Disinformation isn't about truth. It's about speculation.
The International Common Law Court of Justice has found Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau guilty of tyranny and crimes against humanity. A warrant has been served, granting members of the public the power to arrest and enforce. The warrant’s factual deficit seems hardly worth disputing, but the fake warrant helps to open a wider discussion into the future of communication studies “after disinformation.” What comes after disinformation studies? Speculation, or rather a serious consideration of communication as a speculative art.
Our turn to speculation comes as we think through a difficult moment in national and international studies of disinformation-fueled alt-rights and far-rights. Though the events of January 6, 2022 might be more familiar to American audiences, Canada is similarly coming to terms with the nation-wide Freedom Convoy protests that brought the national capital to a standstill for nearly a month. In January 2022, a loose movement of protestors opposed to vaccine mandates and the leadership of Justin Trudeau occupied the street in front of Canada as well as other sites in Canada (Austen & Isai, 2022). Our provocation questions the movement’s success in spite of its communications, like the warrant, being labelled disinformation.
Our interest in thinking after disinformation begins with acknowledging the limits of disinformation to address our political moment, either in Canada or abroad. The convoy’s authenticity was always in question. Despite outwardly positioning itself as a call to end vaccine mandates, the organizers of the Freedom Convoy had close ties to the far-right (PressProgress, 2022). Bouncy castles and street parties might have hidden the jagged edges of an armed and confrontational national movement. Even the idea of a “grassroots” convoy was in doubt as similar tactics in Australia have been cited as examples of faked populism, or astroturfing (Wear, 2014).
And still, many Convoy organizers felt antagonized after their social media accounts were disabled and their content flagged for disinformation. If anything, the label of “disinformation” has become folded back into the movement, as an example of “owning the libs,” a way to antagonize media elites in populist style (Baldwin-Phillipi, 2019; Block & Negrine, 2017). As Kevin Munger and Joseph Phillips (2022) note, “Political content creators are keenly aware of research about them and will attack analyses that conflict with their lived experiences” (p. 211).
Our proposal for speculative arts locates the problem of information disorders away from questions of truth to questions of speculative power: the power to make anything real, even if only to momentarily rearticulate perceptions, habits, and ideas and in so doing reorganize political attention and social realities. Certainly this framework begins to better capture the trajectory of the Convoy itself. As Brigitte Belton, one of the Convoy organizers to testify before the committee, explained, “It happened overnight. Once [another organizer] and I started taking to the airwaves, it literally exploded overnight” (Public Order Emergency Commission, 2022, p. 250). If disinformation invites defining harms (Mackay & Tenove, 2021), then perhaps speculation pushes back at what André Brock (2019) theorizes as the libidinal economy of computer-mediated communication. What are the ways in which political communication comes to be reframed as acts of exuberance, of excitement over what could be?
From BitCoin to Rumble, speculation is a trading zone for libertarians, European chauvinists, crypto advocates, and web3 developers—to name a few. We believe that turning to the speculative function of communication—the rhetorics, politics, and economics of speculation—allows us to better study the observed capacity of three distinct yet intertwined, international phenomena: far-right politics, platform capitalism, and venture capital. All three movements are driven by speculative practices.
Our interest in speculation closely aligns with a growing interest in “how scams, fakes, and frauds are embedded in the digital economy” (Poster, 2022, p. 1535). We would add that scams, fakes, and frauds are embedded in contemporary politics as well. And like Poster and other authors in the special issue on scams, fakes, and frauds, we seek to trouble the clear line between scam and authenticity. In short, we argue that inauthenticity might be part of the success of these movements. To borrow from the famous characterisation of the Bush Administration, these movements might succeed because they create their own realities (quoted in Suskind, 2004). A worlding, to borrow a phrase from Donna Haraway, of an altogether different kind.
What we propose might be better understood through three key moments constituting a circuit of speculation: the pitch, the playbook, and the buy-in. These three concepts are methodological provocations trying to look at new ways to study both the craft and circuits of speculation. In other words, the speculative arts involve new forms of expertise in pitching, devising playbooks, and getting buy-in. Yet we should resist defining these processes as preplanned and exacting. Rather these terms also point to the moments of speculation in the beginnings of a movement like the Freedom Convoy.
The Freedom Convoy began as a now-shuttered GoFundMe page pitching a national movement to end vaccine mandates. That the movement began as both a symbolic and financial pitch is significant. Guided by Rosand Gill’s (2010) argument that today “life is a pitch,” we find that the practice of making financial proposals has extended to all facets of life, including politics. A pitch is a rhetorical and financial act of articulating value. An attention to the pitch as a communicative art studies the craft of soliciting micro-investments, with both affective and financial stakes (Elmer & Ward-Kimola forthcoming; McKelvey, 2018)
Following Cook’s (2001) interest in the arts of deception, we look at the pitch as an art of speculation that involves an interaction with its audience too, its mark. We draw inspiration here from Erving Goffman’s (1952) interest in cooling the mark off, and more recently from Robert Gehl and Sean Lawson’s (2022) attention to the arts of bullshitting in their study of mass personal communication. Their work attends to the craft of the con and the salience of bullshit. The pitch, to be clear, is not fantasy. Studies of disinformation stress that conspiracies contain elements of truth (Krafft & Donovan, 2020). The pitch is as much about an act of identity-construction, as we’ll discuss, identification when buying-in (Charland, 1987).
