Lessons From a Disinformation Coalition

Extended essay by
W. Ordeman


The world as we have created it is a process of our thinking. It cannot be changed without changing our thinking.”

Albert Einstein

Coalitions are a crucial foundation for social change, and change begins at the individual level. Karma Chávez (2013) called a coalition “a present and existing vision and practice that reflects an orientation to others and a shared commitment to change” (p. 146). Individuals join a coalition to enact change only after rhetoricians persuade them of the values and vision of that coalition. In the dawn of the disinformation age, however, false information spreads and persuades quicker than true information (Orlowski, 2020). Social media creates ecologies where believers in disinformation can contribute to the narratives by imitating and inventing arguments that express the values of the coalition (Zuboff, 2019).

Don Fallis (2015) calls information “something that has semantic (or representational) content” (p. 403). Disinformation represents claims that are unfounded and will likely create false beliefs despite significant evidence supporting the contrary (Fallis, 2015, p. 405). It involves an agent who is actively attempting to mislead. Intentions make disinformation distinct from the unintended sharing of erroneous facts: misinformation (Fetzer, 2004). Agents of disinformation share “well-formed and meaningful data that is false” with the intent of misleading the reader (Floridi, 2013).

Politicians have used the wealth of disinformation available online to bolster their ideologies with false logic stemming from false claims and by doing so build coalitions to serve their interests. This has never been clearer than in the winter of 2020–2021. Scott D. Sundvall’s (2017) article “The First 100 Days of an Electrate President” offered a signpost of what the world would witness not just in 2020, but throughout Trump’s presidency. Sundvall (2017) claims Trump understood the wisdom of the First Sophists: “if people want to believe you, and if you spin it the right way, then people will believe you” (p. 1). From the first month when Press Secretary Sean Spicer falsely reported Trump’s inauguration contained the largest audience ever witnessed (Ford) to disinformation campaign questioning the validity of election results, Trump built his ethos upon doxa rather than logos —ideology instead of truth (Sundvall, 2017). Trump’s popular appeal as the savior from the “political establishment” relies on the affect of his character exonerated and sustained by the ideology of millions of Americans. Trump was not the initiator of this doxa, but he certainly played a creative role in its most recent iteration.

Plato equated doxa to popular opinion or belief. In his mind, doxa was an inferior tool used by the sophists to trick the masses into believing things that were not true. Doxa was inferior to episteme—belief built upon logical arguments (Flakne, 1999, p. 159). For sophists like Isocrates, leading one’s audience “to see the new situation as confirming their traditions and as validating their familiar notions of self” holds more persuasive power than attempting to convince through logical argument (Poulakos, 2001, p. 69). Despite Trump’s own agencies contradicting his false claim concerning the election (RumorCountrol, 2020), the success of voter fraud disinformation campaigns suggest Isocrates was right. Disinformation campaigns begin by planting seeds that confirm traditions of distrust and validating individual’s doxa over long periods of time.

By April 2020, survey polls suggested President Trump was likely to lose the election (RealClearPolitics, 2020). This spurred the President to plant seeds of doubt in the voting process. Trump heralded this disinformation long enough that by November 4th many Republicans believed his claims about voter fraud, not because he had cogent arguments (episteme), but because he had met them at their special topoi, created in them a sense of identity, inspired them to imitate his actions, and offered them the tools to build a coalition. The doxa in which these topoi reside are (re)formed by the disinformation excess of the 21st century and (re)distributed through electracy (Sundvall). This rhetorical use of doxa would eventually lead a coalition to storm the Capital on 6 January 6 2021. Numerous surveys suggested as many as 80% of Trump voters believed election was “stolen” from Trump by massive fraud (Walsh, 2020). Should we consider Trump an effective coalition builder? What rhetorical principles make him effective? Can counter coalitions learn from his methods?

In the following sections, I will demonstrate how effective coalitions are built in the electrate age where doxa and not episteme turn the tides of history. I will walk us through the steps the Trump administration has taken to build a coalition beginning with creating special topoi. I will then offer surface level tactics activists can use to create counter-coalitions.

