Using Conspiracy Theories as Opportunities for Rhetorical Analysis

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I’m wondering how many others read the article by Mike McIntire and Kevin Roose in the New York Times called “What Happens When QAnon Seeps from the Web to the Offline World.” I have heard of this conspiracy theory before, but I didn’t know much about it or its supporters until I read this piece. Then I started digging in a bit to find out more.


In an interview with Matthew Rozsa of Salon, Travis View, who has studied and written about QAnon, describes the conspiracy theory this way:

QAnon is based upon the idea that there is a worldwide cabal of Satan-worshiping pedophiles who rule the world, essentially, and they control everything. They control politicians, and they control the media. They control Hollywood, and they cover up their existence, essentially. And they would have continued ruling the world, were it not for the election of President Donald Trump.

Say what? I was taken aback by the “satan-worshipping pedophile” description. Really?? Apparently, yes, as McIntire and Roose demonstrate: the claims the group makes are so wildly preposterous as to be jaw-dropping.


Alyssa Rosenberg suggests in her op-ed piece in the Washington Post that QAnon might be thought of not so much as a conspiracy theory, “but as an unusually absorbing alternate-reality game with extremely low barriers to entry.” She goes on to show just how addictive “playing” this particular alternate-reality online game is.


All these researchers note how large QAnon is, how much it has crept into a number of institutions and sites, and how many active and enthusiastic participants it has. So I’m wondering how much our students know about this group—and more to the point, what they think about it. The language used by QAnon-ers seems to me to present very rich opportunities for rhetorical analysis. This practice could track the strategies, methods, and tropes used by people who believe in this conspiracy theory, and other conspiracy theories, and it could unpack its “logic” to reveal what Kenneth Burke dubs its “terministic screen.”


Has anyone out there worked with such analyses or built other kinds of assignments aimed at countering the work of QAnon and other conspiracy theories? Is it worth the effort to do so? And why or why not? I am still learning more about QAnon, and growing more and more concerned at the literacy practices it deploys. Thanks for thinking about this issue.


Image Credit: Pixabay Image 785742 by Pixies, used under the Pixabay License

About the Author
Andrea A. Lunsford is the former director of the Program in Writing and Rhetoric at Stanford University and teaches at the Bread Loaf School of English. A past chair of CCCC, she has won the major publication awards in both the CCCC and MLA. For Bedford/St. Martin's, she is the author of The St. Martin's Handbook, The Everyday Writer and EasyWriter; The Presence of Others and Everything's an Argument with John Ruszkiewicz; and Everything's an Argument with Readings with John Ruszkiewicz and Keith Walters. She has never met a student she didn’t like—and she is excited about the possibilities for writers in the “literacy revolution” brought about by today’s technology. In addition to Andrea’s regular blog posts inspired by her teaching, reading, and traveling, her “Multimodal Mondays” posts offer ideas for introducing low-stakes multimodal assignments to the composition classroom.