Conspiracies and you

Yes, you. 

You will be asked to identify and research a conspiracy theory (the Snopes.com archives section provides many options, and they even have a special ‘collection‘ of coronavirus conspiracisms). You’ll need to investigate and understand:

  1. The ‘theory’ – a brief description
  2. The origins
  3. What principles of persuasion were used to make the theory compelling, ‘truthy’
  4. How the theory spreads—among what groups, what social or other kinds of mass media, what individuals (e.g., influential talk show hosts, presidents), how it may have changed as it spread, etc.
  5. Describe the process you used to attempt to disprove or debunk the theory.
  6. How the untruthful elements of the theory could be addressed (in other words, how to keep bogus information from spreading). This is not simple, it could involve public education and awareness, it could involve more watchdog functions among social media sites, etc.
  7. So basically, what is it, how did it originate, how did it spread (and how did propaganda aid its spread), what kinds of media or individuals aided in that process, how (un)truthful it is, and how to reach fervent believers that it’s not real theory—which is governed by testing of ideas, logical coherence, and verifiable supporting evidence from credible sources—it’s conspiracy.

The points

Criterion Description For ‘A’ work pts
The conspiracy theory
Description, origins, logic
Well-sourced, with detail
10
Why is the theory persuasive?
Apply persuasion principles from class, why do people believe the theory?
Tie the principles directly to conspiracy’s argument
10
De-bunking process
Examine the theory’s logic and evidence
Identify gaps, fallacies
10
Responding to theory’s adherents
How to get people who believe the theory to question their beliefs?
Is there a treatment for the ‘rationalization trap’?
10
Writing, source material
At least five credible sources (full citations), well-written, proofread, organized
Credibility in debunking, and in explaining theory
10
  Totals   50

Context

There’s a lot of talk about conspiracy theories in the last few years (and of course, that’s exactly what they want you to think!). Conspiracy theories are sort of like fake news, except they tend to spread more pervasively, and often involve an overarching narrative about the unsavory forces we’ve always suspected operate in the shadows. And their converts may be deeply committed to them. Personalities like Alex Jones, once on the fringe, attracted a large following before claiming any harm caused by his untethered conspiracies was because he suffered from ‘psychosis‘. President Trump has exploited conspiracy theories (the most infamous being the so-called ‘birther movement’, which helped Trump’s appeal among the political right wing), including a rash of them about the FBI. And his nomination for Director of National Intelligence follows a spate of conspiracy sites (note: that doesn’t make them legitimate). Belief in a flat earth has waxed in recent years. Some conspiracies have sustained their persuasiveness over decades, such as JFK’s assassination, 9/11 attacks as an inside job, various incarnations of the so-called ‘Deep State,’ etc. There’s the current deep stateVaccines causing autismPizzagate. And really, who doesn’t want to believe that The Man is at the root of most of our social problems (when we all know it’s Alex Jones)?? Or that an online retail housewares site is trafficking children  (duh, when we know that’s a pizzeria in DC).

Purpose

To learn how conspiracy theories are created, how they spread, how they influence, persuade, and how they insert themselves into political debates and dialogue.

So here’s what you’ll need to do:

  1. Choose one conspiracy theory to research (one that is recent or current, but you can make the case to me for something more historical—only if you let me know in advance)
  2. Knowledge base. Describe what is known about it. In other words, summarize the narrative and discuss how the theory is spread (talk radio/TV, social media, political events, etc.). Be specific.
  3. Address the logic and supporting evidence of the theory. In doing so, you should be looking for use of propaganda and persuasion principles, techniques that ‘involve’ people (get them committed to it). What makes the theory compelling enough to spread? Illustrate their use, in so doing demonstrating your understanding of how conspiracy theories seek to persuade and gain believers. An incomplete list of persuasion principles you might consider and have read about is available in lecture material on the site, and will prove invaluable. Use credible sources).
  4. Discuss ways to combat the theory’s unsupportable elements:
    1. Evaluating source credibility
    2. Does the story seek out multiple sources and perspectives? What’s left out?
    3. Does the story make sense—how do conspiracists make it seem believable? What efforts are made to confirm and verify claims and evidence?
    4. Are propaganda techniques important to the story’s credibility or attraction?
    5. Are there images used, any way to verify their truthfulness?
  5. Conclusion—a concluding paragraph laying out what you learned from this process. I would hope this would include your conclusion about the truthfulness of the theory, as well as the potential consequences of its spread and belief.

The paper

Should be: 5-6 pages in length, double-spaced; include the elements above; and be submitted by midnight in Canvas, May 13. I will evaluate students’ work based on adherence to the assignment guidelines, your use of quality, credible source material, and your ability to demonstrate a knowledge of the theory and principles of persuasion–in other words, can you apply principles and concepts from class to a conspiracy theory and show what you learned? Use APA citation style, just be consistent and include citations in the text in some form like this: (Grigsby 2020).

Required reading:

  • Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum. 2019. A Lot of People are Saying. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Chapter 1, ‘Conspiracy without the Theory.’ In Canvas.

Optional reading:

(The following sources are provided to get you thinking about conspiracism and how it develops and persuades)

For fun (sort of–to fully appreciate, but if you watch, watch in this sequence):

  1. Glenn Beck’s Tree of Revolution (part 1)
  2. Jon Stewart on Glenn Beck’s appendix

A-level work: Clearly demonstrated through your answers to the questions that you did the readings, followed the guidelines of the assignment, provided supporting evidence, did outside research, cited sources, and put some thought and intellectual effort into this. And be careful, occasionally a student will be taken in by a conspiracy theory, roundly debunked in available media. Which at the least justifies some class exposure to this novel genre of persuasion.

50 points possible, due July 28th