Special topoi  >> Identification >> Imitation >> Coalition

Special topoi, though vaguely defined by Aristotle (Rapp, 2010), are “commonplaces” where the orator and audience meet. While common topoi represent relationships between claims (e.g., greater or less than, less and more likely), special topoi are enthymemes such as assumptions, facts, or other information that do not require explanation or defense. Special topoi act as premises that build syllogisms (Rapp, 2010), which can be used in common topoi to build logical arguments. For example, Trump supporters declare their allegiance to the him because, “He loves our country,” or “He cares about our religious freedom.” These claims reinforce suggest Trump has met them in the “commonplaces” of patriotism, religious freedom, etc., which are built upon unconscious biases. The President exploits these biases as means of meeting his supporters in their commonplace. In “The Racial Politics of Circulation: Trumpicons and White Supremacist Doxai,” Laurie Gries and Phil Bratta (2019) explore how white supremacist ideologies are perpetuated by producing and circulating the emotions and fantasies of whiteness (p. 418). Shawn J. and Trevor Parry-Giles (2006) explain in The Prime-Time Presidency: The West Wing and U.S. Nationalism that the presidential office is often used as the commonplace where referents or signs (re)construct, (re)articulate, and (re)affirm ideologies and beliefs about American identity and the roles of gender, race, and militarism in U.S. nationalism. Just as the president has exploited the emotions and fantasies of whiteness with banning diversity training (Guynn, 2021), he also invoked special topoi of the far right to affirm their distrust of laudable processes, such as election voting.

Rhetoricians and their audience create special topoi with significations. Although deferential, significations tether themselves to definitions that can be referenced in some authorized text. Some terms, however, are purposefully left ambiguous as a means of building a larger coalition (Laclau, 2005). One tactic of the Trump campaign has been to exploit vague terms that are not carefully defined or ambiguous terms subject to multiple definitions. Ernesto Laclau (2005) defines these floating signifiers as ways fundamentally different political ecologies construct populist ideologies based on terms left without clear referents. These terms remain devoid of precise meaning[1], such as socialism (Neklason, 2019), liberalism (Neklason, 2019), “fake news” (Farkas and Schou, 2018), etc. They give frustrated members of the disinformation coalition a commonplace (specific topoi) to vocalize their angst and act as weapons of disinformation. Figure 1 shows an example of the President using floating signifiers to invoke a response with his Twitter followers. The tweet offers a non-sequitur to lead readers to false beliefs religious liberty.Many have called these ambiguities into account (see Figure 2).

Donald Trump's religious liberty tweet
Figure 1. Religious Liberty tweet.


Figure 2. Floating signifiers.
Figure 2. Floating signifiers.

While DACA, Sanctuary Cities, and the Census, are partisan issues none bear obvious relation to or challenge the stability of religious liberty[2]. The President may have been referring to a June ruling that protected LGBTQ employees from discrimination (Bostock vs. Clayton County), but there is little correlation between this and first amendment rights including freedom of religion. Brian Massumi (2015) writes that “Threat is not real in spite of its nonexistence. It is superlatively real, because of it” (p. 53). Thus when Trumps calls into being these threats to the doxa of religious liberty, he creates a superlatively real commonplace where his base can feel recognized and affirmed. To answer how these floating signifiers “trigger” coalitions, we must turn our attention to the role of unconscious bias in special topoi.

Unconscious biases are built in part by media-priming and are used to develop and affirm values and beliefs (Gladwell, 2007; Weingarten et al., 2016). Unconscious biases can be significantly powerful even when exposed as groundless. A study by Patricia L. Moravec, Radnall K. Minas, and Alan R. Dennis, (2019) found that flagging articles as “fake news” posted on social media platforms engaged readers cognitively with increased semantic memory retrieval, false memory construction, or increased attention. Unfortunately, it did not affect the readers’ personal judgement about the validity or invalidity of the truth claim (Moravec, Minas, and Dennis, 2019).

The study discusses confirmation bias by adopting the vocabulary of Keith Stanovich (1999) and Daniel Kahneman (2011) through the use of terms “System 1 and System 2.” Moravec, Minas, and Dennis (2019) claim that when receiving new information, our brains pass the information through System 1 which unconsciously “searches long-term memory for confirming evidence and generates a response in less than one second” (p. 1350). “When we see new information,” the authors claim, “our System 1 automatically, and in less than one second, confirms that it matches our prior knowledge and we are inclined to believe it. Or, our System 1 tells us that it does not match and we should not believe it” (p. 1350) Moravec, Minas, and Dennis’ (2019) study reveals that even when our System 1 tells us we should not believe something, our biases compel us to challenge the validity of the new knowledge.

