Panel 4: Social Media: Contagion and Conspiracy

October 23, 2021 3:00 - 4:30 pm

Moderator: Dr. Candace Iron

Summary: This panel will delve into issues around how social media feeds the contemporary contagion of conspiracy theories. The discussion ranges from how a contemporary conspiracy theory is attempting to demonize (literally) the work and ideas developed by the Frankfurt School to how despite his apparent “progressiveness,” Joe Rogan’s lucrative brand, built largely off of the immense success of his podcast, is shown to be reliant on the kind of anti-intellectualism that helped propel Donald Trump to power in the United States.  

Aidan Moir, PhD

Bio: Aidan Moir received a in PhD in Communication & Culture from York University in 2021. Her dissertation, "Punk, Obamacare, and a Jesuit: Branding the Iconic Ideals of Vivienne Westwood, Barack Obama, and Pope Francis," analyzes how the discourse of brand culture shapes the circulation of global leaders operating within the institutions that govern everyday life, such as fashion, politics, and religion. Her work more broadly encompasses the areas of brand and promotional culture, advocacy campaigns, celebrity, public relations, and popular culture on topics ranging from fashion, poverty, and anti-consumption movements to fracking and the environment.

Abstract: Persona in a Podcast: Anti-Intellectualism and the Branding of Joe Rogan in Media Culture

Joe Rogan has emerged as a powerful brand in a media culture defined by populism and large-scale cynicism. Building upon his previous endeavours as a UFC commentator, reality television host, and various comedy specials, Rogan launched his podcast, The Joe Rogan Experience, in December 2009 and has since developed a lucrative following primarily among male listeners. After previously streaming content on SiriusXM and YouTube, Rogan signed a reported $100 million contract with Spotify in May 2020. Despite endorsing Bernie Sanders and interviewing Andrew Yang during the Democratic primary campaign for the 2020 presidential election, Rogan has also drawn significant public criticism for featuring a wide variety of controversial guests ranging from the far-right spectrum to conspiracy theorists not typically given such a mainstream platform, including Alex Jones. With Slate characterizing him as “the Larry King of the Intellectual Dark Web,” the wide variety of guests and topics featured on The Joe Rogan Experience has enabled Rogan to position his public persona as a retreat for those listeners seeking an alternative voice free from the polarized culture wars dominating American public discourse (Peters 2019).

Through a close textual analysis of select episodes from The Joe Rogan Experience alongside social media and press criticism on Rogan and his podcast, this paper analyzes how Rogan’s persona strategically negotiates discourses of anti-intellectualism. Specific attention is directed towards how the reception of Rogan by both the press and social media users demonstrates not just the circulatory power of anti-intellectualist and conspiracy theories, but also Rogan’s ability to utilize these sentiments to further promote his brand identity. The success of Rogan’s carefully constructed persona forming the basis of his brand identity is a testament to the continued cultural influence of the Trump administration in shaping the dynamics of popular culture and public discourse.

Sanober Umar, PhD

Bio: Umar's current work explores the relationship (and critical distinctions) between caste and racial hierarchies, and how these entanglements-along with gender and class dynamics-inform the figure of the Muslim in Indian and (neoliberal) world politics. Dr Umar is also interested in exploring the histories, politics, and theories behind the idea of the diasporic/exiled "public intellectual" - particularly in the age of rising social media disinformation, far-right global populism, and the changing political landscape of 'multicultural Canada.'

Abstract: Postcolonial Innocence, Social Media Disinformation, and the Muslim as a Social Disease

Right-wing Indians have historically and contemporaneously pathologized Muslim difference from upper caste Hindus, with conspiracy theories such as "Coronajihad" during the ongoing pandemic in India getting circulated on online platforms as “knowledge.” This paper argues that biologically essentialized differences between Muslims and Hindus in Hindu Nationalist India are not merely a reproduction of colonial legacies and structures as such perspectives risk reifying the narrative of “postcolonial innocence” in limiting ways – and in the process downplay how ethnonationalist States justify their agenda and seek to classify precarious minorities through the language of “science”.

