Why do old people get so argumentative

Conspiracy theories as argumentative narratives


The present article takes a look at the specifics of conspiracy-theoretical narratives. Particularly in dealing with the terms ›narrative‹ and ›topos‹ as well as following interdisciplinary research approaches on conspiracy theories, it is worked out that conspiracy theories are fundamentally structured in an argumentative manner. The example of Ken Jebsen's video "Gates captures Germany!" Illustrates the connection between narration and argumentation in conspiracy theories.


This paper examines the characteristics of conspiracy theory narratives. Discussing the linguistic concepts ›narration‹ and ›topos‹ as well as interdisciplinary research approaches to conspiracy theories, it is shown that conspiracy theories are generally argumentative. The connections between narration and argumentation in conspiracy theories are illustrated using the example of the video "Gates kapert Deutschland" by Ken Jebsen.


Telling and arguing are basic cultural, communicative and linguistic acts. Although they share some structural and functional similarities and may be closely related, the relationships between storytelling and reasoning are rarely systematically examined in linguistic research. It is obvious that arguments are sometimes developed narrative and that narrations are sometimes structured in an argumentative manner.Footnote 1

Both narratives and arguments are made up of sequences of utterances which, as was already emphasized in the rhetoric of antiquity, can serve for persuasion. In the structure of the classic political speech, the narration the argumentatio before and is interwoven with it. It describes an initial situation and thus creates the "facts" to which the argument refers. In this ordinary case, and that seems next to the sample narrative or that exemplum the most obvious relationship between reasoning and narration, narrative utterances function as premises or arguments in argumentation. (See Hannken-Illjes 2019, pp. 33–37)

Be it structural or functional: The relationships between storytelling and arguing are diverse. The present article takes a closer look at the specifics of conspiracy-theoretical narrative and argumentation. The preoccupation with conspiracy theories as a narrative, in which argumentation patterns play a formative role in establishing knowledge of conspiracy theory, goes back to Stumpf / Römer (2018).Footnote 2 Breil / Römer / Stumpf (2018) examine argumentation patterns and topological associations within the chemtrails conspiracy theory. Following the studies mentioned, conspiracy theories are established as a specific form of narrative. In addition, this is described as having an argumentative structure, which - according to the assumption - makes conspiracy-theoretical narratives more or less coherent and meaningful. This is to be discussed in the following first theoretically and then using an example.

On the persuasive-argumentative function of narratives

A central rhetorical element of the election campaign for the 2017 federal election of the SPD was the use of biographical segments that served to create the image of the candidate for chancellor Martin Schulz (see Römer 2018a). In various appearances, Schulz characterized himself as a "little man" from the provinces who, after his career as a school dropout, failed professional footballer and alcoholic, took his second chance and made it to the top (for example in his party conference speech on March 19, 2018). This way of life became with the high value and SPD flag word solidarity when Schulz spoke of having received and used his second chance thanks to the support of family, friends and the Jusos. After all, it was only through solidarity and hard work that he became a successful bookseller and mayor of Würselen. As a local politician, he learned politics from scratch.

Schulz repeated this consistently in speeches, talk shows and interviews, whereby a social democratic hero image of the authentic and emphatic politician from below was built up, which should legitimize him as the right person and convince citizens to vote for him.

This example is prototypical for a narrative way of depicting events, which in the result turns out to be narrative can be characterized. The individual utterances relating to the overall narrative can be described as narrative utterances understand. The expression Narration is product and process oriented. It describes both the process of storytelling and its result.