Once information passes through System 1 (where it might resonate with our doxa), it may or may not proceed to System 2. This second system involves conscious decisions about the validity or invalidity of any given statement. This system is under our control, but it is easily overwhelmed with much less “processing capability” than System 1. The result is confirmation bias.

The President’s disinformation campaign did not create these biases so much as  reaffirmed them by bombarding information through his Twitter feed and the White House Briefing Room. As this rhetoric passes through the System 1 of his supporter, they instantaneously determine whether these claims confirm what they know or believe. The more his tweets confirm bias, the less often his claims are assessed by System 2.

Special topoi  >> Identification >> Imitation >> Coalition

Daniel Gilbert (1991) argues current research in behavioral psychology supports Spinoza’s model of cognitive behavior: “people believe in the ideas they comprehend, as quickly and automatically as they believe in the objects they see” (p. 107). Beliefs involve mental representation and positive assessment. Gilbert’s (1991) argument doesn’t suggest all adults are credulous, but does infer that untrained mental systems are more akin Spinoza’s theory than a Cartesian one in which conception and assessment occur as two independent actions.

Metal systems do not have unlimited resources and must operate under conditions. With Moravec, Minas, and Dennis’ (2019) study and Gilbert’s (1991) argument in mind, how much information is too much for our brain to effectively asses? Information floods our senses and demands we comprehend and assess immediately if we are to continue to consume more of it. This behavior has likely rendered most information comprehended and believed without thoroughly evaluating it as argued in The Social Dilemma (Orlowski, 2020). Chris N.H. Street and Daniel C. Richardson (2015) have similarly argued when readers are forced into making binary judgements, they appear to believe and comprehend simultaneously and make decisions in relation to their biases. The authors argue that this is not typical, but only when under pressure to decide (p. 234).

When a reader thinks, “I am like that person – we share the same values,” then the rhetor has access their identification. Twitter user @Sarosa1776 appears to have established this kind of identification through the special topoi of religious liberty (see fig. 3).

Figure 3. Retweet of Religious Liberty
Figure 3. Retweet of Religious Liberty

The special topoi where Trump joins his supporters involves a floating signifier that open for the defining. As “religious liberty” is highly valued in conservative circles, Trump has invoked it for supporting his unrelated claim. Consequently, @Saorsa1776 retweets his message, which reaches more people (or the same people more consistently).

A study by Godwin Y. Agboka (2013) shows participatory localization, a term he has coined to mean “user-in-community involvement and participation,” increases use of a text within a given context. Trump’s tweets allow users to involve themselves and participate (by retweeting, commenting, and liking) thus entrenching themselves in the identity of the coalition.

Unfortunately, Western understandings of identity has led us to overestimate our mental autonomy. Robert E. Terrill (2016) argues “We have inherited—both from Romantic notions of linguistic self-expression and from neoliberal notions of isolated self-reliance—a tendency to believe that character formation is a matter of more effectively articulating one’s individuality rather than of duplicating identities articulated by others” (p. 158). Citizens convinced they are “free, independent thinkers” will contend with Quintilian’s hope of imitation as the means to make people “better.” In an individualist society, we assume coalitions are built by a congregate of “woke” citizens, of individuals who “are so awake [their] third eye sees things that aren’t event there” (Young, 2019). To Quintilian (2020), however, truth infects listeners and pulls them into belief: “attention to what I have said, …will at least excite in them, what I desire even more, a love for doing well.” (12.11.31) Agency is in the rhetoric, not the hearer.

Identification follows the collection of special topoi. Just as algorithms within a social media platform accurately predict and mold behavior of its users, users begin to identify with constructed identities in virtual spaces.

Special topoi  >> Identification >> Imitation >> Coalition

“The whole conduct of life,” Quintilian (2020) writes, “is based on the desire of doing ourselves that which we approve in others” (10.2.2) Quintilian believes people become “good” through a holistic and rigorous education from careful instruction by “good” teachers. Although some innate skill is required, students become “good” by imitating the styles of “good” orators (Book X). While there has been much debate over Quintilian’s definition of “good”, he makes a compelling case for the efficacy of imitation as a means of building a coalition. He concedes that imitation is not sufficient to producing rhetoric and urges his students to “account with caution and judgement” (10.2.3). A good orator doesn’t simply imitate, but also invents for “no one will come up with him in whose steps he thinks he must tread…[lest he] always be behind him” (10.2.10). Nonetheless, it is in the practice of imitation that precedes rhetorical invention (10.2.3).

