Case study on the Ginsburg conspiracy theories in action
#WheresRuth. Even as the answer – working from home while recovering from cancer surgery – was covered by journalists and confirmed by the Supreme Court itself, this hashtag and similar ones populated Twitter in January and February. False allegations about Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s status ranged from standard political rumors (e.g., that she planned to announce her retirement soon) to massive conspiracy theories (e.g., that she was in a medically induced coma or that her death was being hidden from the American people). Presumed “updates” from conspiracy theorists as well as mishaps from media organizations — at one point, Fox News erroneously aired, for barely two seconds, an image of Ginsburg with the dates “1933-2019” under her name — fueled the theories.
Journalists looked into the conspiracy theories in depth as they were developing, especially after a February 4 appearance by Ginsburg at a concert in Washington — in which she was personally seen by multiple reporters of the Supreme Court press corps — was rejected by some as “fake news,” supposedly due to a lack of pictures. After the event one Washington Post reporter, Robert Barnes, “experienced something he says was a first in his career: a storm of commentators, many anonymous, swarming his social media accounts and email inbox to tell him that something he saw with his own eyes and reported in The Post did not actually happen.”
At SCOTUSblog, we organized a small experiment intended to produce an illustration of how proponents of conspiracy theories respond to evidence disproving their ideas. We were curious to see how different individuals on Twitter who had participated in spreading misinformation about Ginsburg responded when asked directly to correct themselves and inform their followers of the truth. We expected to meet some resistance (and we did), but we saw it as a valuable opportunity to demonstrate the process in action. Our data are limited and we don’t profess statistical significance; what follows is more of a case study.
Through January and February, we tracked 82 Twitter accounts with over 10,000 followers that tweeted claims or insinuations (including questions) about Ginsburg’s death or incapacity. The account with the most followers was that of actor James Woods (@RealJamesWoods), who at the time had 1.95 million followers and who tweeted on January 29, among other similar messages: “As citizens we have a right to a fully seated United States Supreme Court. The fact that #RuthBaderGinsberg [sic] 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.” This may seem like a simple inquiry, but it ignores the Supreme Court’s direct statements. An example of a more nefarious tweet comes from one user with 250,000 followers, who on February 8 tweeted a link to a YouTube video and the message: “WHISTLEBLOWER REVEALS TRUTH ABOUT RUTH BADER GINSBURG HEALTH according to unconfirmed sources Ruth Bader Ginsburg is in a medically induced coma. They’ll keep her alive until the 2020 election if necessary.”
Ginsburg returned to work on February 15 for conference with her fellow justices. Over the two-week February sitting, Ginsburg heard all six of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments. She also released three opinions, including in one case, Fourth Estate Public Benefit Corp. v. Wall-Street.com, that had been argued during her absence in January – indeed, the court had indicated in January that she would be participating in these cases based on the transcripts and briefs. News coverage of Ginsburg’s apparent productivity during her absence was met with some skepticism on Twitter. For example, on March 5, the ABA Journal tweeted a link to an article and the news that “U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has written four majority opinions this term, outpacing all the other justices. Three of those opinions were issued after Ginsburg returned to the bench following Dec. 21 surgery for lung cancer.” Some of the replies to this tweet include, “Obviously her clerks are very industrious,” “Does she bring her opinions in person? #WheresRuth,” and “Did you witness her writing these opinions?”
Following the February sitting, we went through our list of users to track which, if any, had acknowledged Ginsburg’s return to the bench. We found 10 of the 82 (12 percent) did so in some way. Woods tweeted on February 20, “Always happy to see a victory over cancer. It is a dreadful disease and every survivor is a gift to us.” Another example is television host John Cardillo (@johncardillo), with over 115,000 followers, who tweeted on February 19, as a reply to an earlier tweet, “Ginsburg is back on the Court. She heard arguments today.”
In addition to these 10 who acknowledged Ginsburg’s return to the bench, we removed three from our overall group for different reasons. One notable user on our list, Jacob Wohl (@JacobAWohl) — who, in addition to claiming to have proved the falsehood of Ginsburg’s February 4 public appearance, posted a petition demanding that Ginsburg step down from the bench — was permanently banned from Twitter for creating fake accounts. A second user was suspended and a third had locked its tweets before our final review.
This leaves 69 (84 percent) who did not acknowledge Ginsburg’s return. We attempted to contact each of these users to report about Ginsburg’s return and to ask them whether they intended to inform their followers of the truth. We sent a direct message through Twitter to 41 users (50 percent of our sample). With slight variation depending on what the user had tweeted, we sent the following message: “We noticed that after Justice Ginsburg missed oral arguments in January, you questioned her status and called for proof of life. She’s now heard every oral argument in February, and yesterday she released two opinions from the bench. We’re wondering when you plan to update your followers on the truth of the matter. Please advise. Thank you.”
