The VAX CON Network: Graphing Medical Conspiracy Discourse

Robert Howard
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Communication Arts

This paper demonstrates the utility of a network graphing approach to everyday discourse on the Internet by presenting results from a yearlong study of online forum communications about a perceived conspiracy between pharmaceutical companies, media providers, and government. After creating Python scripts to automate the download process,over 60 thousand forum posts were placed into a relational database. Using database queries to create text files, semantic maps of those files provide graphic visualizations of the discursive processes that aggregate individual expressions of belief into a powerful vernacular authority. These visual representations give humanistic researchers a wide-angle snapshot of a massive field of dynamic and ongoing informal discourse. As these graphs resolve the masses of specific discursive acts into large generalized shapes, this method demonstrates how everyday communication online can aggregate into a powerful authority. Combined with qualitative interview data, these graphs show an aggregated online authority becoming powerful enough to challenge even the claims of medical institutions and personal doctors as individuals consider their choices to pursue vaccines and related treatments for both their children and themselves.

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