Court Battles

Conspiracy theorists keep their Ginsburg death claims alive


Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has been keeping busy since her cancer surgery in late December: She has returned to the bench to hear oral arguments, authored opinions and even made a few public appearances outside the courtroom.

But conspiracy theorists aren’t buying it, with some arguing that the 86-year-old justice has been dead for weeks and that Democrats are covering it up to stop President Trump from filling her seat.

{mosads}The Supreme Court has been bombarded with Twitter users demanding evidence that Ginsburg is still alive, while some online videos allege her public appearances have been manufactured.

There are also claims that audio of her from recent Supreme Court oral arguments has been doctored and is nothing more than phrases pieced together from earlier recordings of her remarks.

Ginsburg has authored three court opinions since she was released from the hospital in December. The opinions weren’t issued until February, but the documents are often the results of weeks, if not months, of debate and communication among the justices.

There’s little chance the Ginsburg conspiracy theory is going away anytime soon, experts say, mainly because the biggest proponents are unlikely to accept any proof that she’s alive.

And they said the somewhat secretive nature of the Supreme Court, where no television cameras are allowed, doesn’t help.

“She’s sort of a high-visibility celebrity on the left as a justice in the same way [late Justice Antonin] Scalia was a high-level celebrity on the right,” said Mark Fenster, a law professor at the University of Florida and author of “Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture.”

{mossecondads}That kind of visibility, Fenster said, combined with Ginsburg’s recent health issues and few public appearances, helps amplify these kinds of unfounded claims.

“The Supreme Court, it’s a sort of secret and opaque institution,” he said, adding that that kind of intrigue plays into conspiracy theories, which often focus on the elite.

Photos of Ginsburg at a memorial this past week for Israeli author Amos Oz were met with accusations of manipulation.

“Love the creepy hand to the right by Ruth they always make stupid photoshop mistakes,” one Twitter user, whose bio references QAnon, tweeted in response to a photo of Ginsburg attending the event. “Like a freudsche slip. #RuthBaderGinsburg is dead.”

The narrative appears to have branched out from the so-called QAnon theory, which argues that there is a mass conspiracy playing out in the federal government, executed by the “deep state,” to prevent Trump from enacting his agenda.

A Google search for “Ruth Bader Ginsburg dead” turns up thousands of tweets, many of them linked to users who make positive references to QAnon. YouTube videos on the topic have racked up tens of thousands of views. 

One such video, which has been viewed more than 2,000 times since being posted last month, demanded proof of life, claiming a “hearse was just seen leaving her neighborhood.”

“Fox & Friends” in January accidentally aired a graphic saying Ginsburg had died. The show’s hosts apologized, saying a control room error was to blame. 

Supreme Court reporters also say they have been contacted by people searching for evidence that Ginsburg is alive.

The conspiracy theory’s longevity has been helped by high-profile conservatives occasionally referencing it.

In January, former White House aide Sebastian Gorka drew attention to Ginsburg’s absence from the bench while she recovered from cancer surgery.

“Still no sign,” he tweeted at the time. “6 days left until Ruth Bader Ginsberg has to make her official appearance at @realDonaldTrump’s State of the Union.”

When NBC News reporter Ben Collins responded to Gorka’s promotion of the theory, Gorka asked how “there can be a ‘public’ appearance behind closed doors.”

Gorka did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill.

Joseph Vitriol, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University who has conducted research on conspiracy theorists, said that Gorka weighing in on the theory may have given it a sense of credibility in more conservative circles.

Vitriol noted that Trump’s appointees to the Supreme Court have been among the most notable achievements since he took office. If Trump’s opponents were concealing Ginsburg’s death, Vitriol said, that would be viewed by conspiracy theorists as denying Trump another victory.

“Conservatives who believe in this conspiracy believe in it for that function — to justify the belief that Democrats are dishonest and nefarious,” Vitriol said. “And that can function to make conservatives feel more vindicated in the perception they have of Democrats.”

Tags Donald Trump Sebastian Gorka

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