Conspiracy theorising online

11 minutes to read
Piia Varis

Conspiracy theorising online is not only an interesting object of research in itself, but as a phenomenon also seems fruitful ground for understanding present-day media, culture, and politics more generally.

Conspiracy theorist-in-chief

One doesn’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to think that conspiracy theorising is a very widespread practice. Present-day American politics is a good example of that. Donald Trump – or the Conspiracy Theorist-in-Chief – himself has proposed, amongst other conspiracy theories, that his tax returns may have been under audit because of his religious beliefs, and that climate change is a hoax invented by the Chinese. In one of the most memorable twists in the 2016 US presidential elections, the so-called Pizzagate - with allegations of Hillary Clinton and her aides running a child-trafficking ring from a Washington pizza place - captured media attention.  

One of the latest prominent online conspiracy theories, known as The Storm – which the New York Times recently described as “fascinating as an artifact of our current political derangement” – is a pro-Trump conspiracy theory, suggesting that Trump has pretended to collude with the Russians in a “master plan to stage a countercoup against members of the deep state”. Also in the US, victims of school shootings, such as the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018, have been accused of being ‘crisis actors’, i.e. individuals paid to pose as victims to advance one or the other political agenda. And, almost two decades on, 9/11 is of course also still the object of conspiracy theorising.

While many of the most widely disseminated and well-known conspiracies are indeed American, there appears to be no lack of suspicion of conspiring elsewhere in the world. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange attributed the accusations of sexual assault against him in Sweden on a ‘radical feminist conspiracy’. Anders Breivik murdered 77 people in Norway in 2011 motivated by his belief in a Muslim conspiracy designed to take over Europe. In the UK, the former footballer and sports broadcaster David Icke has more recently become known for his theory of shapeshifting reptilian humanoids, according to which world leaders such as Queen Elizabeth and the Clintons are, in fact, lizard people.

“Research in conspiracy theories is currently thriving” 

Popular culture is also rife with conspiracy discourse. The docudrama Wormwood and the sci-fi series Stranger Things, both recent streaming hits, were inspired by one conspiracy theory that turned out to be true: the CIA ‘mind-control’ project MKUltra. Conspiracies are also the stuff of documentaries such as Cowspiracy and What the Health which set out to expose conspiring and corruption by the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries endangering people’s health and the environment. Unacknowledged aims to bring to light a long history of US government secrecy on alien contact and access to alien technologies, all in service of political and economic gain.

Conspiracy theories indeed seem to “have migrated from the margins of society to the centre ground of politics and public life and have become a ubiquitous feature of contemporary political and popular culture”(Byford 2015: 3). Apart from appearing in different contexts, conspiracy theories also come in multiple forms, and assume many different functions. They are part of political rhetoric, strategising and imagination; they work as points of identification for people, and bring people together in online collectives, either just to consume theories or contribute to detective work in exposing conspiracies. Some conspiracy theories start as acts of trolling (‘Let’s see who’ll buy my crazy theory!’) and gain traction online regardless; others are constructed in all earnestness.


Conspiracy theories as forms of knowledge

It therefore comes as no surprise that “Research in conspiracy theories is currently thriving” (Butter and Knight 2016: 1). Existing research on conspiracy theorising has tended to be US-centred, however, although there are examples from elsewhere in the world such as The Netherlands (Harambam 2017), Turkey (Alver 2016), and Venezuela (Briggs 2004), just to name a few. Also, cultural studies, discourse studies and anthropology, for instance, have not yet taken extensive interest in conspiracy theorising.

One explanation for that may be what Keeley (1999: 109) explains as the reason for the lack of attention to conspiracy theory by philosophers: “most academics simply find the conspiracy theories of popular culture to be silly and without merit.” A pathologising approach which sees conspiracy theorising as the pastime of paranoid or otherwise-considered-abnormal people is quite well established in academic research, although “the wave of sociology, cultural studies and literary studies books that began to emerge in the late 1990s” has “provided substantial evidence that conspiracy theories have been and continue to be mainstream and are thus not necessarily a sign of delusional thinking” (Butter and Knight 2016: 10).

