspiracy theories

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

This week, a federal judge unsealed court records disclosing more of the powerful and wealthy associates allegedly connected to the convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. He took his life four years ago, but new documents that lay out names and accusations against some of his associates is putting Epstein's story back into the limelight. And that's become an opportunity for conspiracy theorists. NPR's Lisa Hagen is here to explain why. Hi, Lisa.

LISA HAGEN, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So we have this list. How is it being received in the most conspiratorial corners of the internet?

HAGEN: Yeah, so ironically, in a moment when we're getting more information about the Epstein story - these names of powerful men allegedly associated with him - the biggest theme across conspiracist communities right now is that whatever we're being shown isn't the real story. So a couple examples - some people are pushing the idea that a school shooting that took place yesterday in Iowa was actually a staged event meant to distract the public from the Epstein list. And then you have other folks saying that the Epstein list itself is a distraction from new alleged evidence of election fraud that proves Donald Trump is the rightful president.

FADEL: OK but make this make sense. I mean, these two claims sound contradictory. Is the Epstein list the distraction or the thing being distracted from?

HAGEN: Right. In the age of social media, conspiracy theories are a form of communal storytelling.

FADEL: OK.

HAGEN: So you tend to have a lot of cooks in the kitchen. Also, contradictions are very common because conspiracies are less about the details than they are about a larger worldview. The central truth that matters is that you can't believe what you're shown, it's what's being hidden from you that's really important. So with Epstein, you have a really effective embodiment of that idea. Here's Eric Oliver, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.

ERIC OLIVER: You had this notorious sex trafficker who was in league with all sorts of rich and powerful people, who dies under mysterious circumstances in federal custody. I mean, that's just ripe for any kind of conspiracy narrative.

HAGEN: And so whatever kind of contradictions swirl around him in moments like this just go to show what a malleable and useful character Epstein has become.

FADEL: Useful to who?

HAGEN: Researchers like Oliver often refer to conspiracy entrepreneurs. These are people who gain money and influence by spreading conspiracist beliefs. And there are entire networks of influencers and media outlets devoted to posing as sources of this, you know, supposedly hidden knowledge.

FADEL: Now, making money off this stuff is one thing, but why else does this matter to the many people who don't buy into these conspiracy theories?

HAGEN: Yeah, experts will tell you that the same magical thinking that drives belief in one conspiracy theory often makes people vulnerable to others, some of which cause real damage in the world - like, for example, debunked claims that vaccines cause more harm than good, or the big lie that the presidential election was rigged against Trump. But conspiracy thinking also detracts from real political engagement. You know, being skeptical of power is actually really important to a democracy, but all the energy that goes into posting and amplifying unfounded claims does not generally translate into meaningful policy change or helping people who need it.

FADEL: NPR's Lisa Hagen. Thank you, Lisa.

HAGEN: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM SCHAUFERT'S "JOURNEY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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.

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