We were not able to DM 28 people (34 percent of our sample); we followed them temporarily — which made for two days of dreadful Twitter — but they never followed us back. Included in this group are prominent public figures such as Sebastian Gorka (@SebGorka), with over 700,000 followers, and Mark Dice (@MarkDice), with over 400,000 followers.
Roughly half of those we messaged (21 out of 41) did not respond to us. Of these, three blocked us. Including the 28 who never followed us back, 49 of the 69 who did not address Ginsburg’s return (71 percent) ignored our outreach. One user, with 40,000 followers, did not directly reply to us, but did tweet a screenshot of our DM with the text, “Someone @scotusblog has a lotta nerve.”
We did receive 20 responses to our DMs (49 percent of those we messaged; 24 percent of our overall total). We’ll now detail these responses more closely.
Ten users insisted on further proof. This was the largest category of rebuttal from those who did respond to our outreach.
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.
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.
Other users suggested that questioning Ginsburg’s status, despite abundant evidence, was not even problematic. For example, one user, with over 170,000 followers, asked: “It’s wrong to question? Please advise, thanks in advance.” Or, similarly, from a user with over 60,000 followers, “Pretty sure I asked a simple question. ‘Where is Ruth?’”
A fourth user in this category, with over 20,000 followers, said that she had only wondered why members of the media had not reported on Ginsburg the way Melania Trump’s temporary absence from public appearances in 2018 had been covered. She said we should read her article. We had, and she did indeed call for proof of life.
Two users insisted that Ginsburg was dead. According to one, with over 15,000 followers: “Nope, that’s a body double if ever there was one.” And as another user, with over 435,000 followers, suggested, “That’s total hoax and a planned delay – bet she’s dead.”
In a more miscellaneous category, one user, who participates in a broadcast show that shares conspiracy theories and who has over 95,000 followers, invited us onto the show, asking, “Care to put a representative on air with me to do it?”
Two users responded to our DMs by correcting the record. One user, with over 18,000 followers, said, in a response that echoes the “no need to retract” variety: “Her recovery has been well publicized. But I’ll be happy to put a tweet out about it.” And he did tweet to this effect. Another user, who has over 160,000 followers, said, “Yes- we will update posts! Thanks.” He posted an update to an earlier article that had criticized reports on Ginsburg’s February 4 concert appearance, stating, “Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been sighted at the Supreme Court and has recovered from her bout with lung cancer…for now.”
Finally, one user, with over 165,000 followers, corrected us, indicating that she had retweeted some articles about Ginsburg being back. We were unable to find an actual retweet of hers to this effect. If we include her out of deference, as well as the two who acknowledged Ginsburg’s return after our outreach and the 10 who did so beforehand, we count 13 users (16 percent of our overall sample) who did ultimately inform their followers of the truth of the matter.
On February 15, Ben Collins, an NBC reporter who has looked into online conspiracy theories, tweeted a prediction: “Now that RBG will be out in public soon, the conspiracy that she’s secretly dead will only evolve.” We found examples of this phenomenon in response to our outreach. For instance, Stephen Miller suggested to his followers in a tweet on March 5 that, “Hitting up DMs is exactly what SCOTUSBLOG would do in a panic if people were starting to figure out the truth.” Another user, with over 75,000 followers, posted an article, which seems to mistake us for the actual court, “So is it me, or does it make it even fishier that an official account would scroll through every blue check mark profile that mentioned that they thought Ginsberg [sic] was dead…and passive aggressively threaten us to take it down? Because I sure think it is.” Although we don’t suppose our DMs will enter into any “canon” regarding the Ginsburg conspiracy theories, these tweets do illustrate Collins’ prediction in action.
Accounts with the most followers
We tracked 23 accounts with over 100,000 followers. One observation is that six of the 10 accounts that acknowledged Ginsburg’s return were in this group, comprising a quarter of the largest accounts, even as only 12 percent of our overall sample made such an acknowledgement. There may be a certain savviness to these six users, who on average have over 495,000 followers, actively spreading rumors — thus generating engagement with their social media and, as applicable, clicks for their websites — before backing off, perhaps out of concern for protecting their reputation. Additionally, we received six direct responses from this large group (26%, which roughly matches the 24% direct-response rate across our entire sample). Two of these insisted on further need for proof, two disputed the need for a correction, one did issue an update and one said she had already retweeted an update.
The accounts that we tracked and attempted to contact all have some measure of influence. We limited our search to accounts with more than 10,000 followers because we wanted to see how popular users — who are, presumably, concerned about their reputation and image — would react when confronted with the fact that conspiracy theories they pushed had been refuted. Only 16 percent publicly acknowledged Ginsburg’s return. Those who did not (80 percent of the accounts we tracked) have chosen to ignore or actively dispute evidence of her return to the court. (As explained, 4 percent of the tracked accounts were removed from consideration.)
This isn’t the first time that conspiracy theorists have targeted the Supreme Court, and it won’t be the last. We don’t want to draw any broad conclusion about conspiracy theories and how they evolve once their core arguments are proven wrong. We simply were interested to see how those who pushed this specific talking point reacted when the facts changed.