Why do hot-button topics make some people deliberately terrible writers?
October 11, 2021 10:17 PM   Subscribe

I occasionally receive emails from acquaintances who, when engaged in written correspondence about controversial political topics, seem to disregard every grammatical rule of writing they ever learned. Is this a known phenomenon? Why don't people espousing conspiracy theories adhere to English-language grammar norms when promoting said theories?

I'm struck by these emails because of how Jekyll-and-Hyde they feel.

These same acquaintances, when corresponding about topics NOT related to anything controversial, more-or-less adhere to informal English-language grammar norms and don't use any special formatting. The writing style of these emails is unremarkable.

But when writing about, say, a political stance they hold? Bring on the highly irregular use of punctuation. Bring on the seemingly arbitrary capitalization, emphasis, and italicization of words and phrases. Bring on use of random colors. Bring on mid-sentence font size changes. It feels like reading an old-timey ransom note made from letters clipped from a newspaper.

My question is, approximately: What is up with this? Is this a Known Thing? If it is, are there academics studying the language and metalanguage used by, e.g. conspiracy theorists?

To minimize threadsitting:

* The individuals in question are all highly-Western-educated, nonreligious, older white men who are native English speakers.

* The individuals in question hold a mix of politically independent viewpoints with respect to social issues, and conservative and/or libertarian viewpoints with respect to economic issues.

* The topics that produce ransom-note-resembling emails are anthropogenic climate change, Israel/Palestine, pandemic-related public policy, and free speech/censorship issues.

* As far as I can tell, these emails are actually being composed by the person sending it to me -- the text is not copied from a forward or a mailing list missive.

* I am open to learning that this is not a Known Thing and I just happen to have some idiosyncratic acquaintances.

* I find this all wildly annoying. Or, as they would put it, "WILD-ly ANNOYing !!"
posted by unruthless to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Emotion about the topic is getting the better of them, I'm pretty sure.

Also, there is a generational divide about how best to convey emotion in email and text. It could be that they think they're coming across as passionate because that's their "normal" for informally passionate, where your normal is not that.
posted by blnkfrnk at 10:56 PM on October 11, 2021 [6 favorites]

I also suspect code switching, with the emotional style prevalent in the forums and groups they learn about this stuff. Same as any fandom in a way - I'm much more likely to switch to Japanese kaomoji when talking about Japanese fandoms...
posted by I claim sanctuary at 11:02 PM on October 11, 2021 [18 favorites]

I'm not sure that it's a Known Thing in terms of broader formatting. That stuff requires work.

I'd agree that it's partly a code-switch / register thing. The weirdest grammatical shift I've seen is plural-to-singular: "the leftist" etc. to refer to a a group when a plural is required, but no, you're apparently committed to a bit that I'm not aware of, but it's something your in-group demands.

So you're right that the model here is the classic fwd: fwd: fwd: chainmail, where the formatting is all over the place, and perhaps that's the stylistic antecedent and perhaps there's a kind of formatting inheritance. But I've never seen this stuff created from scratch. Again, that stuff requires work. Are you sure it's not copypasta?
posted by holgate at 12:02 AM on October 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

Like holgate, I wonder if some of it is copy/pasted and that results in weird formatting etc? If they are excited and enthusiastic, they might be smashing together parts of other texts that speak to them.
posted by sedimentary_deer at 12:38 AM on October 12, 2021 [8 favorites]

Hot-headed arguments mean they basically stopped using critical thinking skills, and did not bother going over their posts with grammar and spelling checkers.

