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Conspiracy Theories in the Age of Social Media - Megan L Zahay

Conspiracy theories are increasingly conspicuous in our social and political landscape. They represent a wide range of topics, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the Democrat’s Iowa Caucus app to the circumstances surrounding Jeffrey Epstein’s death. While conspiracy theories often circulate across social media, they have also recently been amplified by elected representatives in Congress. In the highest U.S. government office, President Trump regularly uses Twitter and cable news to advance conspiracy theories, such as the idea of Ukrainian election interference in the 2016 election, which has been debunked by the U.S. intelligence community. An even stranger conspiracy theory, known as QAnon, an example I’ll unpack below, has gained notoriety after being amplified by President Trump and Fox News, as well as its supporters’ visible presence at Trump’s rallies. Indeed, Nicolas Guilhot and Samuel Moyn, writing for The Guardian, recently proclaimed that “The Trump era is the Golden Age of conspiracy theories.” In this blog post, I will explore how rhetoricians have thought about the phenomenon of conspiracy theories, particularly in terms of what counts as good evidence, and how digital technology like social media helps to move conspiracy theory discourse closer to the center of our public sphere. I suggest that social media provides would-be conspiracy theorists with not only a vast, searchable collection of evidence for their theories, but a large, networked, and visible social community that makes participation in online conspiracy theories more enticing. Understanding the political and civic implications of conspiracy discourse is especially important in our Internet age, as conspiracy theories are developed, interpreted, expanded, and rapidly shared through social media.

Figure 1: Network map of conspiracy theory topics generated by Qmap.pub

While the online affordances of conspiracy theory discourse are new, our moment is not without historical precedent. In their 1981 article “Conspiracy Rhetoric: From Pragmatism to Fantasy in Public Discourse,” Goodnight and Poulakos observed another, earlier Golden Age of conspiracy theory discourse. In the wake of controversy about the war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, and revelations about activity within the C.I.A., F.B.I, and State Department, they found that accusations of conspiracy seemed to be on the rise. “The ‘paranoid style,’” they said, referring to Richard Hofstadter’s well-known essay on the subject, “moved away from ideological extremes to the mainstream of political life.” In our own time of political upheaval, with widespread distrust of the news media, the impeachment of President Trump, and the COVID-19 pandemic, the paranoid style and conspiracy theory rhetoric seems to be moving into the mainstream once again. Demarcated in some ways by the rise of the 9/11 Truthers, who beginning in 2001 posited that the World Trade Center attacks were condoned or carried out by the U.S. government, this new wave of contemporary conspiracy theories have grown up alongside the widespread integration of the Internet and social media in our daily lives.

Whether they eventually become substantiated, remain speculative, or are, perhaps most often, proven to be false, political conspiracy theories can have a significant effect on our public discourse, especially when they suggest that we are being deceived by officials in our government. One (in)famous example is the conspiracy theory known as “birtherism,” which claims that former President Barak Obama was not born in the United States. While birtherism has been proven false, Trump was a vocal proponent of this conspiracy theory early in his political career, and by 2017, 51% of Republicans still believed that it was “Definitely true” or “Probably true.” If we are truly in the midst of a “Golden Age of conspiracy theories” as Guilhot and Moyn claim, the Internet and social media surely play a key role in amplifying them within our public discourse.

Scholars of the public sphere have both lamented and praised the rising centrality of social media in our civic life and public discourse. Murdock worries that Internet technologies, rather than offering a vibrant new public sphere, merely employ us as “labourer[s] working in digital fields owned by the new feudal landlords.” On the other hand, online spaces also provide tools for meaningful civic engagement. In their study of the 2014 #myNYPD protests criticizing police misconduct, Jackson and Foucault-Welles point out how social media affordances like hashtags can help citizens gain visibility and speak back to traditional authority. Similarly, Ashley Hinck suggests that the increased fluidity of the online world provides greater choice for community membership and thus increased resources for civic action. When social media and other participatory Internet users draw on both institutional and noninstitutional authority to give voice to their message, they produce what Robert Glenn Howard has called hybrid vernacular agency, which “can open up new venues for transformative public discourse.” The particular affordances of social media, like Twitter’s hashtag function, can also add an affective dimension to public discourse. Zizi Papacharissi points out that these affordances generate affective publics that allow “people to feel their way into politics,” producing communication “in ways that evolve beyond the conventional deliberative logic of a traditional public sphere.” In these ways, social media not only provides new opportunities to participate in public discourse, it also substantively changes such discourse’s structures of authority and affect. When conspiracy theories enter into this space, they too take on new rhetorical forms.