Generally speaking, storytelling is a cultural technique, a constructive activity and, in a more narrow sense, a pattern of verbalization. Experiences, individual real or fictional occurrences or information are brought into a sequential order with the help of language and thus presented as a seemingly coherent excerpt from reality. Elementary is the "linguistic representation of a change, a change in time" (Bubenhofer / Müller / Scharloth 2013, p. 423).Footnote 3

For linguistic analyzes of narratives as a pattern of verbalization, both the narrative utterances and the concrete linguistic means in their narrative-specific functions as well as the rules of their connection or the abstract structure of narratives can be of interest. (Cf. Gülich / Hausendorf 2000, pp. 371–374; Hannken-Illjes 2019, p. 32)

In everyday life as well as in political communication, narratives play a key role in »the production of apparently› objective ‹facts« (Spieß / Tophinke 2018, p. 194) and participate in the linguistic construction of realities. Stories construct reality by organizing experiences, events and information. According to Weidacher (cf. 2018, p. 315), narration acts like a filter: information that is considered significant is separated from inconsequential and temporally or causally linked to form a unit of meaning. Through selection and arrangement, the narrated becomes meaningful, communicable and understandable. The structure of narratives results from this "sequencing of events" (Weidacher 2018, p. 315).

In particular in public and political communication, narratives have an important orientation function:

Stories represent [...] - mostly not entirely altruistic - offers that are supposed to help the addressee to find their way in complex or perceived complex situations, but in a way that corresponds to the intentions of the text author. For example, causal relationships can be shown or postulated in a narrative that explain a situation to the recipient and thus make it transparent. This and an evaluation that is often immanent in the explanation enable him to orientate himself in this situation and to recognize his options for action accordingly. (Weidacher 2018, p. 315)

The selection and (causal) arrangement of information, the intention of the narrator, evaluation of the presentation of the situation, all of this indicates an ideological perspective, the conveyance of values ​​and attitudes within the context of the narrated reality. If the recipients are convinced of the course of events and contexts of events, of the conveyed worldview, they act according to the intention of the narrator, and the narrative also fulfills a persuasive function (cf. Weidacher 2018, p. 315).Footnote 4

Conspiracy-theoretical narratives are also based on persuasion because they try to convince people that events have happened differently than in the general representations of reality. Arguments are used both when questioning the official version of an event and as part of the legitimation of the conspiracy-theoretical interpretation. According to this, conspiracy-theoretical narratives are argumentative. In this context, the present article is less interested in the question of whether individual narrative utterances within conspiracy-theoretical narratives - in the sense of narration - be functionalized in an argumentative manner or whether narrative utterances occur as linguistic realizations of topoi (that every topos can be realized narrative, for example as a representation of events or example narration within the framework of conclusions by analogy, Klein (2019) elaborates). Following the analysis of topological discourse formations (Römer 2017), the present article is more interested in which context-specific topoi are used in conspiracy-theoretical narratives, what relationships the topoi have with one another and whether this results in a structural pattern characteristic of conspiracy theories, which is what constitutes conspiracy-theoretical narratives become more or less coherent and meaningful. This is based on certain theoretical argumentation assumptions, which are the subject of the following section.

Argumentation and topos


From a structural point of view, arguments like narratives are linguistic utterances sequenced in a certain way, which together result in a seemingly coherent network of relationships. Following the rhetorical and pragmatic modern argumentation theoryFootnote 5 From a functional point of view, argumentation can be defined as a type of action for dealing with problematic validity claims that subsequently require justification.

In argumentative sequences, an utterance with questionable, problematic or controversial validity claims based on a certain principle of thought (final rule according to Toulmin 2008 [1958]) is connected to "legitimized or legitimate validity claims" (Kopperschmidt 2005, p. 75) which are assumed to be unequivocally assumed. In this way, it should be converted into an utterance with an indisputable, unproblematic or non-questionable claim to validity. What has already been said about narratives also applies to argumentation: by linking them to collective convictions and regularly relating units of expression, they make facts understandable.

The formal-logical validity of the conclusion does not play a role in the plausibility-based argumentation in everyday and political communication areas. An argument is convincing in the sense of plausible if it is linked to what many people believe or know.

