Current Projects – Spring 2024

Down the Rabbit Hole: The Intellectual Journeys of Violent Racists, Conspiracy Theorists, Flat Earthers, and Other Americans on the Fringe

My new book project brings together my research on white supremacists, QAnon, and ConspiracyTok to answer the question: How do people come to believe fringe, extremist, and far-right viewpoints they encounter on social media? The book looks at social media, both mainstream and obscure, and the role it plays in political violence, the uptake of conspiracies, and what is known as “epistemic rupture”: the idea that partisan Americans not only believe different things, but have entirely contradictory worldviews. It argues that much of what we call “disinformation” – incorrect or misleading information spread deliberately for profit, ideology, or power—hinges on long-standing stereotypes about identity, particularly race, gender, religion, and gender identity. And it looks at how different communities marshal different types of evidence to justify their beliefs, from long-discounted 19th century white supremacist texts to popular science-fiction films and television shows.

I am spending the 2023-2024 academic year writing a draft of the manuscript.

Social Science One – Ecosystems of Disinformation

In 2018, Deen Freelon, Daniel Kreiss, Shannon McGregor, Megan Squire and I applied for a grant from the ill-fated Social Science One initiative through which Facebook was to make large datasets available to researchers. Two years later, we got it; and five years later, we are still working on it. I run the qualitative team and have taken a general leadership role getting the project finished (which clearly I am not succeeding at very well). We are currently finishing final edits to two papers: one the main paper with the following findings, and another paper that’s almost finished investigating disinformation as narrative and its cathartic role for adherents. We will submit both of these in Spring 2024.

Here’s the general summary of the current paper, which has involved a tremendous amount of quant and qual analysis and about eight people:

Using a mixed-methods, chronological, and relational approach, we examine how disinformation differentially spreads through the internet in a hybrid media system We analyze three U.S.-based case studies of disinformation: one targeted to right-leaning audiences, one to left-leaning audiences, and one without a clear ideological orientation. The right-wing case concerns false allegations that high school student David Hogg—present during a mass shooting in Parkland, Florida and subsequent gun rights activist—was a “crisis actor.” The left-wing case is the Steele Dossier’s ostensibly false allegations of Russian kompromat on President Trump (popularly known as the “pee tape”). The non-ideological case is a fabricated story about a man winning the lottery and dumping manure on his bosses’ lawn. Using large Facebook and Twitter datasets as our starting point, we trace the origins and dynamics of disinformation, including the migration of disinformative narratives between media formats, sources, and platforms. While these are unique empirical cases, analytically they reveal dynamics that we can logically generalize to other cases and that can guide further research. We find that disinformation originates from mainstream media, social media, and so-called “fake news” websites, revealing how disinformation is not simply a problem of platforms. Regardless of origin, disinformative narratives reverberate across media formats, taking different forms as they circulate through the media ecosystem. Second, these cases reveal a complex relationship between disinformation and mainstream media, with news media covering disinformation in detail, seemingly sometimes to debunk it, sometimes to amplify it, and sometimes amplifying it while debunking it. This suggests that the “information quality” metric often used to distinguish legitimate news sites from disinformative sources fails to capture the complexity of disinformation and its pervasiveness. Third, we find different dynamics at play in our right- and left-wing disinformation cases. While the right-wing case largely follows the common narrative of disinformation in which fringe sites originate and amplify false content as it moves through mainstream media to broader audiences, the mainstream media played a key role in furthering the “pee tape”  narrative through humor, satire, and more traditional news and political coverage. We also find that non-ideological disinformation has enormous uptake and is shared across political lines.

Child-Sacrificing Drag Queens: Historical Antecedents in Disinformative Narratives Supporting the Drag Queen Story Hour Moral Panic

I worked on this paper with 8 students from my Critical Disinformation Studies class: Belle Basnight, Dahlia Boyles, Margaret Donnelly, Stephanie Kaczynski, Evan Ringel, Jacob Smith, Sarah Whitmarsh, and Carolina Yabase. We wanted to examine the continuities between disinformation around Drag Queen Story Hour and previous “moral panics” about LGBTQ+ communities– so we did a big historical analysis and compared moral panics from the 1950s, 1970s, and 1980s to today. Surprise, these themes repeat. This used Critical Disinformation Studies as a method and I’m very proud of how it turned out.

Image: Anita Bryant on the phone in 1977 campaigning against a homosexual civil rights ordinance in Miami, FL. While the “Save the Children” campaign was unsuccessful, it is widely considered one of the first major Evangelical political campaigns and many themes it developed remain relevant today (such as the “parents’ rights” argument against exposing children to LGBTQ+ people or ideas).


This paper uses critical disinformation studies to analyze claims that LGBTQ+ communities “groom” children at “Drag Queen Story Hour” (DQSH). We identify anti-homosexual narratives in previous moral panics: the 1950s sexual psychopathy laws, Anita Bryant’s 1977 Save Our Children campaign, and the 1980s Satanic ritual abuse panic. Using critical discourse analysis, we find all disinformative narratives from previous moral panics present in the DQSH discourse, while new themes center transgender people and parental rights.  We consider concerns over DQSH a moral panic responding to the gradual mainstreaming of gender nonconformity and increase in LGBTQ+ civil rights and social acceptance.

Mountains of Evidence: Processual Redpilling as a Sociotechnical Effect of Disinformation

Katie Furl and I coded a gigantic corpus (7 million words) of “redpilling accounts” pulled from Gab, Reddit, and Discord, and have finally submitted our first paper from the project. Here is the abstract:

How do people come to believe far-right, extremist, and conspiratorial ideas they encounter online? This paper examines how participants in far-right online communities describe their adoption of “redpill” beliefs, as well as the role of disinformation in these accounts. Applying the sociotechnical theory of media effects, we conduct qualitative content analysis of “redpilling narratives” gathered from Reddit, Gab, and Discord. While many users frame redpilling as a moment of conversion, others portray redpilling as a process, something achieved incrementally through years of community participation and “doing your own research.” In both cases, disinformation presented as evidence and the capacity to determine the veracity of presented evidence play important roles in redpilling oneself and others. By framing their beliefs as the rational and logical results of fully considering a plethora of evidence, redpill adherents are able to justify holding and promoting otherwise indefensible prejudices.The community creation, promotion, and repetition of far-right disinformation, much of which is historical or “scientific” in nature, plays a crucial role in the adoption of far-right beliefs.