Conspiracy Theory Artifact Analysis and Presentation

Business Finance

Fake News and Misinformation

University of Louisville

Question Description

1) choose a conpiracy theory and 2)analyze by using some of the attached readings and 3) turn in the paper AND the multimedia presentation

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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. Grading Criteria 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 selected examples. • 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. Completeness/Clarity Criteria Possible Both an essay and a video are submitted 10 Score Analysis & Evidence Multimedia shows attention to detail, at least minimal amount of editing 10 Grammar/spelling/readability 20 Essay provides a coherent and thorough analysis of the artifact 25 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 of thought. 25 Multimedia has both audio and visual elements. 10 Multimedia script is engaging and 10 interesting. It is evident some thought has 5 been given to visual components. Multimedia uses no more than 10 10 seconds from any one source Total /150 Article Conspiracy Theory: Truth Claim or Language Game? Theory, Culture & Society 2017, Vol. 34(1) 137–159 ! The Author(s) 2016 Reprints and permissions: sagepub.co.uk/journalsPermissions.nav DOI: 10.1177/0263276416657880 tcs.sagepub.com Ole Bjerg and Thomas Presskorn-Thygesen Copenhagen Business School Abstract 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 politics. Keywords Agamben, contemporary politics, epistemology, state of emergency, terrorism, Wittgenstein Introduction What has become of critique when a book that claims that no plane ever crashed into the Pentagon can be a bestseller? (Latour, 2004: 228) 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: ob.mpp@cbs.dk Extra material: http://theoryculturesociety.org/ 138 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 events. 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 provide. 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 139 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 140 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; Showalter, 2013). 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 141 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, 2007). 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. 142 Theory, Cultur ...
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