The student must imitate, not just the speaker’s words, but also their delivery in order to “bring [one] into actual touch with the things themselves” (Quintilian 2020, 10.1.16) Consider @jamesplake721’s retweet which imitates the original’s style in regards to capitalization, punctuation, and urgency (see fig. 4).


Figure 4. Retweet 1.
Figure 4. Retweet 1.

Students imitating the words and delivery to a live audience foster an identification behavior that instills in the students that which is commendable in their given doxa. In Figure 4, user @Poochieportugal demonstrates an appeal to a shared special topos (the suspicion of/anger towards democrats) that the President infers in his original Tweet. In this act of imitation, @Poochieportugal both repeats the President’s style (words in all capital letters) and his tweet while inventing new claims: “#Democrats ruin everything” (see fig. 5).

Figure 5. Retweet 2
Figure 5. Retweet 2

Quintilian (2020) encourages students to first comprehend then assess the validity of the speaker given their style (10.2.18). Students believe something is “good” because of the ethos of the speaker—an ethos created and sustained in special topoi—and consequentially, the orator and student develop a shared identity. When good oratory is easily replicable and identifiable, members of a coalition are more likely to participate in imitation as a means demonstrating their literacy of the community (Gee, 1989).

Special topoi  >> Identification >> Imitation >> Coalition

As affirmation becomes widespread and behaviors created affective response, a coalition is formed.  Even without Trump’s direct involvement in the planning and organizing of the January 6th insurrection, the crowd gathered on their own volition with their own sources to take action as a coalition.

Do effective disinformation coalitions offer insight for mobilizing members of a given community to promote positive change? Special topoi is not unique to disinformation rhetoric, but its use in disinformation campaigns should remind rhetoricians of the persuasive power of meeting constituents at the foundations of their doxa. Since identities are created and sustained when these biases are exploited, rhetoricians should look for ways affirm identities to inspire imitation. As illustrated in this article, social media platforms offer means for activists and audiences identify and publicly affirm ideologies. What this article has not accounted for is the fact that though the coalition was effectively constructed by the president, it appears to have untethered itself from his control at the climax of January 6th. Was Trump still the leader of the coalition at that moment? Probably not. I hope further research will illuminate ways coalitions can be built and controlled by leadership who apply the coalition tactics the Trump administration has taught us are effective in the electrate age.

We live in an age when doxa and sophistic rhetorics are more persuasive than appeals to logos and truth. Activists and rhetoricians can build coalitions of truth by employing these sophistic methods. Below are oversimplified tactics that coalition builders can use to create communities of identity and belonging for individuals who see the exigency but lack the community with which to act:

      1. Identify the doxa of your audience. Conduct a content analysis of existing rhetoric within the audience’s rhetorical ecology. A content analysis will render floating signifiers that signify special topoi and biases the coalition builders should invoke.
      2. Codify the values of the coalition through content and action. Share personal anecdotes with your audience giving clearer definitions and applications of signifiers. Be vulnerable in ways that reveal areas of growth and challenges related to your coalition.
      3. Give room for participation. Create rhetorical ecologies that offer participatory localization where audience members can contribute to the coalition’s message in acts of creation, (re)distribution, and (re)affirmation.
      4. Develop a consistent rhetorical style (linguistically or otherwise) that audience members can easily identify, imitate, and reproduce. Ensure these rhetorical moves reveal the values and ethos of the community.
      5. Provide places for interaction and doxa recognition among members. Equip members with communal tasks that require collaboration and individual agency.


[1] “Precise meaning” is in itself vague and differential. My point is that those who used such terms have difficulty articulating their definitions or provide a definition that has no reference to credible authority. return

[2]  In fact, two rulings in June 2020, Our Lady of Guadalupe School vs. Morrissey-Berru and Espinoza vs. Montana, upheld 1st amendment rights and its protection of the free exercise of religion (Savage, 2020). return


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Author Bio

Photo of W. OrdemanW. Ordeman (he/him/his) is a PhD student in the Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design program at Clemson. He also teaches business writing and public speaking at the University of North Texas. Ordeman’s publications include first-year-writing pedagogies and teaching ethics in writing classrooms. His current research, however, is in decolonial rhetorics and the role of the environment in the distribution of rhetorical agency within border contexts.