As Butter and Knight (2016: 10, emphasis original) suggest, in researching conspiracy theories “The starting point would need to be the recognition that no matter what psychological traits are involved, conspiracy theories are essentially social constructs.” In this line of thinking, “the processes by which any body of ‘knowledge’ comes to be socially established as ‘reality’.” (Berger & Luckmann 1966: 15, emphasis original) are of interest. This means taking seriously “whatever passes for ‘knowledge’ in a society, regardless of the ultimate validity or invalidity (by whatever criteria) of such ‘knowledge’”. (Berger & Luckmann 1966: 15)

"why are some narratives deemed to be scientific and others conspiracy theories.”

If one is interested in understanding what and how “passes for ‘knowledge’”, and if one knows where to look - and it doesn’t in fact take very much looking, as conspiracy is not difficult to find on social media, forums or specialised websites - there’s plenty of conspiracy theorising going on online. One can read about suppressed science, crop circles, and true tales of mystery airships. About the Chinese government paying for huge numbers of their citizens to move to western countries and drive poorly on the roads, to make people late and consequently slow down western economies. About governments controlling the weather, and Paul McCartney actually having been dead for decades, since a 1966 car crash. Websites and forums, YouTube videos and Reddit threads, beckoning you to wake up and see the truth behind the appearances, behind all the disinformation and lies, fakes upon fakes. The world is not what you thought it was.


Studying conspiracy theories online

This kind of lay truth-telling can be seen as exemplifying the idea that the internet as a mass medium has brought about ‘semiotic democracy’, where “a greater number of people are able to tell the stories of their times.” (Palfrey and Gasser 2008: 266) Or, alternatively, to describe the internet in more dismissive terms, it is “the Petri dish for paranoids” (Fenster 2008: 1). In any case, it seems that too celebratory a tone in addressing conspiracy theories is uncalled for: as Fenster (2008: 287) points out, “Conspiracy theory can just as easily be used to promote oppression as it can be made to advance democratic or emancipatory politics”. The fact that, thanks to the internet, (highly visible) conspiracy theorising is no longer the exclusive privilege of people such as US presidents but also enjoyed by ordinary people does indeed not automatically mean that they have an empowering or liberating agenda.

This leads to important questions though regarding changing 'orders of visibility', referring to the idea that “some types of knowledge, as well as the practices that produce them, [become] more credible, more legitimate – and hence more visible – than others.” (Hanell & Salö 2017: 154, emphasis original) The reason why online environments are an interesting object of study in knowledge production is that “practices and artefacts arising on the internet reconfigure such old-established orders of visibility, as they potentially change people’s access to knowledge, technologically as well as socially.” (ibid.)

One interesting line of inquiry here is the role of online infrastructures themselves in the construction and visibility of conspiracy discourse. YouTube for instance was under fire recently for promoting conspiracy theory videos, when top search results for David Hogg, one of the survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting, proposed that he was a ‘crisis actor’. The algorithmic sorting of information online plays into the reconfiguration of orders of visibility, as “a platform is a mediator rather than an intermediary: it shapes the performance of social acts instead of merely facilitating them.” (van Dijck 2013: 29). On one level this means that media such as YouTube sort and order information for users, with users as active participants in this process; on another level this has to do with the affordances of online platforms (liking, favouriting, upvoting, downvoting) and how they’re employed by users, in the process making certain things (discourses, views, objects) more visible or invisible than others and constituting orders of visibility.

Apart from orders of visibility, the role of the visual in conspiracy theorising online seems to be an important aspect to attend to.

When it comes to conspiracy theorising online, for instance, these are interesting digital processes as they play a role in solidifying certain views as ‘knowledge’ and constructing specific contributors and interlocutors as ‘experts’ through algorithmic and quantified knowledge-producing procedures. Very concretely, the existence of social categories such as ‘most up-voted’ and ‘most popular’ on forums and social media, and how they are presented through the interface, are examples of how information is normatively categorised to readers. Studying conspiracy theorising online can also further inform us about the kinds of ‘groupness’ emerging online through specific discursive practices, and the practices involved in virality (Varis & Blommaert 2015, Nie 2018), which also rely on the mediating affordances of platforms.

Apart from orders of visibility, the role of the visual in conspiracy theorising online seems to be an important aspect to attend to. It is, after all, “one of the most conspicuous characteristics of digital texts (...) that they are almost always multimodal, consisting of rich combinations of semiotic modes like writing, visuals and sound.” (Jones et al. 2015: 7). This means that instead of an exclusive focus on the written, a multimodal approach is necessary. In many cases the role of the visual in knowledge production is extremely important; the ideology of ‘seeing is believing’ attributes authority to the visual as ‘evidence’. Just think of the 9/11 images circulated online and compiled into YouTube videos, and the extensive attention they’ve received in constructing theories about the possible conspiracies behind the event.

