Ahead of Tuesday’s presidential debate, rumors began spreading among right-wing influencers and Trump campaign surrogates that Joseph R. Biden Jr., the Democratic nominee, was being outfitted with a hidden earpiece in order to receive surreptitious help during the debate, and that Mr. Biden’s campaign had refused a request from the Trump campaign to allow a third party to inspect both candidates’ ears for hidden earpiece receivers before the debate.
“If Joe Biden isn’t hiding anything,” wrote the conservative activist Charlie Kirk on Twitter, “why won’t he consent to a third party checking for an earpiece before tonight’s debate?”
The debate, of course, has not yet begun, and there is no evidence that Mr. Biden will be assisted by an earpiece once it does. (A member of Mr. Biden’s campaign staff called the rumor “completely absurd” during a call with reporters on Tuesday.) But the theory is being speculated about in right-wing media, including on Fox News, and it has been shared thousands of times on Facebook. It was also advanced by “Q,” the pseudonymous poster behind the QAnon conspiracy theory.
“Secret earpiece” rumors are nothing new. In fact, they’ve become something of a fixture during presidential debate cycles, and part of a baseless conspiracy theory that tends to rear its head every four years.
The first real earpiece conspiracy theory dates to 2000, when Rush Limbaugh, the right-wing radio host, accused then-candidate Al Gore of getting answers fed to him through an earpiece during a “Meet the Press” appearance. (A representative from the show confirmed to Slate that all guests wear earpieces in order to hear the audio tracks of news clips played during the show, but there is no evidence Mr. Gore was fed any answers.)
Four years later, during the 2004 presidential debates, rumors circulated among left-wing bloggers that George W. Bush was getting help from a surreptitiously placed earpiece.
“This theory goes a long ways toward explaining the president’s consistently odd speech patterns,” wrote the liberal blogger Joseph Cannon.
Commentators on the left speculated about a “bulge” in Mr. Bush’s jacket, which they imagined concealed a hidden receiver into which Karl Rove, the former president’s political adviser, was speaking. The Bush campaign tried to bat down the rumors, but they persisted, even though no solid evidence ever surfaced. A NASA scientist even got involved in analyzing images of Mr. Bush’s jacket during the debate, looking for clues about the mysterious bulge.
In 2008, rumors again circulated online that a candidate was being fed answers during a debate. Ann Althouse, a law professor and conservative blogger, wrote that close-up TV stills showed that Barack Obama “was wearing an earpiece” during a debate with John McCain. (Ms. Althouse later recanted her theory, saying it was probably just light reflecting off Mr. Obama’s ear.)
In 2016, the rumor appeared again, this time attached to Hillary Clinton, who was accused by right-wing websites of wearing a secret earpiece. (One such story, which appeared on the conspiracy theory website Infowars, was shared by Donald Trump Jr. and other pro-Trump influencers.)
The secret earpiece rumor is not exclusively an American phenomenon. Foreign politicians, including Emmanuel Macron of France, have also been baselessly accused of wearing earpieces during debates.
Accusing the opposing party’s candidate of wearing a secret earpiece is not a particularly sophisticated disinformation tactic, nor would it probably provide much help to a candidate even if it were true. (In fact, as anyone who has ever watched a live TV anchor fumble with a producer’s instructions could tell you, listening to directions in an earpiece while staying attentive to a moderator’s onstage questions requires a fairly impressive act of multitasking.)
But the idea of a hidden helper giving one side an unfair debate advantage has proved seductive to campaign operatives trying to explain away a lopsided debate, or sow doubts about cheating on the other side. As a 2016 Salon piece about the earpiece conspiracy theory said, these rumors mainly seem to appeal to hyperpartisans whose views on the candidates are already made up.
“When someone presents you with grainy screen captures of George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton and claims that they show telecommunications equipment hidden on their bodies,” the piece said, “your partisanship enables you to bridge the sizable gap between the poor evidence and the firm conclusion that someone offstage was whispering into the candidate’s ear.”