To understand how Democrats started falling for this stuff so quickly, I turned to three scholars: Dartmouth's Nyhan, the University of Exeter's Jason Reifler, and Temple's Kevin Arceneaux. The three of them all work in a burgeoning subfield of political science, one that focuses on how people form political beliefs — false ones, in particular. All of them were disturbed by what they're seeing from the Russiasphere.
"I'm worried? Alarmed? Disheartened is the right word — disheartened by the degree to which the left is willing to accept conspiracy theory claims or very weakly sourced claims about Russia's influence in the White House," Reifler says.
The basic thing you need to understand, these scholars say, is that political misinformation in America comes principally from partisanship. People's political identities are formed around membership in one of two tribes, Democratic or Republican. This filters the way they see the world.
"Misinformation is much more likely to stick when it conforms with people's preexisting beliefs, especially those connected to social groups that they're a part of," says Arceneaux. "In politics, that plays out (usually) through partisanship: Republicans are much more likely to believe false information that confirms their worldview, and Democrats are likely to do the opposite."
In one study, Yale's Dan Kahan gave subjects a particularly tricky math problem — phrased in terms of whether a skin cream worked. Then he gave a random subset the same problem, only phrased in terms of whether a particular piece of gun control legislation worked.
The results were fascinating. For the people who got the skin cream problem, there was no correlation between partisanship and likelihood of getting the right answer. But when people got the same question, just about gun control, everything changed: Republicans were more likely to conclude that gun control didn't work, and Democrats the other way around. People's political biases overrode their basic mathematical reasoning skills.
"[Some] people are willing to second-guess their gut reactions," Arceneaux says. "There just aren't that many people who are willing to do that."
In real-life situations, where the truth is invariably much murkier than in a laboratory math problem, these biases are even more powerful. People want to believe that their side is good and the other evil — and are frighteningly willing to believe even the basest allegations against their political enemies. When your tribe is out of power, this effect makes you open to conspiracy theories. You tend to assume your political enemies have malign motives, which means you assume they're doing something evil behind the scenes.
The specific nature of the conspiracy theories tends to be shaped by the actors in question. So because Obama was a black man with a non-Anglo name, and the Republican Party is made up mostly of white people, the popular conspiracy theories in the last administration became things like birtherism and Obama being a secret Muslim. This was helped on by a conservative mediasphere, your Rush Limbaughs and Fox Newses and Breitbarts, that had little interest in factual accuracy — alongside one Donald J. Trump.
There have been random smatterings of this kind of thing catering to Democrats throughout the Trump administration, like the now-infamous Medium piece alleging that Trump's Muslim ban was a "trial balloon for a coup." But most conspiracy thinking has come to center on Russia, and for good reason: There's suggestive evidence of an actual conspiracy.
We know that Trump's team has a series of shady connections to the Kremlin. Some of Trump's allies may have coordinated with Russian hackers to undermine the Clinton campaign. But we still don't know the details of what actually happened, so there's a huge audience of Democratic partisans who want someone to fill in the blanks for them.
"Conspiracy entrepreneurs are filling the void for this kind of content," Nyhan says. "If you're among the hardcore, you can follow Louise Mensch, and the Palmer Report, and John Schindler and folks like that — and get an ongoing stream of conspiracy discourse that is making some quite outlandish claims."
This kind of thing is poisonous. For Republicans, it made their party more vulnerable to actual penetration by hacks — the "Michele Bachmanns" and "Sean Hannitys," as Nyhan puts it. It allows unprincipled liars and the outright deluded to shape policy, which both makes your ideas much worse and discredits the good ones that remain. In the specific case of the Russia investigation, the spread of these ideas would make the president's accusations of "fake news" far more credible.
Luckily for the Democratic Party, there isn't really a pre-built media ecosystem for amplifying this like there was for Republicans. In the absence of left-wing Limbaughs and Breitbarts, media outlets totally unconcerned with factual rigor, it's much harder for this stuff to become mainstream.
But hard doesn't mean impossible. The most worrying sign, according to the scholars I spoke to, is that some mainstream figures and publications are starting to validate Russiasphere claims.
For instance, after the New York Times published the Mensch piece back in March, former DNC chair Donna Brazile tweeted out the story, with a follow-up thanking Mensch for "good journalism":
A current DNC communications staffer — Adrienne Watson — favorably retweeted a Mensch claim that the Russians had "kompromat," or blackmail, on Rep. Chaffetz:
Two former Obama staffers, Ned Price and Eric Schultz, favorably discussed a Palmer Report story aggregating Mensch's allegations about Chaffetz ("interesting, if single-source," Price tweeted). Larry Tribe, an eminent and famous constitutional law professor at Harvard, shared the same Palmer Report story on Twitter — and even defended his decision to do so in an email to BuzzFeed's Joseph Bernstein.
"Some people regard a number of its stories as unreliable," Tribe wrote of Palmer. Yet he defended disseminating its work: "When I share any story on Twitter ... I do so because a particular story seems to be potentially interesting, not with the implication that I've independently checked its accuracy or that I vouch for everything it asserts."
And Keith Olbermann made a popular video for GQ based on Taylor's allegations about imminent arrests, adding that "Claude and his sources know their stuff."
What you've got are prominent media figures, political operatives, scholars, and even US senators being taken in by this stuff — in addition to the tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of ordinary people consuming it on Twitter and Facebook. These people, too, are letting their biases trump interest in factual accuracy.
This is the key danger: that this sort of thing becomes routine, repeated over and over again in left-leaning media outlets, to the point where accepting the Russiasphere's fact-free claims becomes a core and important part of what Democrats believe.
"Normal people aren't reading extensively about what Louise Mensch claims someone told her about Russia," Nyhan says. "The question now is whether Democrats and their allies in the media — and other affiliated elites — will promote these conspiracy theories more aggressively."
That's how the GOP fell for conspiracy thinking during the Obama years. There's nothing about Democratic psychology that prevents them from doing the same — which means the burden is on Democratic elites to correct it.
Democratic partisans and liberal media outlets are the ones best positioned to push back against this kind of stuff. Rank-and-file Democrats trust them; if they're saying this stuff is ridiculous, then ordinary liberals will start to think the same thing. Even if they just ignore it, then the Russiasphere will be denied the oxygen necessary for it to move off of Twitter and into the center of the political conversation.
"Scrutiny from trusted media sources and criticism from allied elites can help discourage this kind of behavior," Nyhan says. "It won't suppress it — there are always places it can go — but on the margin, allies can help limit the spread of conspiracy theorizing inside their party."
So that's the key question going forward: Will the mainstreaming of the Russiasphere speed up — and birth something like a Breitbart of the left? If so, it'll create an environment where the people most willing to say the most absurd things succeed, pulling the entire Democratic Party closer to the edge — and leaving liberals trapped in the same hall of mirrors as conservatives.