Unformatted Attachment Preview
Comm 301-50: Fake News & Misinformation
Conspiracy Theory Artifact Analysis and Presentation (150 Points)
This assignment is designed to help you apply what you’ve learned about conspiracy theory to an actual
artifact of conspiracy theory. Your first step will be to identify an artifact that espouses or embraces a
particular conspiracy theory. This could be a video, website, book, podcast, or some other “text.” Next,
you will analyze the artifact, using questions such as:
What is the central narrative or story of the artifact? What is the argument? Who appear to be
the key players and victims in the conspiracy? Is a specific motive for the conspiracy identified?
Does the artifact explain how or why the conspiracy has been kept secret?
What evidence is presented in favor of the conspiracy? Is the evidence credible? Where does it
come from? Are experts identified and cited? Can you identify their credentials? Does the
artifact cite specific documents, data, or other material to support its claims? Are their gaps in
the evidence or missing pieces? Are any counterarguments presented?
How would you describe the rhetorical style of the artifact? What techniques are used to build
credibility and persuade the audience? To whom might the artifact appeal and why? Does the
artifact adopt the rhetoric of scientific inquiry? Does it adopt a “paranoid” or apocalyptic style?
Does it adopt a polarized perspective between good and evil?
What is the underlying theory of power or politics presented in the artifact? Are there aspects
of this theory that are logical or accurate? How might we situate this conspiracy theory within
past or present political and social conflicts/tensions? What role does human agency play in
the conspiracy? Is a specific course of action recommended?
Does the artifact draw on other conspiracy theories (true, false, or unknown)? Can you identify
any related conspiracy theories, whether the artifact mentions them or not? How does the
artifact fit in with other conspiracy theories you’re familiar with?
What evidence is available to refute or disprove the conspiracy theory? What aspects of the
conspiracy theory are illogical or unsupported?
Overall, how does the artifact demonstrate the hallmarks or key characteristics of conspiracy
theory, based on our readings and class discussion? What specific examples from our readings
can you point to that would help us understand or contextualize the artifact?
The outcome of your analysis will be two products:
1. An essay of 3-4 pages (double-spaced) that offers a thorough analysis of the conspiracy theory
artifact, based on the questions above. While you do not need to answer every question, you
must incorporate specific examples from the artifact and from our class readings to support
your argument. If you use outside sources, you should also include a bibliography. If you only
cite authors we have read, the author’s name will be sufficient.
2. A multimedia presentation of 1-2 minutes that refutes the conspiracy theory and/or identifies
flaws in its reasoning or evidence. The presentation should make a coherent argument, and it
must include both audio and visual elements. You can draw on preexisting material (images,
videos, etc.) to build your argument, but you may not use substantial portions of preexisting
material to fill time. A good rule of thumb is that no one preexisting source should take up more
than 10 seconds of time. While both the audio and visual portions of the presentation will be
important, the coherence of your argument and evidence will be the largest part of your grade.
This presentation can be made as a video, a self-advancing powerpoint, or other similar type of
software that you feel comfortable with.
Please have your artifact selected and approved by me at least 1 week before the assignment is due.
If you have questions about your artifact, please email me.
This assignment will be graded according to these criteria:
Completeness and Clarity: The essay and video attend carefully to all aspects of the assignment.
The essay is well-organized and free of grammatical and mechanical errors that interfere with a
reader’s ability to understand the analysis. The video is easy to follow, featuring reasonably
smooth transitions and editing.
Analysis and Evidence: The essay presents a coherent and thorough analysis of the conspiracy
theory artifact, using appropriate and specific examples. The essay incorporates relevant ideas
and concepts from class readings in a logical manner, demonstrating a clear understanding of
those ideas and concepts. The video presents a coherent and concise argument, using carefully
Aesthetics and Style: The video demonstrates attention to craft in its incorporation of audio and
visual elements. The video is visually compelling and scripted in a thoughtful and engaging style.
