On June 15, Tucker Carlson took to his influential Fox News show to spread a conspiracy theory that FBI agents were among the crowd of rioters that stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, as part of a plot to arrest the rioters and squash “political dissent.” 

Carlson adopted the theory from the right-wing outlet Revolver News, which is run by former Trump speechwriter Darren Beattie, who was fired in 2018 after appearing on a panel with a white nationalist.

“Strangely, some people who participated in the riot haven’t been charged. Look at the documents. The government calls these people ‘unindicted co-conspirators.’ What does that mean? It means that in potentially every case, they’re F.B.I. operatives,” Carlson told his 3 million viewers.

It’s a clear cut example of how disinformation works. Dr. Jennifer Mercieca, a professor of rhetoric and public affairs at Texas A&M University, did a blow-by-blow analysis of how Tucker Carlson’s segment was designed to capitalize on viewers’ fears and pull them into his conspiracy theory.

Dr. Mercieca sat down with Coda Story to talk about why disinformation like this is so effective. 

Coda Story: How does disinformation work? What’s happening to Tucker Carlson’s audience when they hear him pushing conspiracy theories?

JM: Rhetoric scholars like me have known since Aristotle that appealing to people’s emotions is effective for persuasion. We have a very prominent fight, flight or freeze response to scary threats in our environment. 

Media can transmit affect, so we feel what they tell us to feel. What conspiracy theorists like Tucker Carlson do, and what I think Fox News uses as a basic business model, is activate those negative emotional states. So appealing to polarization, fear, outrage, disgust. That keeps us engaged with their content. It’s an engagement strategy in the attention economy. And it’s a great way to manipulate, deceive your viewers.

Coda Story: Fox News creates an entire worldview. Tucker Carlson isn’t just telling you one conspiracy theory, he’s telling you how to perceive the world. How does that work? 

JM: Cultivation theory says that we understand the world mostly through first-hand experience. All media is very powerful in terms of creating reality for us. Everything is a conspiracy in Fox world. So the rhetorical fallacy tu quoque — an appeal to hypocrisy. Colloquially, that’s “what about-ism.” It’s a form of ad hominem attack, attacking the person instead of their argument. So it doesn’t matter what they say, it doesn’t matter what the facts are. They’re self-interested, they’re cheaters. They’re liars. You can never trust them. Every story is just another iteration of that.  

Tucker Carlson has built a circular narrative. Trust no one except for me. There’s a plot against you and I’m here to tell you about it.

Coda Story: As part of that worldview, there’s often an implication that the people who believe it are in on something that the rest of us don’t understand. How does that feed the conspiracy theory?

There’s a strategy of propaganda — and Trump did this all the time — where you don’t provide the answer. You use that ambiguity so that the viewer feeds the answer to you. 

Conspiracy theories are incredibly useful for connecting a leader or news organization to their followers, the people who are in on what the conspiracy is. 

Coda Story: Presenters like Carlson often plant certain ideas in the minds of their viewers. How do they do this? 

Keyword squatting is one. They seed all the information they want you to find on the internet. You’ve never heard of a crisis actor? You’re going to look that up. Then you find the content they want you to find. But the conspiracy theory is so pernicious because it can never be disproven. It can never be proven true, but it can never be disproven either because of the logic of the conspiracy itself.

Coda Story: So if you can’t argue against the conspiracy theory, what do you do?

JM: You can’t puncture these narratives, so one thing I think that could possibly help is to use a concept like Occam’s razor — the simplest solution is usually the right one. So do you think that it is the case that somehow the Democratic Party could steal the election in every precinct, every county, every state? Literally making the point that there were thousands and thousands of people who somehow coordinated in secret to defraud the election and overthrow the government. How could that possibly happen? People are terrible secret keepers.