In an age when the discussion on fake news and disinformation has reached levels of moral panic, (...) it seems that knowledge production, particularly online, is a worthy object of research.

It is of course specific to digital material that it is easily tinkered with and modified, which adds to the complexity of authenticity in online knowledge production, also in conspiracy theorising. From a semiotic point of view though, what is interesting in the analysis of the visual in online conspiracy theorising is how reliability “is inherently interactional” – “not about how real a representation ‘is’ but about how we construct and perceive its reliability.” (Ravelli & van Leeuwen 2018: 6).

If  conspiracy theorising online is studied as a joint activity, an ‘interactional achievement’, then truth or falsity is about “the joint product of the judgements that communicators make about representations and want their audiences to make, and of the judgements that audience members actually make” (Ravelli & van Leeuwen 2018: 2). This means not only paying attention to the role of the visual itself (i.e. images, video), but importantly also the ways in which judgements of authenticity are attributed and negotiated in online interactions, again jointly contributing to the construction or dismissal of ‘evidence’.  This means, inspired by Goodwin (1994: 606), that we can take the specific ways of ‘seeing’ in conspiracy theorising as “socially organized ways of seeing and understanding events that are answerable to the distinctive interests of a particular social group.”

Online communication, as well as the present stage of globalisation, is often characterised in terms of ‘flows’, implying a kind of effortlessness and limitlessness in how semiotic materials circulate. However, as Briggs (2015: 270) proposes, knowledge “does not simply flow but is dependent on communicative processes structured by inequities of power and resources.”  This means that we should examine actual processes of knowledge construction, the infrastructures mediating them, and the kinds of resources and practices involved. Semiotic materials do not simply ‘flow’ through online environments or any other social space for that matter; they are made sense of, appropriated, modified, and recontextualised, and in the process enter and help constitute hierarchies and power relations. Briggs (2005: 274) thus draws our attention to the ways in which “access to the production and reception of authoritative knowledge (...) is distributed”, and “how this communicative process is ideologically constructed in such a way as to make some people seem like producers of knowledge, others like translators and disseminators, others like receivers, and some simply out of the game.”

Such constructions of course take place both in labelling conspiracy theorists as ‘outsiders’ (paranoids, weirdos, tinfoil-hat people) as well as within conspiracy theorising groups, who will have their own internal norms and judgements of authoritativeness and truthfulness (see Becker’s 1961 classic Outsiders). Briggs (2005) usefully applies the term 'communicability' to make sense of how - and whether - certain texts and discourses circulate, how audiences are constructed and how actual audiences respond to them (see also Briggs 2007). Communicability, he (2005: 279) points out, is important “in grasping why some narratives are deemed to be scientific and others conspiracy theories.” and prompts us to focus on “not just the content of messages but how the ideological construction of their production, circulation, and reception shapes identities and social ‘groups’ and orders them hierarchically.” (ibid.: 275) In understanding conspiracy theorising online, and more broadly processes through which things come to pass as and circulate as knowledge online, this seems essential.

Why study conspiracy theorising online?

In an age when the discussion on fake news and disinformation has reached levels of moral panic, people’s level of ignorance is questioned in trying to make them ‘believe’ in the reality of climate change, and the truth value of the Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief’s tweets are a regular object of debate, it seems that knowledge production, particularly online, is a worthy object of research. Conspiracy theorising seems fruitful ground for this, also considering its prominence and popularity.

It also seems that discourse scholars, linguistic anthropologists and sociolinguists have also something to offer here. The ways in which people engage on and with online platforms and their algorithmic and quantifying affordances, the multimodal forms of meaning-making and ensuing forms of groupness, as well as processes of circulation, recontextualisation and reception are all aspects of communication that seem important in understanding how people make sense of the world, how certain narratives become to count as 'knowledge' and others don't, and what role online (social) media play in this. 

And if nothing else, at least in the process you’ll get to find out what actually happened to Paul McCartney in 1966, which world leaders are actually reptiles, and what the American government is hiding from you.


Watch this interview on Conspiracy theories with Piia Varis on YouTube and don't forget to follow Diggit Magazine's YouTube channel! for more interesting content on digital culture


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