Metaphors and conspiracy theories (CTs) may at first sight seem unrelated, given that the latter purport to include and convey factual information in a non-figurative way. Conspiracy theories are also typically criticised for being ‘literally’ wrong or misleading, not for being metaphorical. Nevertheless, some of the CTs concerning the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g. COVID-19 as a man-made bioweapon or as a deliberate deception to institute a dictatorial system of socio-political control) seem to appear in highly figurative textual environments, which are often informed by source concepts of war or civil war. They in turn are used to justify ‚fighting back’ or ‘defense’ measures to be taken up by conspiracists and their followers against the aggressors and invite emotional identification and group loyalty in an ‘us-vs.-them’ schema. Using data from US, British and German COVID-10 related debates 2020-2022, the paper provides a qualitative analysis of the main implications of such war-metaphorization of CTs and argues the latter depend on figurative framings in order to gain attractiveness in terms of narrative and argumentative persuasiveness. This conclusion has implications for efforts to influence public debates in a helpful, enlightening way by “reframing” its figurative contextualizations. In conclusion, we argue that such reframing efforts should not target abstract metaphor domains but instead focus on critiquing those scenarios that enhance CTs.
Andreas Musolff is Professor of Intercultural Communication at the University of East Anglia (Norwich, UK). His research interests focus on the Study of Political Discourse, Metaphor Analysis and Intercultural Linguistics. His book publications include National Conceptualisations of the Body Politic (2021), Political Metaphor Analysis: Discourse and Scenarios (2016) and (co-edited) Pandemic and Crisis Discourse. Communicating COVID-19 and Public Health Strategy (just published with Bloomsbury) and Migration and Media. Discourses about Identities in Crisis (2019).