Conspiracy theory scholarship in rhetoric and communication has often taken as a starting point the genre conventions laid out by Richard Hofstadter in his 1952 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” For Hofstadter, the paranoid style is most notably distinguished by the imagination of “a vast and sinister conspiracy…set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life” that may even be understood as “the motive force in historical events.” Importantly, this powerful enemy is believed to be able to control the media and “directs the public mind through ‘managed news.’” For Goodnight and Poulakos, these assertions and denials of conspiracy, or conspiracy rhetoric, represent a contest for the public definition of social reality. The existence of a conspiracy is touted through evidence in which “trivial instances are rendered significant, and seemingly unrelated events are brought together,” and “’facts’ which counter the conspiracy hypothesis become suspect and must be tested over and over again for weakness.” Those who critique the conspiracy hypothesis themselves become suspect and “hierarchical authority loses its credibility; personal relationships, too, become suspicious.”

When it comes to political issues, it may seem at first that this desire to test a hypothesis “over and over again for weakness” would facilitate quality deliberation and robust conclusions. However, Patricia Roberts-Miller points out that while conspiracy theorists may often argue in good faith by presenting evidence and an interpretation that they believe to be true, this good faith does not extend to pointing out inconsistencies in such evidence. Conspiracy theories remain resilient in the face of inconsistency because the performance of identity in the community is more important than reaching a reasoned consensus about the merits of evidence or claims. Indeed, raising and debating evidence, perhaps the most prominent mode of conspiracy theory discourse, is itself the performance of group identity. Rather than an effort to reach consensus on social or political issues, Roberts-Miller asserts that for participants in the conspiracy theory community, “recognizing that the data is true (and truly related to the true claims) signifies that one is also a member of the ingroup.”

Figure 2: Michael Flynn, former National Security Advisor, adds the QAnon slogan “Where we go one, we go all” to the oath of office.

In this sense, conspiracy theorizing is intimately linked to group identity, a relationship foregrounded and amplified when such discourse spreads through social media platforms that have been intentionally designed to foster social connections between users. We can think of how labels like the “Truthers” and “Birthers” connote a particular group of people in addition to their core set of beliefs. The importance of identity is exemplified in a recent conspiracy theory known QAnon, which has gained attention in national media outlets for its followers’ appearance at Trump rallies and even support from some Republican congressional candidates. Early on, the QAnon conspiracy theory posited that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was not investigating President Trump, but rather working with him in secret to rid the government of “corrupt liberal actors” like Hillary Clinton, though it has since grown to include a range of other topics. Within their online community, QAnon followers proudly identify themselves as “anons.” The term “anon” comes from the anonymity of participants within the online forum 4chan, from which the conspiracy theory originated, and is common to other several other Internet subcultures, most notably the Anonymous activism and hacking collective. However, it soon became a popular way for participants in the QAnon conspiracy theory discourse to identify themselves and one another. Terms like “patriot” and “digital soldier” also came to be used to signify belonging in the community. As they moved to other social media platforms like YouTube, Reddit, Twitter, and Instagram, they also used hashtags (ex., #WWG1WGA, #TheGreatAwakening) and emoticons (ex., three yellow stars, seen in this popular QAnon Twitter account) to demonstrate their belonging in the community. Most recently, over the 4th of July weekend, QAnon participants used the hashtag #TaketheOath to post and aggregate videos of themselves taking an oath of office followed by the QAnon slogan “Where we go one, we go all.” General Michael Flynn, a former Trump administration National Security Advisor, tweeted a video of the same oath, which also included the QAnon slogan. The value placed by QAnon participants on performing their identity as an “anon” or “patriot,” and expressing it via hashtags, symbolism, and oaths, highlights the importance of identity to conspiracy theory discourse online.

Figure 3: Two people tweet a video of themselves taking the oath with the QAnon slogan, asking other digital soldiers to #TaketheOath

While practices like interpreting evidence and sharing those interpretations with others remain central to conspiracy theorizing, the process of identifying oneself with a conspiracy theory community is taking on increased significance in the social media age. Hillary A. Jones, in her chapter of Theorizing Digital Rhetoric, observes that, "identification, persuasion grounded in creating or identifying similarities between a rhetor and audiences, has changed in the post-industrial digital age; we have moved from shared essences to performances and practices, from communities grounded in substances to procedures." Rather than a Burkean notion of identification through shared essences, Jones suggests that identification on social media arises at least partly through shared “procedures and forms…such as pinning, gazing, hashtagging, or swiping.” When we interact with others on platforms like Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, or Tinder, we necessarily do so through the platform-specific constraints that guide us to interact in specific ways. For online conspiracy theorists, participating in the community and identifying oneself as part of it means adhering to both platform-based and community-based procedures for making and arguing claims about the conspiracy theory. For example, when QAnon participants seek to interact with their community, they make use of hashtags like #WWG1WGA (“Where we go one, we go all,” a QAnon slogan) that are recognized and searched for by other community members. This hashtag allows participants to identify themselves as part of the community, an intended use of the hashtag function. However, for QAnon it also has the unintended consequence of becoming an argument for the conspiracy theory itself. As participants scroll through thousands of similarly hashtagged posts, they are presented with visual evidence that the “we” in #WWG1WGA is indeed a massive movement of like-minded “anons,” acting in unison as the slogan suggests.

