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Here's why conspiracy theories about Taylor Swift and the Super Bowl are spreading

Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates with Taylor Swift after a 17-10 victory against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 28, 2024 in Baltimore.
Patrick Smith
/
Getty Images
Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs celebrates with Taylor Swift after a 17-10 victory against the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 28, 2024 in Baltimore.

Taylor Swift has been one of the most dominant cultural figures of the past year, between her billion-dollar Eras Tour and accompanying film, a slew of Grammy nominations, and a high-profile romance with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce that's made her a fixture of the National Football League season.

But Swift's popularity is being twisted into a threat by a contingent of far-right, Donald Trump-supporting conservatives who have started circulating conspiracy theories about the singer, the Super Bowl, and the 2024 election.

During the Chiefs' conference championship game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Mike Crispi, a pro-Trump podcast host on the right-wing Salem Media Group, posted a rant claiming the NFL had "RIGGED" a Chiefs victory.

"All to spread DEMOCRAT PROPAGANDA. Calling it now: KC wins, goes to Super Bowl, Swift comes out at the halftime show and 'endorses' Joe Biden with Kelce at midfield. It's all been an op since day one," Crispi wrote on X. (This will be the Chiefs' fourth Super Bowl appearance in the past five years.)

When the Chiefs pulled off a win, speculation went wild, casting Swift's relationship with Kelce as a plot to tip the presidential contest in Biden's favor.

"I wonder who's going to win the Super Bowl next month. And I wonder if there's a major presidential endorsement coming from an artificially culturally propped-up couple this fall," former Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy, who has pushed debunked conspiracy theories about theJan. 6th insurrection, the 2020 election, and 9/11, wrote on X, the site formerly known as Twitter, on Monday.

Unfounded claims about Swift's alleged role as a government plant have been swirling for some time. Last month, Fox News host Jesse Watters speculated that Swift might be a Pentagon "psyop" — an asset used for psychological operations.

"Is Swift a front for a covert political agenda?" he asked. While noting that he had no evidence, he pointed to Swift's endorsement of Biden in 2020 and her recent encouragement that fans register to vote, which led to a surge in registrations. The Pentagon rejected Watters' claim.

But the collision of the Super Bowl and a contentious presidential race have propelled the right-wing backlash to new heights. A New York Times report this week that Biden's campaign is hoping Swift will endorse him again this year added further fuel to the fire.

Influential right-wing figures including Jack Posobiec, who pushed the baseless Pizzagate conspiracy theory, and radio host Charlie Kirk have weighed in. Conservative cable outlets have dedicated multiple segments to Swift, with Fox News's Jeanine Pirro urging her, "Don't get involved in politics. We don't wanna see you there."

Monetizing attention

The strategy of attacking a pop icon, as well as a cultural institution like the NFL, might seem counterproductive, given that both Swift and football are very popular across the political spectrum.

However, the business of many figures in the very online Trump-supporting world is capture and monetize attention, said Joan Donovan, assistant professor of journalism and emerging media studies at Boston University who studies online discourse.

"It's a play for engagement. If you look at interest in Taylor Swift and the crossover with the NFL, you want to be part of those conversations online," Donovan said.

Mentions of Swift on fringe, right-wing internet sites like Trump's Truth Social, have spiked in the last week, according to data from Pyrra Technologies, which tracks smaller platforms.

It's not the first time Swift has been the target of conspiracy theories and right-wing ire.

For years, the singer avoided politics entirely, but her background in country music fueled speculation, without evidence, that she might be a Republican and a Trump supporter. In 2016, Vice reported on white supremacists who claimed Swift as an "Aryan Goddess."

Swift broke her political silence in 2018, endorsing a Democratic opponent to Republican Sen. Marsha Blackburn, whom Swift called "Trump in a wig," in her home state of Tennessee. She openly supports LGBTQ rights and Black Lives Matter, and condemned Trump during the 2020 protests following George Floyd's death.

Her evolution from teen ingenue to 30-something, unmarried, successful businesswoman has also been a break with conservative ideals of femininity, Donovan said.

"Amongst the right wing, because she is getting older and hasn't had children and whatnot, she's less seen as the traditional 'wifey' material," she said. "In broad terms, Taylor Swift represents older, independent women who do not need male support to have a career, to self-determine where they're going."

More recently, her relationship with Kelce, the Chiefs tight end, has added fuel to conservative criticisms. Kelce has also been attacked by conservatives because he's done commercials for Pfizer vaccines and Bud Light.

Attention begets abuse

The attention focused on Swift doesn't just draw conspiracy theories. It also attracts abuse — and specifically, the kind of abuse that is disproportionately targeted at women online.

In the last week, AI-generated sexually explicit images of Swift went viral on X and other social media sites, racking up tens of millions of views. The incident has resurfaced the prevalence of nonconsensual deepfake pornography, a problem that has plagued not only celebrities, but also regular women and girls, for years.

"The point of gendered abuse, the point of casting Taylor Swift in this light where she is not necessarily her own self-actualized person making her own decisions ... and putting her in this sexualized light is to demean her and to undermine her power," said Nina Jankowicz, a researcher and author of the book How To Be A Woman Online. "She's just a sexual object, she's just a tool of the Biden administration."

Jankowicz herself also been the victim of conspiracy theories and explicit deepfakes. She said she hopes the attention paid to the recent attacks on Swift will also highlight the harms of this kind of abuse on people who do not have the resources of a global superstar.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.