What Ethos Can Tell Us About Conspiracy Theories

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On April 4, 2020, I read an article from the BBC which reported that 5G towers in the UK were being destroyed, lit on fire by people who believed that the rise of 5G infrastructure was causing COVID-19 symptoms not a virus. This vandalism is a tangible outcome of some people’s overzealous belief in the conspiracy theories that tend to crop up in times of great uncertainty. This explains why on May 04, 2020, I was not surprised to find “Plandemic,” a polished, documentary-style COVID-19 conspiracy theory video had made the rounds on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook garnering millions of views despite being quickly debunked by Science magazine. These examples make me wonder: what does it take to convince people to incorporate conspiracy theories into their thinking? It is not as simple as gullible people on the fringe being exploited by internet pests. While dismissing such events certainly prevents undue amplification and attention, it also somewhat misses an important point: in times of great uncertainty and unrest we often turn to what are presented as simple explanations.

Figure 1. Image of a cellphone tower next to a wiry tree against blue sky and sparse white clouds.
Fig. 1. Image of a typical cellphone tower next to a wiry tree against a blue sky and sparse white clouds; “IMG_0711” by csullens is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

We often incorporate ideas from people and outlets we trust into our thinking, those that have ethos with us. Kathleen Hall Jamieson refers to this in Cyberwar as “two-step flow” influence (49), where we get information not directly from an official source but rather from a person we trust to have vetted the information for us (ex: I trust Pat and know them to be knowledgeable about certain topics. If Pat is sharing a story on Facebook, I feel pretty confident Pat would do their due diligence in vetting the source, so I don’t need to investigate the source myself). In this case, ethos is a powerful credibility assessment tool that we use to process information when forming our understandings of complex situations like a global pandemic. Considering the variety of sources we obtain this information from, ethos might also be better understood as an ecology. As Ryan, Myers, and Jones describe of their feminist ecological ethe in Rethinking Ethos, ethos is situated “…in our relations in the world rather than in the individual” and it is therefore “a dynamic of multiple ethe among rhetors, audiences, and locations” (11). Put differently, any given ethe (ethos plural) is located in the nature of the multidirectional relations between things, not within the things themselves. Trust, credibility, and expertise all concern ethos. When we consider how much we actually rely on other people to make sense of anything, we can not only see ethos’s close relationship with the way we make sense of reality but also the potential ways this dynamic can be exploited.

Social media platforms bypass our more traditional measures for curtailing misinformation (such as fact-checking) largely because they nudge us toward rapidly ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ content over slower and more thoughtful engagement. Provided the deluge of information facing us each day, we increasingly rely on algorithmic infrastructures (like those offered by social media platforms) to guide our attention. We give our attention to what we trust is worthy of our attention. This includes the important information that we need to know (such as what safety measures to follow during a global crises); however, if our social media activity is any indication, what captures our attention has increasingly become what “interests” us. Social media is really good at rewarding this behavior…but at a cost. Content does not trend on social media because it is relevant but because it fits whatever criteria its algorithms are programmed to follow. As Eusong Kim explains in “The Politics of Trending,” trending does not indicate important or credible information, “trending is what they [the developers]believe is popular” (Kim 2015). What is “popular” is usually whatever seizes user attention at a large enough scale to sell to advertisers, which Safiya Noble explains in Algorithms of Oppression are the moments when “the web reflects a set of commercial and advertising practice that bias particular ideas” over the needs of individual users to be informed (89). When something trends or goes viral it obtains a certain algorithmic ethos, and while not the same as more traditional ethos indicators like credibility and expertise, it often seizes our attention all the same.

Figure 2. Screenshot of a Facebook post sharing a link to the "Plandemic" conspiracy theory video and also complaining about having a previous post taken down.
Fig. 2. Screenshot of a Facebook post sharing a link to the “Plandemic” conspiracy theory video and also complaining about having a previous post taken down; “Plandemic Disinformation Teachable Moment (2)” by Wesley Fryer is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

The way information (and notably misinformation) spreads on social media speaks to how these platforms have changed the nature of our relationships with the institutions in our ethe ecologies. The way we interact with social media reinforces an environment where it is very easy to feign credibility. McComiskey describes this in Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition, as how Post-truth ethos is “the performance of credibility, whether that credibility is real or fake” (22) which not only weakens our trust in our knowledge-producing institutions but subsequently leaves us open to “spin doctors and talking heads to tell us what to believe” (24). In addition to algorithmic processes, something like “Plandemic” goes viral partly because it resembles a legitimate, well-researched documentary (see fig. 2). Even though it argues people should do the exact opposite of expert consensus, it still hits the ethos indicators we traditionally look for when assessing credibility: “Plandemic” is professionally-produced and presents a “renowned expert” (a defamed medical researcher and antivaxxer Judy Mikovitz who does indeed hold a PhD in biochemistry from George Washington University). And while I find “Plandemic” to be blatant misinformation meant to help sell a hack’s book, I am not ignoring it either.

Figure 3. Photograph of comic-style street art that depicts a close-up woman on her cellphone with a speech bubble that reads "#OMG I think I am being unfollowed!"
Fig. 3. Photograph of comic-style street art that depicts a close-up woman on her cellphone with a speech bubble that reads “#OMG I think I am being unfollowed!”; “D13Ego stencil, Leake Street” by duncan is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

As with any piece of information, when I engage with these conspiracy theories they become a part of my thinking as debunked counter examples. In a sense, they have become part of my ethe ecologies: I have assessed them as “untrustworthy” and they have become part of the reason why I trust the prevailing medical consensus they seek to discredit. To this end, I think we have to start assessing not just the content circulating in our social media feeds but the sources/networks they come from. We need to perform a sort of social network hygiene check, a thoughtful scrubbing of the information sources no longer worthy of our attention. This could mean not following Woody Harrelson on Twitter anymore, flagging misinformation in your newsfeed, or unfriending anyone who shares anything from the Gaia Network. Either that or my personal shortcut for the time being: believing those experts in the medical community working on COVID-19 that Trump actively works to discredit.


Works Cited:

Jamieson, Kathleen Hall. Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know. Oxford University Press, 2018.

Kim, Eusong. “The Politics of Trending.” Modern View Culture, issue 18, 2015, https://modelviewculture.com/pieces/the-politics-of-trending.

McComiskey, Bruce. Post-Truth Rhetoric and Composition. Utah State University Press, 2017.

Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. 1 edition, NYU Press, 2018.

Ryan, Kathleen J., et al., editors. Rethinking Ethos: A Feminist Ecological Approach to Rhetoric. Southern Illinois University Press, 2016.

About Author(s)

Noah Wilson is a PhD candidate in Syracuse University's Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program.

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