Another possibility is they used speech to text, which aren't the most reliable even in the best conditions.
posted by kschang at 3:54 AM on October 12, 2021

Best answer: I’m nearly certain it’s copied and pasted. I’ve gotten emails like this from my father-in-law, who’s an orthopedic surgeon and usually quite concerned about presentation. I know him well enough that I can recognize his voice, or lack thereof, and it does not at all sound like his voice, even when he talks about sensitive political topics in person(which he does).
posted by kevinbelt at 4:00 AM on October 12, 2021 [17 favorites]

Best answer: Register is definitely a good way of thinking about it. It's the style they associate with political screeds that were convincing to them. Register effects are pretty common: a lawyer or a preacher can "talk like a normal person" (i.e. in an unmarked register), but speak very differently when they're giving legal advice or a sermon.
posted by zompist at 4:18 AM on October 12, 2021 [10 favorites]

Another vote for this is copy-pasted. When I clicked on your answer, I assumed "oh, this is just emotion getting in the way of careful editing" but what you're describing is more extreme (I mean, random colors?) If it was just a bit of random capitalization, then I'd say they're adopting the genre/copying from other conspiracy-minded material out there.

I wouldn't be surprised if some linguist or linguistic anthropologist has studied the genre of conspiracy or political posts similar to what you're talking about.
posted by coffeecat at 6:33 AM on October 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Another vote for a kind of patchwork effect here -- I get the same type of formatting from my dad (early sixties, highly educated, white) and grandmother (early nineties, moves in moneyed center-left circles, white) when they send on links to cartoons or videos they liked. It's not 100% copy-pasted, it's forwarded (and therefore in one format) with their own commentary typed in here and there (in another format), and maybe multiple levels of that so you end up with three different typefaces, two colours, and God knows how many font sizes in a single email.

When it comes to the use of bold, italics, and caps, though, that seems more like a code-switching/register thing // people having ways that are native to them to note emphasis that are not native to you -- I see this across the generational divide a lot too.

Thanks for making an Ask about this, I'll be following to see what other folks have to say!
posted by some_kind_of_toaster at 9:04 AM on October 12, 2021

Response by poster: > I wouldn't be surprised if some linguist or linguistic anthropologist has studied the genre of conspiracy or political posts similar to what you're talking about.

Ditto, @coffeecat. I've been unable to find any academic studies related to this genre of writing or this topic more broadly, so if anyone knows of any, please share!
posted by unruthless at 9:37 AM on October 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

One test it to just grab sections/sentences and google for it.
posted by sammyo at 10:32 AM on October 12, 2021 [4 favorites]

Regarding Conspiracy ideation, I'd start here:


The comments are an interesting lot as well.
posted by kschang at 10:39 AM on October 12, 2021

Cultish, the Language of Fanaticism, by Amanda Montell, might be of interest here. From the blurb: “…the key to manufacturing intense ideology, community, and us/them attitudes all comes down to language. In both positive ways and shadowy ones, cultish language is something we hear—and are influenced by—every single day.”
posted by Minnowish at 12:46 PM on October 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

Linguist Gretchen McCulloch has a great book about the kinds of language used on the Internet, I can't recall if this specific kind of thing was covered but she often responds to questions like this on Twitter, might be worth getting in touch.
posted by Lluvia at 1:53 PM on October 12, 2021 [1 favorite]

This style is at least sometimes used deliberately by right-wingers. I once had the misfortune to be assigned to co-write a document with a fellow who I later learned was a neo-Nazi. He argued that the document should be rewritten with deliberate grammatical errors and random capitals so that the reader would feel smarter than the writer and not be put off. He was convinced that sounding anti-intellectual would make us more persuasive to more people. Another acquaintance deliberately uses this style in writing ebay listings and other sales materials, on the theory that it grabs attention, and then slows the reader down because they have to take time to "de-code" the message, not just parse it with a glance.
Both these opinions strike me as the sort of thing that must be taught in some PR course somewhere, but I've never learned specifically where. I'd love to know.
posted by Corvid at 2:07 PM on October 12, 2021 [7 favorites]

some of it is copy/pasted and that results in weird formatting etc?

Yeah but how would that work, exactly? The only troubles that arise with text copy/pasting in my experience involves special characters (if you consider quotation marks and the apostrophe special) which I believe Microsoft foisted upon the Internet, that aren't identical to their ascii or HTML originals. (Which, I might note, MeFi handles quite easily, without errors; and I've considered posting a question to the gray about how it's done.)