While the pitch stresses the expressive or dietic function of communication, the next moment of the speculative arts attends to the materialization of the pitch, what we call the playbook. This second concept emphasizes both play, as communicative habits and participatory affordances, and a book, as a material object with encoded properties. Studies of politics note the modularity of campaign tactics (Anderson, 1991; Beissinger, 2007) so that pitches have to rely on established tactics of materialization. In Canada, we note that quitting your journalism job and then blaming ‘woke culture’ is a common way to reinforce one’s Substack pitch and to give some material body to the common alt-right and far-right conspiracy that leftists are controlling everything. This playbook, for its part, seems imported from the United States (Hagi, 2022).
The playbook is already an emerging concept in disinformation studies. Joan Donovan has led the Media Manipulation Casebook that documents disinformation campaigns and helpfully tags common tactics like memes or typosquatting. These tactics demonstrate how playbooks are modular: independent of individual campaigns, but reusable. Another tactic is search engine manipulation, a tactic Franscesa Tripodi calls The Propagandist’s Playbook. Tripodi reviews conservative political tactics involved with “deliberate, systematic information campaigns that leverage the power of multiple forms of mass media” (2022, p. 18). Finally, clickbait is another tactical part of a playbook of new partisan or alternative news sites (McKelvey, 2019: Munger, 2019). Adding to this list, we view the “warrant” as one kind of fraudulent or speculative document that is part of the Convoy’s own playbook, along with its GoFundMe page and reliance on memes.
Where the pitch was tied to the mark, we see the playbook as closely tied to the politics of dispersal and circulation online. Dispersal first means the proliferation of platforms and networks for cultural politics. While digital politics a few years ago largely circulated on and around large social media platforms (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook), today we see the multiplication of platforms and networks (Discord, WhatsApp, Telegram) that offer a variety of informational dynamics, privacy, lack of censure, audience-building capacities, and algorithmic affordances. Here, disinformation is about populating with content, seeking virality, and taking advantage of economies of attention that shape the nature and effectiveness of the playbook. At this level, virality is more about a kind of dark participation than an optimism of sharing (Culp, 2016; Quandt, 2018).
Pitching and playbooks do not always work. For instance, most crowdfunding campaigns fail to solicit any funds at all. And Canadian meme makers liken their craft to throwing shit against a wall to see if it sticks (McKelvey et al., 2021). What is required is a buy-in, where the mark, the crowd, or the mob reacts positively to the playbook and buys in to the pitch. From a pitch by a small group of disgruntled truck drivers, the Freedom Convoy became a movement, with buyers-in not only from anti-vaxxers but also gas-reliant regional Canadian economies, and, in large number, U.S. Trump supporters. As the movement gained buy-in, the original demands for the movement—no vaccine mandate for Canadian truck drivers—became broader: an end to vaccine mandates and other Covid safety measures and the toppling of the current elected government.
The buy-in matches a call to reconsider the line between the con and the mark. Instead, the buy-in encourages us to look to some political movements as “network scams” that function according to Lana Swartz (2022) “as a collaborative effort to bring about a shared future, but one that is fundamentally characterized by arbitrage on uneven belief among participants in that future ever coming to pass” (p. 1696). The buy-in considers the libidinal success of the movement to become a collective effort of belief, excitement, and even willingness to participate even when “a true believer is indistinguishable from a shill” (Swartz, 2022, p. 1707).
The buy-in, finally, involves capitalization, selling the stocks that have value for nothing more than being believed in. The buy-in is a moment of speculative excess, of breaking funding records in the case of the Freedom Convoy raising over $10 million. Memes, NFTs, splinter groups: speculation becomes something beyond the initial pitch—an exuberance that André Brock (2019) theorizes through the concept of the libidinal economy. The fake warrant discussed above is a good example of a speculative object that invites buy-in, for the reader to imagine Trudeau’s crimes and, perhaps, for the person who buys in to take matters into their own hands as has been a trope in the far-right in Canada trying to perform citizen arrests or storm Justin Trudeau’s residences.
What does this leave to the field of disinformation studies? In one sense, speculation re-centers the importance of communication as projection or fantasy, understood here as the ability to conjure something out of nothing. We appreciate efforts to fact-check the Freedom Convoy, but the truth alone does not suffice as a remedy for disinformation. Our response in turn is to focus on communication as a speculative art, one which is less concerned with accountability than with imagination and fiction.
Yet, speculation is not abstract fantasy cut off from the real so much as it is about articulation, a form of conjecture that brings possibilities together into something new (Hall, 1983). More a kind of mutation, the speculative arts concern the rhetorics of fantasy that infect worlds by becoming economics and politics. As we all know now, a virus is something new that can live in already-existing hosts. As Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner (2021) have stressed, the QAnon conspiracy relied on deeper stories of satanic panics and a threat felt by White Christians, and while its partial success might be accidental, the possibility of something like it succeeding is not. In looking at the speculative excess of the pitch, the playbook, and the buy-in, we see as much a need to study their conditions of possibility as their craft.
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 Journalist Glen McGregor reported the fake warrant on Twitter on 11 February 2022: https://twitter.com/glen_mcgregor/status/1492352467136303110/photo/1