Blather, Rinse, Repeat: An Ethnography of Conspiracy Theory

November 9th, 2009 - 

conference

I did a talk this weekend just gone at the Dublin Paranormal Conference, where I talked through my virtual ethnography, using prezi.com. Press play.

http://www.youtube.com/view_play_list?p=361306D76B332F53

And this is the link to the presentation for you to explore.

I’ll try to summarise two or three specific things which relate back to the themes and readings we’ve been looking at these last few weeks.

Inhabitance

My field site, as discussed in previous posts, was the 9/11 conspiracy theory movies, seeing them as the hub at the centre of the whole 9/11 truth movement, a sort of totem where the community draws energy and direction from.  From these movies (listed in the prezi) comes (I assert) a number of behaviours which I wanted to observe. A guiding principle in this was the following quote from Hine:

‘Ethnography in this strategy becomes as much a process of following connections as it is period of inhabitance. In similar vein Marcus suggests that ethnography could (should?) be adapted to ‘examine the circulation of cultutal meanings, objects and identities in diffuse time-space’. He suggests a range of strategies for ethnographers to construct fields in the absence of bounded sites, including the following of people, things, metaphors, narratives, biographies and conflicts‘ [emphasis added]

From this notion, I was attempting to identify a number of these metaphors, narratives and conflicts. This was in order to try to identify how this community arrived at an understanding or creation of authenticity. Again from Hine:

The point for the ethnographer is not to bring some external criterion for judging whether it is safe to believe what informants say, but rather to come to understand how it is that informants judge authenticity.

A neutral, bias-free search for methods of authenticity-creation seemed crucial to me for several reasons. Firstly, the 9/11 conspiracy theories are hugely emotive. Those wandering into the field who seem to have a debunking agenda (as I have had in the past) can be met with hostility.  Secondly, such a search would help me (I hoped) to identify the ‘digital winks’ which I was looking for.

Digital winks

I was struck by Clifford Geertz’s notion of ‘thick descriptions’ with the specific example of the wink. A thin description would catalogue the existence of the wink only, whereas a thick description would explain the context of that wink.

So what does  a 9/11 conspiracy theory ‘wink’ look like? I tentatively identified three: the use of the terms, ‘the truth’, ‘they’ and ‘them’. Taking a specific example from Zeitgeist: the movie, I was struck by the number of times the movie’s narrator makes references to ‘the truth’. The second was the use of the interchangable terms ‘they’ and ‘them’ in reference to the shady forces at work behind the scenes of the 9/11 conspiracy theories – with little specific reference or explanation of who ‘they’ or ‘them’ were. This is a ‘wink’ which is replicated numerous times across the 9/11 truth movement – and indeed not just by the conspiracy theorists, but also the debunkers of the 9/11 theories – in documentaries such as the BBC ‘Conspiracy Files’ shows, where a narrator routinely refer to the conspiracy theorists as ‘they’ or ‘them’ without clearly specifying who they are referring to.

At first glance this may seem a less than perfect research methodology, but perhaps also this is indication of an inherent feature of collectively constructed online materials.

Conflicts

During the course of my ethnography, I began to notice a process which I came (cynicaly, I must admit) to label ‘Blather, Rinse, Repeat’. This is where the conspiracy theorist gives an assertion about an eyewitness or commenter connected to the events of 9/11, the person at the centre of the quote then rebuffs that assertion and which is followed by the conpiracy theorist simply rejecting the clarification of the comments and referring back to the original quotes. Such a process seems to enable the conspiracy theorist to authenticate his position. The following is an example taken from the BBC ‘Conspiracy Files’ 2007 documentary:

YouTube Preview Image

So we have the original assertion from Dylan Avery (maker of ‘Loose Change’), the clarification from the man he was quoting (Barry Jennings) and Avery’s subsequent rejection of the clarification in preference for repeating the original ‘misquote’ and assertion. Within this process, there seems to be no scope for an informant to clarify their original statement or any attempt to contact the informant to ask if they would like to comment. Authenticity, it would seem,  is not created from the gathering of testimony or ‘facts’ but rather from the creation of a selective narrative and the rejection of anything which would compromise that narrative.

A second example is the  series of  quotes  attributed to Wally Miller – the coroner from Somerset County who was at the site of the crashed Flight 93 shortly after the incident.  In searching for clips about this, I came across the following video on Youtube which I believe illustrates the ‘Blather, Rinse, Repeat’ process. What we have here is a clip taken from the same BBC documentary as above, but which has been top and tailed by the Youtube account holder with his own interpretation. Watch how Miller is confronted with the assertion of what he said, how he rebuts it with a a clarification of what he said and then how the conspiracy theorist simply rejects the clarification and returns to quote what Miller is alleged to have said in the first place – despite the fact that Miller has just categorically stated that he did not say that:

YouTube Preview Image

In a sense the argument shifts entirely – from a debate around the truth of the conspiracy theorists original assertion to a debate about the authenticity of the source. The digital, unbounded nature of the content seems to provide a path from arguing about the issue to arguing about validity of sources – shifting responsibility for the original work to a network of sources. 

If a cyborg pedagogy explains (and celebrates) the fractured nature of information and postmodern ‘meaning-making’, outlining the emerging shape of online learning then perhaps a cyborg conspiracy theory is what is required to explain the narratives at the heart of the 9/11 conspiracy theory movies – where a fractured, multi-located narrative is sculpted from an online collective which does not speak with one voice and frequently listens with only one ear.

4 Responses to “Blather, Rinse, Repeat: An Ethnography of Conspiracy Theory”

  1. sian says:

    I enjoyed your Prezi Damien, and look forward to the video. As with so many of the ethnographies, this one felt like the kernel of what could be a much larger and very fascinating project. I’m impressed that you presented it to such an (I should imagine) volatile audience!

    I really like the location of the study in the idea of how to construct a field in the absence of a bounded site – something which highlighted again for me the fuzziness of virtual ethnography, since what you are doing here could almost equally be seen as a form of textual or discourse analysis. Bearing this in mind, I’d have been interested to have seen more of your thoughts on community in the context of conspiracy theory, since it seems here you are exploring the intersections of a series of texts perhaps more than the interactions of individuals? Is this an inevitability, in the context of internet research, where the relationship between text and subject can be so problematic?

  2. Damien, I thought that the idea of the voice of the witness being secondary to the myth was really interesting here. It reminded me of a really good This American Life programme about the role of the spokesman – which included an accidental spokesperson for 7/7 in a piece that has major parallels with Barry Jennings experience of conspiracy theorist adoption. You can hear the episode here: http://www.thisamericanlife.org/Radio_Episode.aspx?sched=1201

    It’s a really interesting area – I look forward to seeing the video.

  3. jen says:

    I was going to link to that ‘this american life’ episode for you as well, Damien – Nicola beat me to it.

    I just watched your talk and thought it was terrific – showing real curiosity about the mechanics of what is happening in the process of conspiracy theorising. Your ‘blather rinse repeat’ and digital winks seem like really strong analytic frames for future research in this area.

    It was really fascinating to hear the questions after your talk as well. Your point about the difference between fact and assertion was well taken, it seemed like?

    oh, and your prezi is gorgeous.

  4. Thanks Jen! Much appreciated.

    Hard to say how that last point about ‘facts’ and ‘assertions’ went down. Watching the video again, I’m horribly conscious of how many ‘assertions as facts’ I made myself. I briefly spoke to the chap who was asking the questions afterwards and he seemed curious at the least…

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