Misinformation and conspiracy theories have become a central feature of modern life, but they have a long history that have served to justify surveillance and prosecution of marginalized groups. In this Matrix on Point panel, we asked scholars who study these histories to reveal how misinformation circulates, and the effects of such myths and stories on society.
Timothy R. Tangherlini is Professor in the Scandinavian Department and Director of the Graduate Program in Folklore at UC Berkeley. He explores informal storytelling at large scale, greatly supported in recent years by the emergence of social media) and considerable advances in natural language processing, machine learning and network science. Recent work has focused on exploring the narrative frameworks of Pizzagate and Bridgegate, understanding how parents reached consensus on vaccine exemption thereby undermining enormous gains in the public health arena, following the emergence of diverse competing conspiratorial narratives during the pandemic, and tracing how seditious groups used internet forums to develop plans to storm the capitol.
Robert Braun is Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Berkeley. His research focuses on civil society and intergroup relationships in times of social upheaval and has been published in the American Journal of Sociology, the Annual Review of Political Science, the American Political Science Review, the American Sociological Review, Theory and Society and Social Forces. His first book “Protectors of Pluralism” tries to explain why some local communities step up to protect victims of mass persecution while others refrain from doing so and is forthcoming at Cambridge University Press. My second book project, “Bogeymen”, traces the evolution of fear in Central Europe throughout the 19th and 20th century by studying the spread of frightful figures in children’s stories.
Poulomi Saha is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley and is affiliated faculty in the Programs for Critical Theory and for Gender and Women’s Studies, the Center for Race and Gender, the Institute for South Asia Studies, the LGBTQ Citizenship Cluster, and the Department of Department of South and South East Asian Studies. Their research and teaching interests span postcolonial studies, ethnic American literature, feminist and queer theory, critical theory, and psychoanalytic critique. Their first book, An Empire of Touch: Women’s Political Labor and the Fabrication of East Bengal (Columbia, 2019) was awarded the 2020 Harry Levin Prize for outstanding first book by the American Comparative Literature Association. Saha’s scholarship has appeared in differences, qui parle, Signs, Interventions, The Journal of Modern Literature, Postcolonial Literary Inquiry, and the Journal of American Studies, among other places. She is currently at work on Fascination: America’s “Hindu” Cults.
Elena Conis (moderator), Professor in the UC Berkeley School of Journalism, is a writer and historian of medicine, public health, and the environment. She is the author of How to Sell a Poison: The Rise, Fall, and Toxic Return of DDT; Vaccine Nation: America’s Changing Relationship with Immunization; and, with Aimee Medeiros and Sandra Eder, Pink and Blue: Gender, Culture and the Health of Children. Conis’s research focuses on scientific controversies, science denial, and the public understanding of science, and has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Institutes of Health/National Library of Medicine, and the Science History Institute. She is an affiliate of Berkeley’s History Department and Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society and the Department of Anthropology, History, and Social Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. Previously, she was a professor of history and the Mellon Fellow in Health and Humanities at Emory University and an award-winning health columnist for the Los Angeles Times.