Both an essay and a video are
Analysis & Evidence
Multimedia shows attention to
detail, at least minimal amount
Essay provides a coherent and
thorough analysis of the artifact
Essay incorporates relevant ideas 25
and concepts from at least 2 class
readings and demonstrates an
understanding of those concepts.
Aesthetics and Style
Multimedia follows logical train
Multimedia has both audio and
Multimedia script is engaging and 10
It is evident some thought has
been given to visual components.
Multimedia uses no more than 10 10
seconds from any one source
Truth Claim or
Theory, Culture & Society
2017, Vol. 34(1) 137–159
! The Author(s) 2016
Reprints and permissions:
Ole Bjerg and Thomas Presskorn-Thygesen
Copenhagen Business School
The paper is a contribution to current debates about conspiracy theories within
philosophy and cultural studies. Wittgenstein’s understanding of language is invoked
to analyse the epistemological effects of designating particular questions and explanations as a ‘conspiracy theory’. It is demonstrated how such a designation relegates
these questions and explanations beyond the realm of meaningful discourse. In addition, Agamben’s concept of sovereignty is applied to explore the political effects of
using the concept of conspiracy theory. The exceptional epistemological status
assigned to alleged conspiracy theories within our prevalent paradigms of knowledge
and truth is compared to the exceptional legal status assigned to individuals
accused of terrorism under the War on Terror. The paper concludes by discussing
the relation between conspiracy theory and ‘the paranoid style’ in contemporary
Agamben, contemporary politics, epistemology, state of emergency, terrorism,
What has become of critique when a book that claims that no
plane ever crashed into the Pentagon can be a bestseller? (Latour,
The relation between the oﬃcial versions and divergent versions of a
certain number of aﬀairs constitutes a central question for liberal
democracies. (Boltanski, 2014: 211)
Within a few hours after the January 2015 attack on the editorial oﬃce of
the French satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, alternative media sites
Corresponding author: Ole Bjerg. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Extra material: http://theoryculturesociety.org/
Theory, Culture & Society 34(1)
were posting articles, videos and analyses contradicting the mainstream
account of the shootings as an act of terrorism. In turn, these media sites
suggested that the events in Paris were a case of ‘false ﬂag attacks’
orchestrated in clandestine by American, French and/or Israeli intelligence services. Similar patterns of reporting could be observed during
subsequent attacks in Copenhagen in February 2015, Paris in November
2015, and Brussels in March 2016. Parallel to the coverage in the established media, alternative commentators, bloggers and YouTubers would
be putting forward observations and speculations to support wholly different interpretations implicating governments and state agencies in the
The phenomenon of such alternative reporting on contemporary political events seems to signify a signiﬁcant trait of our current Zeitgeist,
namely, the pervasiveness of conspiracy theories. The immediate fascination power of conspiracy theories is that they invoke the same kind of
‘whodunnit’ questions that are found in crime ﬁction and spy novels and
incite us to imagine an alternative reality, which is more spectacular,
more intriguing, but also more horrifying than the one that we are familiar with. As suggested, however, by the above quotes from Latour and
Boltanski, conspiracy theories also call for reﬂections of a more philosophical and political nature. Regardless of the credibility of particular
conspiracy theories, they are a signiﬁcant political and cultural phenomenon and they deserve intellectual scrutiny concerning their origins,
rationality and practical eﬀects. This is what the current article aims to
Such scrutiny should include not only conspiracy theories themselves
but also the operations by which the distinction between conspiracy
theories and non-conspiracy theories are drawn in mainstream politics,
media and academic debates. ‘Conspiracy theory’ is no trivial word. As
we are going to see, any use of the concept of conspiracy theory always
already implies a demarcation between legitimate, rational knowledge
and illegitimate, irrational non-sense. Furthermore, the concept not
only refers to a given type of proposition but it also invariably calls
into question the sanity and credibility of the person making or asserting
the proposition, the conspiracy theorist.
In this article, we explore the intricate relation between epistemology
and politics in the deﬁnition and use of the concept of conspiracy theory.