With alarmist implications, this paper points out that online discourses of Muslims as germs/diseases are generating a new form of eugenics that renders Muslims as disposable non-human species in India. Yet regulations on social media disinformation and hate speech have largely focused on accountability towards minorities in Western democracies, whereas several reports have emerged about social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter actively colluding with or protecting Hindu Nationalists despite their advocacy for violence against India’s Muslim minorities.

Furthermore, justice-oriented calls for accountability from social media platforms are also getting manipulatively utilized by the Indian State to quell the voices of dissent from human rights activists and intellectuals (such as Pankaj Mishra). In the process, not only do Muslim subjects get rendered as expendable bodies in India, but Western calls against “disinformation” and “hate speech” on social media handles often fail to recognize the global capitalist enterprise of social media platforms and the consumer markets they comfortably protect in collusion with ethnonationalist State governments of the Global South. Given this context, this paper also brings to the fore how social media platforms have been complicit in putting Indian scholars at risk when that call out questionable stances on “science” as well as distortion of Indian histories that target Muslims and other minorities.

Andrew Woods, MA

Bio: A PhD candidate at the Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism at the University of Western Ontario, a Doctoral Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, and a co-host of the Radical Thoughts Podcast. He has written several articles about conspiracy theories and right-wing politics for openDemocracy, RanttMedia, Commune Magazine, Public Seminar, and Fair Observer. His scholarly writings have been included in the 2019 essay collection Critical Theory and the Humanities in the Age of the Alt-Right (edited by Christine M. Battista and Melissa R. Sande), the forthcoming book Conspiracy Theory: Representations of the Political in the Age of Populism (edited by Andrew F. Wilson), and the forthcoming encyclopedia Anti-Intellectualism and Elitism in America: An Encyclopedia of Conflict (edited by Tim Lacy).

Abstract: The Copy-and-Paste Conspiracy Theory: On "The 11 Aims of the Frankfurt School"

In December 2008, the British writer Timothy Matthews wrote an article for the American Catholic weekly The Wanderer called “The Frankfurt School: Conspiracy to Corrupt.” In the article, Matthews alleges that the Frankfurt School—an influential group of twentieth century German post-Marxist thinkers—conspired to undermine the Judeo-Christian legacy of Western Civilization. As Matthews understands it, the Frankfurt School’s “Satanic” cultural revolution consisted of eleven aims, such as “huge immigration to destroy identity” and “the promotion of excessive drinking.” Although this list is a total fabrication, it was shared extensively in the comment sections of right-wing media platforms, on the pages of neo-Nazi chatrooms, and in posts on alt-right forums. In this paper, Woods traces the inception, circulation, and dissemination of “the 11 Aims of the Frankfurt School” and argue that it exemplifies what Woods sees as an emergent (albeit increasingly prevalent) form of online conspiracy theorizing: the Copy-and-Paste conspiracy theory.

Drawing on the research of Michael Butter and Moira Weigel, Woods demonstrates that the Internet has drastically altered the form and transmission of conspiracy theories over the past two decades. He then defines a “Copy-and-Paste conspiracy theory” as a short text or brief video clip that can be shared effortlessly online—usually in small Internet subcultures or counterpublics—to inform other users about a certain conspiracy narrative. Woods contends that the “11 Aims” functioned as an easily-shareable pseudo-historical document that introduced more people to the claims of what has become known as the antisemitic and anti-intellectual Cultural Marxism conspiracy theory. Finally, Woods builds on the historian Tim Lacy’s notion of the “anti-intellectual sensibility” to theorize that these kinds of fabrications are symptomatic of a certain type of “digital anti-intellectualism” that thrives in a knowledge economy where academic research and scholarly expertise is locked beyond paywalls.