The scene arrives focus: A car is driving at night on a winding mountain road. Suddenly the headlights blink, then turn black. The car comes to a stop. Moonlight is all that’s left for our heroine, owls howl and vaguely ominous music plays in the background.
You know things are about to escalate because, as TVTropes.com notes, “only three things happen when you go on a road trip to a horror movie,” and they all involve horror. As our heroine gets out of the car, you might be tempted to shout “”Don’t go into the woods! ”because nothing good ever comes from going into the woods at night. But she does, of course. There she finds an abandoned log cabin. You can write the rest of the story yourself.
Over time, these tropes become extremely predictable. Their predictability is used for many purposes. Just as storytellers in movies, songs, and television use tropes to make stories more understandable and relatable, and ultimately for our entertainment, purveyors of disinformation use these same tropes to make their arguments more understandable or relatable and, ultimately, to manipulate us. Knowing this, maybe we could keep more of us out of the woods.
You’ve probably seen a plethora of tropes in memes and stories online about Covid-19. The anti-vaccine movement has relied on the same conspiracy devices for more than a century to make baseless claims familiar and compelling.
In 2012, Anna Kata, an economist at McMaster University, wrote an article regular how the same tropes reproduce, regardless of vaccine, in the online anti-vaccine dialogue. For example, consider the general statement that “vaccines are not natural”. Then, an under-statement: “They will turn you into a chimera. In the 1800s, those who received smallpox vaccines from smallpox heard that they would turn into human-cow hybrids. (They didn’t.) Today, social media influencers are telling stories about mRNA vaccines “altering our DNA !!! (They are not.) Details have changed to accommodate the current pandemic, but the underlying tropes are the same in 2021 as in 1801.
This “unnatural” trope is fundamental to a larger and misleading narrative that “vaccines are dangerous”. As scholars from American University and the Harvard School of Public Health, with a co-author here, have recently documented, anti-vaccine misinformation stories about Covid-19 are also made up of familiar tropes recycled from past vaccines. Some are conspirators. In the first months of the pandemic, for example, Tropes “biological weapons” were all the rage. Anti-vaccine propagandists have often made these claims during the emergence of new diseases (Ebola, SARS, etc.) due to the fear it generates. The “disease as a biological weapon” trope makes sense because it takes an unknown – the origin of disease – and offers a neat explanation with a seed of truth: biological weapons programs exist… and we have all seen this movie too.
These building blocks, the tropes, also make conspiracy theory stories transferable from subject to subject. Before the pandemic, for example, the anti-vaccine movement’s core narratives of vaccines causing all kinds of damage, and the government’s cover-up of that damage, had been fed into the QAnon movement, which itself had absorbed and reframed accounts of the Sages of Zion protocols, chemtrail conspiracies, and New World Order theories, among others. These tropes are so easily transferable because there is a common architecture of conspiracy theories. One of the reasons that people who believe in one conspiracy theory often believe others may be that the same trope is shared by several theories: the belief in the The man behind the curtain it is easier to buy that man also covers a chemtrail program. Therefore, when Jigsaw, a unit within Google that explore threats to public companies, interviewed 70 conspiracy supporters, each attributed to multiple conspiracy theories.
If you’ve seen a trope once, you’re more likely to recognize it the next time. This familiarity can help bypass the critical thinking we would normally use to evaluate new information. To compound this problem, tropes are great for oversimplifying complex issues, like the origins of a vaccine or the reasons for a protest. As Media Literacy Expert Mike Caulfield Remarks, tropes flatten a scene down to its essential elements, removing detail to force us to draw a conclusion (the heroine will get out of her car!) without all the facts at hand.
But the fact that these manipulative tropes are so prevalent and recurring could also be their downfall. If we can anticipate which tropes will be used to construct conspiracy stories in the future, there is a possibility that we can anticipate them. Instead of dealing with and verifying specific claims reactively, and if we instead discussed their foundations preventively?