Using Wittgenstein’s early and late theories of language, we ﬁrst demonstrate how the concept oscillates between a seemingly neutral categorization of particular types of theories and a powerful tool to exclude,
discard and suppress these very same types of theories. Secondly, we
apply Agamben’s theory of sovereignty in order to locate conspiracy
theorizing within a contemporary paradigm of politics signiﬁed by the
institution of the state of exception. Exploring conspiracy theories
Bjerg and Presskorn-Thygesen
through these lenses also allows for a critical view of the way in which
oﬃcial authorities currently deal with conspiracy theories and popular
suspicion. Paradoxically and counterproductively, governments seemingly begin to act like conspiratorial entities in order to pre-empt supposed conspiracy theories. A more elaborate outline of the argument is
provided at the end of the following review of existing research literature
on conspiracy theory.
Existing Research Literature on Conspiracy Theory
Conspiracy theories ﬂourish in gossip, at special conventions, and on
blogs, web forums and other outlets on the internet. Beyond the descriptive approaches that try to take stock of the heterogeneous body of
outlets and theories (for overviews see, e.g., Knight, 2003; Greig, 2006;
Hegstad, 2014), the existing academic research literature may be roughly
divided into three major categories, each characterized by a speciﬁc
approach to conspiracy theories.
The ﬁrst category of academic research is constituted by studies that
analyse conspiracy theories as expressions of some kind of psychological,
social, or even political pathology. The classic reference for this approach
is provided by Hofstadter’s seminal article on ‘The Paranoid Style in
American Politics’ (1964). The paranoid style of thinking ‘evokes the
qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy’ (1964: 3). While distancing himself from the clinical use of the
concept of pathology, Hofstadter views conspiracy theories as the symptom of a pervasive pathological trend in the political life of his time.
Recent studies continuing along Hofstadter’s line of thinking include
the works of Robins and Post (1997), Pipes (1998), or Lewandowsky
et al. (2013). Given their interest in pathology, these studies are less
concerned with conspiracy theories as such and more concerned with
the people who believe and construct these theories, the conspiracy theorists. As recently argued by Dentith (2014), the focus on pathology
implies an often problematic and reductive approach to the very belief
in conspiracy theories (also see the critique by Gray, 2010: 21–4 and
Pigden, 1995). Although the studies of conspiracy theories as symptoms
of pathology are not explicitly concerned with the truth value of the
factual claims proposed in conspiracy theories, their view that conspiracy
thinking is emotionally motivated tends to implicitly rule out even the
mere possibility that some people may believe in conspiracy theories
based on an evaluation of evidence.
The second category of academic research is constituted by studies
that approach conspiracy theories as expressions of contemporary culture on par with art or literature. In contrast to the approach inspired
by Hofstadter, this category of research literature tends to have a more
Theory, Culture & Society 34(1)
hermeneutic and less dismissive approach to conspiracy theories: some
conspiracy theories may be factually wrong, while others contain some
or many elements of truth, but in any case they should be viewed as
meaningful responses to the experience of certain political, social and
cultural conditions rather than simply dismissed as pathological. In this
category of literature we ﬁnd the works of Dean (1998), Melley (1999),
Knight (2001), Fenster (2008), Uscinski et al. (2011) and Boltanski
(2014), as well as the studies compiled by West and Sanders (2003).
Authors engaged in these kinds of political or cultural studies diﬀer
in terms of whether conspiracy theorizing should be seen as a potent
form of political resistance (Fiske, 1993), a way of disclosing ‘state
crimes against democracy’ (deHaven Smith, 2013) or instead a disempowering diversion from true critique (Jameson, 1988; Latour, 2004;
Within the third category of academic research, we ﬁnd philosophical
studies that analyse the epistemology of conspiracy theories. There seem
to be two interrelated questions within this category of research literature. The ﬁrst concerns the proper deﬁnition of a conspiracy theory. The
second concerns the rationality of conspiracy theories. While there is
little disagreement on the ﬁrst question, authors participating in the discussion can be ordered on a spectrum with regard to their position on the
second question. At one end of the spectrum we ﬁnd authors such as
Sunstein and Vermeule that tend to dismiss conspiracy theories as not
only irrational and false but even dangerous and so not worthy of the
attention of rational intellectuals (Sunstein and Vermeule, 2009;
Sunstein, 2014). At the other end of the spectrum, we ﬁnd authors
such as Coady (2003, 2007), Pigden (1995, 2006, 2007) and Anton
et al. (2014) who argue that even if many conspiracy theories are
indeed irrational and outrageous, we should never discard a theory without proper examination, purely on the basis that it has been labelled as a
‘conspiracy theory’. Using Pigden’s (1995: 3) concise phrase, ‘the belief
that it is superstitious to posit conspiracies is itself a superstition’.
