Tropes and Networked Digital Activism #2: The Portability and Persistence of Tropes

Part 2 of a series. Follows Part 1. Followed by Part 3.

So to review from yesterday:

  • People have a lot of stuff they can share or attend to online.
  • In order to efficiently create and process content we look at things like “evidence” through tropes
  • Tropes, not narratives or individual claims, are the lynchpin of activism and propaganda, whether true or false, participatory or not. They are more persistent than claims, more compelling than narrative.
  • The success of a given trope is often based on its “fit” with the media, events, and data around the event (the “field”). A trope must be compelling but also fit the media available to creators. In participatory propaganda (term from Wanless and Berk) tropes must be productive.
  • In participatory work, productive tropes are often adopted based on their productivity, and then retconned to a narrative. Narrative-claim fit is far less important than trope-field fit.

Today I want to show how tropes transcend narratives. A good trope that matches a field well will be used in many different contexts.

Over the next week I’ll go through some examples of tropes and the media environments in which they thrive. Most of these tropes are associated with misinformation, even if the trope does fit reality in many circumstances. Let’s start with Body Count.

Body Count

Trope: A hidden cause is behind the deaths of many seemingly unrelated people. This cause is usually being covered up by a political or corporate elite.

Field: Death reports, either current ones (as they occur) or historical ones.

There are many times when a string of deaths is both suspicious and likely related to a cause that is being covered up. W.R. Grace hid evidence for years that its mine operations in Libby, Montana were linked to a string of deaths and illness in the area. It is well-documented that reporters that have challenged Vladimir Putin have often met untimely deaths. In the Philippines, it is widely believed that a series of assassinations of drug dealers are secret extrajudicial killings linked to the Duterte government.

It sometimes takes time to work out that many deaths have a single cause, and those making such claims are sometimes doubted. We rely on careful reporting to find and document these connections, and any good reporter will take such emerging patterns seriously. In those cases the trope can be used for good.

This post, however, is not about those cases. It is about the use of it for the Body Count trope for propaganda.

In the hands of a propagandist, the way the Body Count trope works in propaganda is this:

  1. Pick your villain
  2. As deaths are reported (your field) try to either find, imply, or manufacture a connection to the chosen villain.
  3. Aggregate the deaths, and with each new instance, claim that this is one in a growing body of deaths
  4. When there is pushback on any one death, point to the size of the list (the “body count”) and point out that even if x% of these were true it would be devastating
  5. Body Count works well on two dimensions simultaneously: each new death is a “potential” connection which “eventifies” your claim and grabs attention. But the point is not the individual claim, but the “count” — the impression that there is a steady stream of suspicious deaths of such a volume that something is fishy here.

Clinton Body Count

A classic instance of Body Count trope is the “Clinton Body Count” claim, that hundreds of people who have “crossed” the Clintons and died early deaths have in fact been assassinated, no matter what the actually cause of death was. While there were many drivers of the Clinton Body Count claim, the count was advanced in the early 1990s by far-right activist Linda Thompson. Her initial list from 1993 was built on over time by others, and goes on to this day. The rules to the use of this trope were pretty simple — start by finding a death in Arkansas, Washington D.C., the Democratic Party organization, or in the military. Then find the connection:

  • Were they a Clinton friend? Insinuate they may have been about to “come clean”
  • Were they a Clinton enemy? Insinuate the death may have been payback.
  • Did they not know the Clintons, but were at some event that the Clintons were at? Perhaps they had “seen” something.
  • Did they not know the Clintons, were at no events with the Clintons, but worked for the Democratic Party? Maybe they found some paperwork, or hidden financial information.