I bet rather than the user Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V-ing, this could be introduced when somebody manually transcribes the stuff I see people posting on Facebook, which isn't high-light-able text but a graphic containing text. And for the reasons the zompist, some_kind_of_toaster and Corvid just explained, upthread.
posted by Rash at 4:03 PM on October 12, 2021

I found this recent thread on Twitter about how older vs. younger people tweet and text highly entertaining and somewhat relevant to this conversation. Someone mentions the McCulloch book in that thread too.
posted by SomethinsWrong at 6:50 PM on October 12, 2021 [2 favorites]

This has been getting at me for a while, and I've been having thoughts but never followed through on looking through some research. I've been wondering the exact same thing, and I can't believe it's a copy/paste thing. I think it must be a signal, or a kind of code switch thing as mentioned above. My BiL is kind of into Q things, and at the same time is a coffee farmer in Costa Rica. In the first draft of the labels for his beans random words were capitalized, for example. We (my wife, a business owner with a lot of social media and branding stuff, and I, an education and literacy/literature researcher) pushed back on a lot of that, and he said that capitalizing these random words emphasized them. His business isn't working, but I don't think it's because of the labels that we eventually won out on.

But I do think there is something there. I can't find anything since this post was authored (which means about an hour total searching through what my university can tell me has been published in academic journals) with any number of search terms and keywords. The biggest thing that comes up is discourse and discourse analysis of the alt-right, rather than the syntax and punctuation habits of said writers.

Even though I'm pretty far in education, I always thought it would be really interesting to do some discourse analysis on Trump and GOP speakers from 2015 - 2021 to look at their rhetoric and how it was employed. I, too, thought that the linguists and communication/rhetoric people would have been publishing droves on this but I can't find anything on modes and register. I also would have thought that This American Life, The New Yorker, or something similar might have turned up some patterns, but not that I can see. If I ever do get to this research project, I'll let you know if I get it published!
posted by Snowishberlin at 6:33 PM on October 13, 2021

A sample of the writing in question (with typographical oddities preserved) would be helpful. (Although, of course, you may not have a sample that you're at liberty to share.)

I'm not aware of any formal research into the phenomenon, but riotous typography is definitely A Thing in the conspiracist corners of the internet. Time Cube is a famous example.

I've always assumed that the style arises from a combination of things:

One: a general lack of experience with (or regard for) the norms of written digital communication. (Compare to a white-collar employee who sends an email in hot pink Comic Sans and lime green Papyrus, in a variety of sizes, to announce the latest round of layoffs.)

Two: the culture of amateur/outdated web skills that one tends to find among older conspiracy believers. (Believe it or not, there are still people managing websites by creating individual HTML files in some kind of desktop WYSIWYG application, and then uploading them to a webhost via FTP.)

Three: in some cases (including Time Cube), as an element of the word salad that tends to accompany certain psychiatric disorders (which can also include paranoid thinking).

Your acquaintances could have unconsciously absorbed these typographic habits from such sites, or (my guess) are copying-and-pasting passages directly from the sites.

I'm not sure what Rash is talking about when they say "The only troubles that arise with text copy/pasting in my experience involves special characters".

If you copy and paste text from a web page into an email (for example), most email clients will absolutely preserve the original fonts, sizes, and colors.

At the risk of generalizing: older computer users, and those who are less internet-savvy (and therefore likelier to fall for conspiracist nonsense online), would be more likely to leave such copied-and-pasted typographical inconsistencies as-is, instead of correcting them.

In my exposure to this world (via my father, who is sadly obsessed with such things), amateur blogs are still very much a thing on the conspiracy internet (especially for older users – my father has never made the leap to social media, which is probably for the best). They are today's equivalent of self-published manifestos.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 4:40 AM on October 19, 2021

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