Commentators on the left speculated about a "bulge" in Mr. Bush's jacket (above) that they envisioned as a hidden receiver addressed by Karl Rove, the former president's political adviser. The Bush campaign tried to quell the rumors, but they persisted, even though solid evidence had never emerged. A NASA scientist was even involved in analyzing images of Mr. Bush's jacket during the debate, looking for clues about the mysterious bulge.
In 2008 rumors circulated online again that a candidate had been given answers during a debate. Ann Althouse, a law professor and Conservative blogger, wrote that close-ups on television showed Barack Obama "wearing an earphone" during a debate with John McCain. (Ms. Althouse later retracted her theory, saying it was probably just light reflecting off Mr. Obama's ear.)
The rumor surfaced again in 2016, this time in connection with Hillary Clinton, who was accused by right-wing websites of wearing a secret earbud. (One such story, which appeared on Infowars' conspiracy theory website, was shared by Donald Trump Jr. and other pro-Trump influencers.)
The secret listener rumor is not an exclusively American phenomenon. Foreign politicians, including Emmanuel Macron of France, were also groundlessly accused of wearing earphones during the debates.
Accusing the opposing party's candidate of wearing a secret earbud is not a particularly sophisticated disinformation tactic, nor would it likely offer much help to a candidate, even if it were true. (As anyone who's ever seen a live TV presenter fiddling with a producer's instructions could tell you, listening to instructions in an earbud while listening to a presenter's questions on stage requires quite a bit impressive multitasking.)
But the idea of a covert helper giving one side an unfair debate advantage has proven seductive to campaign workers trying to explain a one-way debate or sowing doubt about the fraud on the other side. As a 2016 Salon article put it on the earpiece conspiracy theory, these rumors seem mostly to target hyperpartisans whose views on the candidates are already fabricated.
"When someone presents you with grainy screenshots of George W. Bush or Hillary Clinton and claims they show telecommunications equipment hidden on their bodies," the piece reads, "your partiality allows you to bridge the sizable gap between the bad evidence and to bridge it. " firm conclusion that someone backstage whispered in the candidate's ear. "