And so on. Notice that the narrative here doesn’t play much of a role at all. You just take a death off the stack of recent or historical deaths, and find a connection. Part of what makes this work, as noted by Snopes, is that politicians are connected to a massive number of people compared to ordinary people, so connections are easy to find. And that’s the nature of the “field” — you can expect a nontrivial steady stream of deaths of people that are “associated” with the Clintons to occur as a matter of course. You keep an eye on deaths and see if you can make them fit. Even as I was putting this essay together today, another Clinton Body Count item came in:

The trope here is established enough that I don’t think it required any real effort on the part of people that pulled this death into the trope. Note too that the trope is so established that those sharing it have to do only minimal work to fit the event to the trope. “Found dead, being investigated” next to a Clinton connection is enough for it to trigger processing through the Body Count trope in its readership and encourage them to share. (One reason why any moderation effort is pretty futile — after a while a trope/field connection is so set that it barely needs signaling).

This example shows another key to the Body Count trope: jump in quickly, and point to the lack of knowledge of the cause of death in the immediate aftermath. It’s currently being investigated, as suicides are, but assuming it turns out to be a suicide expect scare quotes to appear around “ruled” a suicide.

Also note that there is really no narrative here, except only in the fuzziest sense. What was the purpose of this supposed killing? Revenge? Apart from the insanity of the premise, there are likely thousands of reporters who have broken stories about the Clintons. Why are they alive? Why would they risk it? Why would they care at this point? How could they pull it off? Why, if they did do it, would they decide to make it look like a suicide? This is an instance of what Rosenblum and Muirhead call “bare assertion”, a “conspiracy theory without the theory”. And it doesn’t need the theory, really, because it has the trope.

Notice too that any death can be made a relevant death in the Body Count trope. This one is a suicide, but the Clinton Body Count has included car crashes, plane malfunctions (“suspicious”), deaths by heart attack of heavy smokers (always death by an “apparent” heart attack), combat deaths, etc. Often there’s the invocation of some characteristic which would supposedly make the death unlikely — they were “thought to be in good health” before the heart attack, they crashed their plane “despite logging many miles as a pilot”, they were “killed in a robbery, but nothing was taken.” Going unnoted is that no-one predicts their own heart attack, that people who log a lot of flying miles increase their chances of dying in a plane crash, not reduce them, and that very often robberies go wrong.

In fact, these different elements become subtropes of the Body Count trope. That “killed in a robbery, but nothing was taken” piece? If you’re hip to trends in 2016 misinformation you might think I am referring to the 2016 death of Seth Rich. I am, in a way. This was supposedly the reason his death was “suspicious” to conspiracy theorists. But note that the subtrope of “killed in a robbery where nothing was taken” was part of Clinton Body Count accusations — in 1998:

Tropes link to other tropes in a fluid way. You keep an eye out for a death that might fight the Body Count trope. Once you find one, then the Body Count trope, in the ways you’ve seen it used, suggests was to juice the claim. Was it a robbery (“supposedly”)? Does it fit the “but nothing was stolen” trope? Use that. So some things were stolen? Ok, was it a “normally peaceful area”? All of these things are easily explainable, of course. For instance, in robberies that go “right”, it is very odd for robbers to leave money. But in robberies that go wrong (which includes most robberies where someone gets shot) that isn’t always the case, since the robbers often high-tail it for fear people heard the shooting. But the point here is not the answers, the point is that the “questions” raised are nearly as automatic as the trope itself. The suicide I mention here? Expect disinformers to go down the list of claims about the Vince Foster suicide in 1993 or any other Body Count death and see what fits.

  • Did they declare it a suicide quickly? Why wasn’t a real investigation done?
  • Did they declare it a suicide only after a long investigation? If it was so obviously a suicide, why did the investigation take so long?
  • Is there any way the death can be said to be unexpected? (Ignore that most suicides are unexpected)
  • Is there any plan that he made that was scheduled for after the suicide? (Ignore that most suicides are impulsive)

And so on. Again, narratives matter to the people producing, sharing, and consuming these, at least somewhat. It’s the Clinton Body Count, not the Paris Hilton Body Count (even though the techniques could be as easily applied there). But integration with the narrative does not drive the construction of these much. In fact, once the trope is set, the whole process works on something more resembling auto-pilot than directed creation, at least for the people that aren’t into meta-conspiracies like QAnon (more on tropes and meta-conspiracies in a future post).