In the context of the current journal, the issue of conspiracy theories
has most signiﬁcantly come up in the special issue on ‘Secrecy and
Transparency’ (Birchall, 2011a). Birchall (2011b) and Horn (2011) both
identify and criticize the contemporary tendency to categorically equate
secrecy with illegitimacy and criminality while praising transparency as
an ultimate good. The present article works further in the direction of
these approaches (Birchall, 2011b; Horn, 2011). In line with their shared
call for a more balanced and pragmatic approach to secrecy and transparency, we need an equally pragmatic approach to conspiracy theories.
The argument of the current paper may be outlined through specifying
its contribution and position in relation to the three strands of existing
research literature. The paper begins with a clariﬁcation and analysis of
the epistemology of conspiracy theories. In this analysis, we side with
Bjerg and Presskorn-Thygesen
philosophers from the third category of academic research such as
Pigden (1995, 2007) and Coady (2003, 2007), arguing that conspiracy
theorizing cannot and should not be dismissed as outright irrationality.
The examination of the epistemology of conspiracy theories is structured
by concepts from the early as well as the late Wittgenstein’s writings on
the nature and practical use of language (1922, 1953). The well-known
antagonism between the early and late Wittgenstein yields a tension
within his authorship as a whole (for discussion of continuities and discontinuities see e.g. Diamond, 1991; Crary and Read, 2000; Hacker,
2000; Medina, 2002). Yet, it is exactly this tension that makes
Wittgenstein’s philosophy uniquely applicable in displaying a complex
duality pertaining to the epistemology of conspiracy theories. The early
Wittgenstein (1922) presents a vision of language as exclusively concerned with the assertion and denial of empirical fact. In Russell’s
(1922) apt phrase, language is in ‘the business of asserting and denying
facts’. This strict epistemological conception of language is capable of
clearly articulating the demand that conspiracy theories should be tested
against the facts (Pigden, 1995; Coady, 2007). The later Wittgenstein, by
contrast, turned his attention away from the representational content of
language to its actual usage (Wittgenstein, 1953: §43). The later
Wittgenstein thus pinpoints that concepts are not mere representational
devices but rather tools serving various and highly diverse practical,
pragmatic and rhetorical functions. Within the context of the present
article, this tension between the early and the late Wittgenstein allows
us to identify a paradoxical duality in the concept of conspiracy theories:
On the one hand, a conspiracy theory seem like a theory to be empirically tested like any other hypothesis, but on the other hand, the actual
usages of the concept of a ‘conspiracy theory’ often carry the implication
that even its possible truth is excluded. In its actual employment, the
concept is implicated with a rhetoric of exclusion (Husting and Orr,
This epistemological clariﬁcation is then mobilized in a political analysis along the lines of the studies in the second category of literature. But
rather than focusing on conspiracy theories as such, we direct our attention toward the political reactions to the espousal of such theories and
towards the rhetorical function of labelling of certain claims as conspiracy theories. Our intuition is that it is the nature of these reactions rather
than the proliferation of conspiracy thinking as such that constitutes the
‘paranoid style’ in contemporary politics.
This intuition brings us into contact with the ﬁeld of inquiry opened by
the ﬁrst category of literature that focuses on pathology. But rather than
exploring the possible paranoia and irrationality of conspiracy theorists,
we analyse how contemporary designations of certain questions and
explanations are at odds with the ordinary constitution of a democratic
public sphere as committed to public debate and open rational inquiry.
Theory, Cultur ...