BUCKLE UP (as they say) because it is TIME FOR A THREAD (siren emoji)
A thread about tropes.
And about election fraud, anti-vaxxers, debunking, factchecking, social media, journalism, and [today’s latest trending misinfo drama, whatever it is]
First a quick def: “a trope is a storytelling device or convention, a shortcut for describing situations the storyteller can reasonably assume the audience will recognize”. That definition comes from THE canonical source for understanding tropes: TVTropes.
You know when you watch something?️?, and can kind of predict the direction it will go, even if you don’t know the specific plot? This is bc there is a set of core building blocks, and once we have seen them we tend to have a sense of what’s coming subsequently.
So what does this have to do with vaccines, misinformation, etc? We use stories, assembled from tropes, to make a lot of topics understandable/relatable.
One of my favorite papers on the anti-vaccine movement and the narratives it uses is from *2012*:
In the paper Anna Kata highlights the tropes that recur, regardless of what the vaccine is, in the anti-vaccine dialog online. It’s evergreen b/c it’s highlighting the building blocks.
These tropes underpin narratives, and those narratives can be bucketed within an equally predicable stable of anti-vaccine themes (@aetiology has written on this topic).
A few months ago I was reading letters to the editors of medical journals from the 1800s & found “antivaxxer-in-comments” content ab smallpox inoculation, which was derived from cowpox. One claim: it was unnatural to use something from? on ppl b/c it’d create human-? hybrids.
1800s: human-cow hybrids. Today: COVID vax will alter our DNA. Every viral anti-vax narrative ab COVID has a foundational trope that has appeared in some form around other vaccines.
“Magnetic body parts post-vaccine” is the COVID vaccine’s latest “bizarre scary side effect” viral misinfo thing; a few years back there was a viral video about a girl who supposedly could only walk backwards after a flu shot.
“Bioweapon” tropes appear w/the emergence of any novel disease; state propagandists have used that one over the years (ie Project Denver) because of the moral outrage and fear it reliably generates. It’s also in the realm of the plausible; there are/have been bioweapons programs.
“Evil Profiteering Billionaire Did it” (Bill Gates) has also recurred for years and years. Zika. Ebola. Doesn’t matter. Predictable. Transcends vaccines, too – “George Soros is behind it” is another variation.
We also see recurring tropes in election misinfo: Dead Voters, Ballot Destruction, Bussed-In Voters, Hacked Machines. Incidents that could be construed to support these tropes are cobbled together in every single election.
Mike Caulfield (@holden) has just written a series about this that I highly recommend. He discusses “trope-field fit” and persistence:
We can also see tropes underpinning a vast range of conspiracy theories. There have been a few analyses by researchers of QAnon (an onmi-conspiracy that ate others like an amoeba) that have walked through how closely it hews to, for example, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.
One reason why people who believe one conspiracy theory often believe others may be belief in a trope common to multiple theories: if you believe in the “the man behind the curtain”, makes sense that he would be covering up vaccine malfeasance as well as a chemtrails program ✈️?
Now contrast this idea of predicable, recurring tropes with how specific stories are reported: with a focus on *novelty*.
Journalists often emphasize that something is novel when they cover it because novelty supports something being newsworthy, and is appealing to audiences
Dog barks at man – not novel;
Dog bites man – maybe a human interest story;
Man bites dog – novel.
Sometimes they’re just newer to a beat, missing the long through-line themselves; it’s novel to them
Ok so now: what if we stopped discussing narratives that simply inflect a trope as novel, but instead discussed them…as tropes?
What if instead of addressing individual pieces of misinformation reactively, we instead discussed the underpinnings — preemptively?
First, I think this is generally a more useful way of understanding what’s actually happening in the world; without a need to manufacture novelty we can instead look at history for parallels, minimize moral panics, have a more nuanced view of context.
BUT there are also other benefits in the age of high-velocity/high-virality information. Consider the challenge of fact checks: innumerable pieces of content that are Wrong on the Internet at any moment. Some go viral, particularly when incentivized influencers help them along.
Fact-checkers have to get to a correction as quickly as possible but it’s time-consuming to fact-check individual pieces of content. Things go viral while we wait for the full research-and-correction process to happen, & then the fact-check addresses that specific instance only.
Remember Plandemic? The 20min viral laundry list of theories including: govt was covering up hydroxychloroquine cure; masks activate the?; flu ?made ppl susceptible; “THEY” were going to censor the film to keep the truth from YOU.
Trope, trope, trope, strung into a Gish Gallop.
But for people who are not normally immersed in the dark corners of the web that think like this (meaning, most people), the claims were NOVEL. And it caught their attention, so they shared it.
Because tropes are effective. That is why they’re used. That is why they persist.
During EIP, we wrote up a blog post predicting what narratives would appear just prior to the election and immediately after. We were right. During Virality Project, we did the same thing for narratives that would be used to engender vaccine hesitance. Right again.
I am lucky enough to work with very smart people, of course, but the point is actually that there is a high degree of predictability here *because* of the extent to which these narratives draw on such well-established tropes.
But prediction doesn’t deliver prevention. We can predict this’ll happen,but the nature of the info ecosystem today is that determined influential accts are very likely to nonetheless make wild stories go viral (I’ve discussed repeat spreaders & bespoke realities in past threads)
I think there’s potential for prebunking where instead of trying to factcheck narratives, we help the public to see these devices – tropes – for what they are. If you’ve read the TV Tropes entry for some plot device, you recognize that device when it appears on your screen.
Sometimes a trope can fall out of favor or lose its impact if people realize what’s happening and come to see it as lazy, harmful, or cringe. For example, this key note appears at end of the TV Tropes entry on the “Sassy Black Woman” character
And that, perhaps, is what we might get to via prebunking. Not so much attempts to counter or fact-check misinfo on the internet, but defanging the tropes that underpin the most recurringly manipulative claims so that the public sees, recognizes, & thinks:?
This has another added benefit, I think, of defanging “CENSORSHIP!!!1!” howls that currently pervade the politicized convo around fact-checking and labeling. Tropes are not the purview of the right or left, they’re everywhere.
Pointing out the building blocks absent a connection to any specific contentious story can feel like a fun learning experience, not like criticism of someone’s favorite influencer or overall political leaning.