Vaccine Body Count

Here’s the thing — all the same tactics used by the Clinton Body Count people? They’ve been used by anti-vaccine activists for years as well.

I’ll leave the historical tracing of these techniques to people better versed in the history than I. But consider the current vaccine-driven Body Count game being played, and how it matches almost beat-for-beat political Body Count games:

  • A high profile death occurs, for example the death of Marvin Hagler (or a near death like Christian Eriksen)
  • Anti-vaccine activists rush into the breach and scour social media for indication that person was vaccinated, or alternatively, just claim they were (which given most American adults are, would not be surprising).
  • They then take the “purported” cause of death an link it to a “known side effect” of the vaccine, or insist that the “alleged” cause of death can’t be right because the person was thought to be very healthy.
  • The “unexpected” nature of it is everywhere highlighted, where “unexpected” is used to imply suspicious. The fact that it is generally the case that deaths covered by the news are in general unexpected is ignored.
  • If the death just happened, they claim “doctors are looking into a suspicious death”. When doctors reach conclusions and those don’t link to vaccines, then say it was a cover up, and ask why they investigation took so long if it was so simple. If the investigation is short, they ask why it was so short — was it in fact covered up? Why was it never investigated?
  • If the doctors don’t reach their favored conclusion, they look for comments from family that disagree with doctors. If family doesn’t reach their conclusion, they find quotes from friends. If family wondered if at first it was due to vaccines, but now believe it wasn’t, they claim a cover up. If family change their mind the other way, of course, it’s evidence.

None of this requires narrative making or even much deep thought. And it’s almost bizarre how it’s the exactly the same method as the Clinton Body Count despite being from vastly different narratives. Let’s just think about Seth Rich or Vince Foster and replace “doctors” in those final bullets with “police”:

  • If the death just happened, they claim “police are looking into a suspicious death”. When police reach conclusions and those don’t link to foul play, then say it was a cover up, and ask why they investigation took so long if it was so simple. If the investigation is short, they ask why it was so short — was it in fact covered up? Why was it never investigated?
  • If the police don’t reach their favored conclusion, they look for comments from family that disagree with the police. If family doesn’t reach their conclusion, they find quotes from friends. If family wondered if at first it was suspicious, but now believe it wasn’t, they claim a cover up. If family change their mind the other way, of course, it’s evidence.

And so on. But what’s going on here is determined by the possibilities of the “field”, in both cases the steady stream of expected events that can be fit to the trope. And the process of finding them becomes so automatic that just we get into bizarre situations where Twitter has to run a trend like this, every time an unexpected death or near death occurs:

Twitter trend correcting claim Eriksen had been vaccinated.

Non-obvious harms of the Body Count trope

Finally, it’s worth noting that aside from the obvious harms of spreading misinformation, this sort of activity pollutes the information space and may make it harder for people to assess real harms. As an example, it is the case that the CDC is looking into a slightly higher than expected incidence of myocarditis in teens who have been vaccinated. It’s extremely rare, but it warrants more investigation.

One could imagine a world of ethical activists, who use the power of the Body Count trope for good. Such activists would not work from the “field backward” — finding any death and connecting it, no matter how spuriously — but from the cause forward — highlighting exactly the cases that seem to be involved, and perhaps even calling attention to attributes that might link them. Indeed, such activity, while it may annoy the medical establishment, has called attention to disorders, diseases, and effects of chemical exposure that historically needed addressing. Tropes can be powerful tools in that way.

And I shouldn’t say “imagine”. These activists are out there. But as I’ve mentioned a number of times — the process is so automatic I’m not even sure it’s activism at the wheel in many cases. There’s the field, coming in, and there’s the toolbox of tropes to process it, categorize it, frame it, and amplify it. A man collapses on the field or commits suicide, 30 seconds later the Body Count trope is applied. Good signal is lost in a sea of ridiculous noise.

Part 2 of a series. Go to Part 3 or return to Part 1.