Topologies of Belief: Folklore, Conspiracy Theories and Threat
Political, financial and environmental crises coupled to the rise of social media have, in recent years, created a perfect storm of mis- and disinformation that leverage long standing reservoirs of belief within and across communities. These stories on social media mirror face-to-face storytelling and other storytelling environments in that they allow for the negotiation of cultural ideology (norms, beliefs, values), yet they also change the scope, speed and amplification of that storytelling. Importantly, storytelling has real world effects, and often motivates people to take action. Anchoring our work in folklore theory, we develop a model of stories-told-as-true and focus our work on threat narratives. We explore the rise of vaccine hesitancy, the emergence of conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and QAnon, as well as the storytelling that led up to the January 6th insurrection. We present a graphical model of the underlying narrative frameworks, estimated from the data itself, and show how various network based methods can form the basis for understanding the narrative coherence—and their possible outcomes—even when the discussions on social media are incomplete and noisy, as conversations in real life often are.