Off-campus Michigan Tech users: To download campus access theses or dissertations, please use the following button to log in with your Michigan Tech ID and password: log in to proxy server

Non-Michigan Tech users: Please talk to your librarian about requesting this thesis or dissertation through interlibrary loan.

Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Rhetoric, Theory and Culture (PhD)

Administrative Home Department

Department of Humanities

Advisor 1

Abraham Romney

Committee Member 1

Carlos Amador

Committee Member 2

Marika Seigel

Committee Member 3

Jenny Rice


In the wake of recent high-profile events—from public health crises like COVID-19 to highly contentious elections in the United States—conspiracy theories are once again at the center of public debate. Through rhetorical-cultural analysis, this dissertation examines the “conspiracy theorist” pejorative as it circulates through public discussions about politics, science and technology, and entertainment. In both the popular and scholarly media, much of the debate about conspiracy theories focuses on how to define, identify, and ultimately eliminate conspiracy theories, or on determining cognitive and social factors that contribute to conspiracy belief. Less attention is paid to the ways in which terms like “conspiracy theory,” “conspiracy theorist,” or, alternatively, terms like “debunker,” “skeptic,” are used rhetorically. This project seeks a better understanding of how such terms establish and maintain boundaries between outlandish ideas and legitimated knowledge. In Chapter 1, I look at the partisan deployment of the pejorative in social media, then turn toward conspiracy-related chatter on right wing forums in the leadup to the January 6, 2021, storming of the US Capitol building. The second chapter examines a long-standing debate about whether an obscure CIA memo marks the true origins of the conspiracy theorist pejorative. Chapter 3 looks at the history of conspiratorial imagery in hip-hop lyrics, then focuses on how use of the pejorative shaped the critical response to a recent album by hip-hop artist, Nas. Chapter 4 asks how conspiracy theorists understand their relationship to scientific knowledge. Chapter 5 argues that, contrary to claims that conspiracy theorists adopt the rhetorical style of scientists, the most problematic conspiracy theories often imitate technical rhetorical styles. In the concluding chapter, I examine the figure of the conspiracy theorist as represented in popular films and television shows. I then look at an emerging approach to the exploration of conspiracy theories—as represented by the so-called “Dirtbag left”—and their attempts to subvert the pejorative power of that popular image of the conspiracy theorist.