1st Edition

Strategic Conspiracy Narratives A Semiotic Approach

By Mari-Liis Madisson, Andreas Ventsel Copyright 2021
    144 Pages
    by Routledge

    144 Pages
    by Routledge

    Strategic Conspiracy Narratives proposes an innovative semiotic perspective for analysing how contemporary conspiracy theories are used for shaping interpretation paths and identities of a targeted audience.

    Conspiracy theories play a significant role in the viral spread of misinformation that has an impact on the formation of public opinion about certain topics. They allow the connecting of different events that have taken place in various times and places and involve several actors that seem incompatible to bystanders. This book focuses on strategic-function conspiracy narratives in the context of (social) media and information conflict. It explicates the strategic devices in how conspiracy theories can be used to evoke a hermeneutics of suspicion – a permanent scepticism and questioning of so-called mainstream media channels and dominant public authorities, delegitimisation of political opponents, and the ongoing search for hidden clues and coverups. The success of strategic dissemination of conspiracy narratives depends on the cultural context, specifics of the targeted audience and the semiotic construction of the message. This book proposes an innovative semiotic perspective for analysing contemporary strategic communication. The authors develop a theoretical framework that is based on semiotics of culture, the notions of strategic narrative and transmedia storytelling.

    This book is targeted to specialists and graduate students working on social theory, semiotics, journalism, strategic communication, social media and contemporary social problems in general. 


    PART I: Theoretical Framework

    Chapter 1: Semiotic conflicts in strategic communication

    Chapter 2: A semiotic approach to conspiracy theories

    PART II: Semiotic Analysis of Strategic Soros-themed Conspiracy Narratives

    Chapter 3: Strategic Soros-themed conspiracy narratives in politics, marketing and alternative knowledge

    Chapter 4: The main meaning-making mechanisms of strategic conspiracy narratives

    Chapter 5: Conclusion and future directions


    Mari-Liis Madisson received her PhD in Semiotics and Culture Studies from the University of Tartu, Estonia in 2016. She is a Research Fellow at the Department of Semiotics at the University of Tartu and a visiting Research Fellow at School of History, Anthropology, Philosophy and Politics at the Queen's University Belfast, UK. Her research combines cultural semiotics, political semiotics, communication and media studies. Her research interests lie in online culture, conspiracy theories, information influence activities and extreme right communication. She is the author of The Semiotic Construction of Identities in Hypermedia Environments:The Analysis of Online Communication of the Estonian Extreme Right (2016).


    Andreas Ventsel is a senior researcher of semiotics at Tartu University, Estonia. He holds an MA degree and a PhD in Semiotics. He teaches a range of subjects in semiotics, society and politics, cultural theory, and research seminars. His research is interdisciplinary, which includes semiotics, discourse theory, visual communication, rhetoric and political analysis with particular focus on post-structural political thought. Since 2007, Ventsel has participated in several research projects in the fields of semiotics, visual studies and strategic communication. He has presented the results of research on these topics in around 100 academic articles and has been the editor of several Estonian-based and international scientific journals. He is the author of Towards Semiotic Theory of Hegemony (2009) and Introducing Relational Political Analysis (co-authored with Peeter Selg, 2020).

    "Madisson and Ventsel cover a timely and urgent topic from a neglected perspective. They relevantly add to the existing literature and spur further debate. Deeply grounded in semiotic theory (the "School of Tartu"), their book makes an effort to keep distance and balance in relation to a thorny subject. Semiotics provides a more equilibrate understanding about the nature of conspiracy theories, concentrating more on the discursive aspect than on the political one. Conspiracy theories will be, unfortunately, more and more present in the public debate, as well as in cyberwarfare; Madisson and Ventsel praiseworthily pave the way to the academic study of this urgency."

    Professor Massimo Leone, University of Turin, Italy

    "Mari-Liis Madisson and Andreas Ventsel have produced an excellent and timely book. This will be required reading for anyone wanting to understand conspiracy narratives and to develop innovative ways to analyse how they circulate online. Drawing on semiotics and strategic narrative theory, Madisson and Ventsel present a compelling analytical framework which they apply to their empirical analysis of strategic conspiracy narratives involving investor and philanthropist George Soros. Highly recommended."

    Professor Alister Miskimmon, Queen’s University Belfast, UK

    "This book illustrates the changing dynamics by which [conspiracy theories and narratives] circulate and can be engaged with through digital media. The authors conclude the book with an outline of the different methods to be used with such a rich but massive set of data… The book points the reader in two directions then: to this untested landscape of the reception of conspiracy narrative and to a much wider analysis of how conspiracy narratives and their opponents function across other issue areas and political questions. Given the growing presence of these groups and their ability even to win seats of authority in government, this is a vital task."

    Ben O’Loughlin, Royal Holloway, University of London, UK, in International Journal of Communication (14, 2020)

    "Strategic Conspiracy Narratives by Mari-Liis Madisson and Andreas Ventsel formulates at least three valuable concepts: strategic narrative, code text, and phatic communication… Strategic Conspiracy Narratives is an important and timely contribution to the field of applied semiotics that can offer valuable insights both to semioticians and researchers in conspiracy theories. I hope that it will inspire many academics and students to study the meaning-making mechanisms of conspiracy theories instead of merely despising or decrying them."

    Todor Hristov, Sofia University, Bulgaria, in Semiotica (2021)
    "In Strategic Conspiracy Narratives: A Semiotic Approach, Madisson and Ventsel have indeed found a novel angle from which to address the phenomenon. They are interested in the ways in which stories that articulate some unpleasant event as being the result of a conspiracy are modelled and spread in social media… [the] book should be of broad interest to scholars of culture, language, media, and (political) communication who are versed in textual/rhetorical/discourse analysis and seek to enrich their methodological toolkit. The book provides useful insights into how strategic communication is shaped in political life, so students of (international) politics and power would also benefit from reading it."
    Sten Hansson, University of Birmingham, UK, in Social Semiotics (2021)
    "Mari-Liis Madisson and Andreas Ventsel’s book deals with conspiracies in an original, systematic, and semiotic way… This volume demonstrates convincingly that Umberto Eco and Juri Lotman have left us many useful heuristic tools to analyze conspiratorial ‘pathologies.’"
    Anna Marie Lorusso, University of Bologna, Italy, in Punctum (07:01, Summer 2021)
    "The political-strategic and identificational logic of conspiracy theories… at the centre of Mari-Liis Madisson’s and Andreas Ventsel’s book Strategic Conspiracy Narratives: A Semiotic Approach could already be glimpsed in Ancient Rome. [The book] stresses the novelty of the contemporary situation, stating that although "bursts of conspiracy theories have been detected as having occurred in culture centuries ago… it can be claimed with certainty that never before in history have so many people been simultaneously informed about versions of particular conspiracy theories as in this day and age of social media." [The book makes the point that] conspiracy theories should not be viewed primarily as responses to power by the less powerful, but also as strategic tools in the hands of the powerful (from state governments to large corporations) with which to persuade people to vote for them, consume their products, and show aggression towards those others, the scapegoats. Thus, conspiracy theories as speech acts perform a very particular sort of politics, one which casts the enemy as a wrongdoer that should be ostracized or eliminated, even though this "enemy" is often already an outcast or a marginalized group of people."
    Ott Puumeister, Tartu University, Estonia, in Sign Systems Studies (48:2/4, 2020)