In this DMI winter school project, we sought to learn more about the contents and rhetorical features of online conspiratorial discourse by analyzing the texts accompanying over 600.000 conspiratorial Instagram posts, spanning a period between 2011 and 2020. We were particularly interested in mapping which persons and organizations were most frequently mentioned in these texts, and in gaining a sense of how conspiratorial rhetoric on Instagram forms around a set of so-called ‘epistemic keywords’ - traces of epistemic activity in online spaces related to knowing, discovering, sense-making, theorizing, evidencing, doubting or persuading (Shane, 2021). To this end, we used the NLP technique of Named Entity Recognition to extract references to persons and organizations from the texts, and we explored the usage of the epistemic keywords by visualizing their contexts as word trees. Our analysis of the named entities suggests that the conspiracy posts most frequently antagonize political and industrial leaders, converging on figures including ‘Bill Gates’ and ‘George Soros’. Furthermore, the prominence of religious references stood out, suggesting a particularly close connection between religious and conspiratorial discourse. Our exploration of epistemic keywords provided a large sample of traces indicative of further intertwined discursive and rhetorical strategies, including references to embodied knowledge (‘trust your gut/intuition/instincts/body’), religion, Bible verses, and QAnon phrases (e.g. 'Trust the plan’). These preliminary findings suggest that the study of online conspiracy theories can gain a lot from looking closely at Instagram texts, and that these analyses can complement earlier work on hashtags and images (Votta, 2020). Furthermore, a diachronic analysis of named entity co-occurrences and additional epistemic markers, keywords and phrases holds the promise of providing insights into the dynamics through which disparate conspiracy theories converge into more coherent narratives.
|Status||Published - 30 jan 2021|