Commentators on the left speculated about a “bulge” in Mr. Bush’s jacket (above), 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.”