This example highlights the way that evidence for a conspiracy theory is about more than a collection of discrete bits of information, particularly when it is accumulated and made sense of through social media. In her most recent book, Awful Archives, Jenny Rice observes that evidence may not always be best understood as a “thing” that either supports or refutes one’s hypothesis. Rather, evidence also has a performative quality that is deeply tied to the manner in which it is presented. The perceived largeness of the collection of evidence is key to conspiracy theory rhetoric, what Rice has previously related to Aristotle’s concept of megethos or magnitude. “Archives of conspiracies,” she writes, “grow to unfathomable scales.” In addition to the persuasiveness of the actual conspiracy theory content or evidence found in such archives, their sheer size can itself be persuasive. Danah boyd points out that networked publics afford distinctive characteristics including persistence, searchability, replicability, and scalability. When conspiracy theory archives are collected and organized online, there is an unprecedented opportunity for participants to amass and quickly distribute (often without financial investment or physical storage resources) massive troves of evidence on websites, blogs, within forums, and through social media like Twitter and Facebook. For online conspiracy theory communities, these affordances have proven especially fertile.

This largeness is not limited to evidence, as vast numbers of participants are enabled to interact with one another both synchronously and asynchronously by using online platforms to engage in conspiracy theorizing. Andrew Chadwick, in his 2013 book, The Hybrid Media System, has noted that networked media systems demand cooperation between actors with varying degrees of power. Thus, although communicative systems like social media provide platforms for individual production and amplification, “systems analysis also carries an assumption that a great deal of interdependence exists among the salient actors.” Because of this interdependence, Chadwick argues that larger networks have greater social value than small networks due to their increased access to “resources like money, communication, audiences, social support,” etc. In other words, individuals are motived to be a part of large social networks, including large conspiracy theory communities. The largeness of the network lends credibility and social value to its members.

Looking again at the example of QAnon, early promoters of the conspiracy theory recognized that the platform where it originated, 4chan, was not popular or accessible enough to attract a large audience. To mitigate this, these promoters deliberately sought out the assistance of influencers on more accessible platforms like YouTube to increase the size of their network. Their efforts were successful, and the QAnon community quickly grew in size and influence on YouTube, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms. The most popular QAnon Twitter accounts today have followings ranging from 350,000 to over 500,000 followers. While not all of these followers actively participate in the conspiracy theory discourse, they add to its perceived legitimacy through the appearance of a massive community. The affordance of largeness, of magnitude or megethos, in both the collection of evidence and the size of the network itself, facilitates identification with conspiracy theory communities online because they appear more socially valuable to would-be members.

Figure 4: Screenshot of a popular QAnon account, @qanon76

When Goodnight and Poulakos pointed out the proliferation of conspiracy discourse in the late 1970s, they of course could not have predicted its large resurgence on social media several decades later. Conspiracy theories today are able to spread more quickly than in times past, and they may also be more persuasive as large-scale online networks suggest that there are social benefits to identifying with a conspiracy theory in-group. Online collections of conspiracy theory evidence can persist for a longer period of time, maintained by members of the in-group or by social media networks themselves, who automatically catalog and store users’ posts. So although conspiracy theorists may appear to be on the fringe of our public sphere, their communities’ use of online technologies help conspiracy theories circulate through mainstream political discourse. When the President retweets Twitter accounts that promote conspiracy theories or Fox News displays a QAnon tweet on its cable network, these mainstream political sources participate in a much broader and deeper network of conspiracy theory rhetoric online, one in which identifying with the in-group is an important part of belief. Emerging politicians are rising on this wave of conspiracy theories, too. Several congressional hopefuls, two of whom have presumptively clinched the nomination in their district, have either explicitly or tacitly expressed sympathy for the QAnon conspiracy theory. Given the significance of identity and online social networks to contemporary conspiracy theory discourse, countering conspiracy theories in our political world will require more than pointing out inconsistencies in evidence and reasoning. Rather, successfully addressing the so-termed Golden Age of conspiracy theories requires us to consider these new ways that they are persuasive online.

Megan L. Zahay

Ph.D. Student in Rhetoric, Politics, and Culture

Department of Communication Arts

University of Wisconsin - Madison

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