Usually, in addition to the principles of thought or inference rules, the shared certainties that are linked to in order to legitimize a validity claim are of interest for the linguistic argumentation analysis. The analysis of argumentation is carried out as an analysis of typical argumentation patterns or topoi, especially in studies on the use of public-political language.


Already in the oldest writings on topos research, namely in the Aristotelian treatises on Topic, no precise definition of the concept of topos can be found; nor in the books of Aristotle to the rhetoric. In the context of the rediscovery and reinterpretation of the Aristotelian theory of argumentation by modern argumentation theory (see note 5), topoi are understood to mean things as diverse as deductive or non-deductive conclusions, locations for arguments, heuristics / search formulas for finding arguments and premises, premises themselves, scientific, dialectical and / or rhetorical syllogisms, generally accepted opinions, rules of conclusion / formulas in the sense of Toulmin, general / special or formal / material or context-abstract / context-specific arguments, arguments, but also argumentation patterns that are absolutely necessary or even just convincing .

Two views of the concept of topos in modern argumentation theory are to be emphasized:

On the one hand, the conception as a search formula. This emphasizes the heuristic character of a topos as a place where suitable prerequisites or plausible premises or arguments can be found, i.e. "knowing which argument is to be looked for where" (Pielenz 1993; p. 37) in order to solve a problem. This understanding roughly corresponds to Theodor Viehweg's legal topos concept. Topik is understood there as a purely "premise-seeking procedure" (Viehweg 1974, p. 39), a procedure for the search for general points of view or principles that can be used for the argumentative solution of legal problems.

On the other hand, the view as evidence. This emphasizes the character of a topos as a goal-oriented argumentative movement of thought or inference rule in the sense of Toulmin, which allows the transition from the controversial thesis to the conclusion and thus ensures the persuasiveness of an argument. The latter approach largely corresponds to the topos term used in linguistics (Wengeler 2003).

Fundamental for the general understanding of a topos in the sense represented here are two terms of the ancient theory of argumentation:

  1. 1.

    As already indicated, arguing in everyday language or in public discourses is based on merely probable premises "which are not qualified as true or even evident principles" (Rapp / Wagner 2004, p. 18). These probable premises are fed by collectively recognized opinions, the Aristotle Endoxa is called. So far the Endoxa are collectively recognized, they can be assumed as a background relevant to understanding; the addressee adds them by himself, which means that a speaker in the discourse can follow them up for the purpose of argumentation "without further prior understanding" (Ptassek 1994, p. 1134). (Cf. Aristotle 1999: Rhet. 1357a 13) Endoxa provide according to Aristotle (cf. 1999 Rhet. 1357a 13) the most convincing premises of argumentation in practical life contexts. Exposing this unquestioned and taken for granted social knowledge by examining which collective knowledge segments are used as resources by different actors in order to form plausible arguments is the central objective of the analysis of topoi.

  2. 2.

    With regard to the argument aimed at a public audience and the formation of public opinion, the "most important means of persuasion" (Aristoteles 1999: Rhet. 1355a 11) is that Enthymeme. This can be understood to mean specific final procedures related to a specific problem area. According to Spitzmüller (2005, p. 280), the validity of Enthymems consequently "anchored in the discourse [...]" and not absolute, as is the case with the classical scientific syllogism. As is typical for arguments in everyday language or public discourses, it also applies to the enthymeme that its premises are »only probable« and also »that they remain partly implicit and finally that the structure is not always that of a logically valid conclusion« (Kienpointner 1992 , P. 891). It is therefore not a matter of conclusions that are logically valid and necessary from the premises, but rather »quasi-logical or everyday logical conclusions that aim at [...] plausibility" (Wengeler 2003, p. 178).

In summary, the general concept of topos used here can be outlined as follows: A topos is a social thought principle related to a certain object or discourse (in the sense of a Enthymems), according to which arguments are (can) be formed, the conclusiveness or conclusion of which follows from premises, recognized opinions (in the sense of Endoxa) are. Topoi therefore draw on habitual ways of thinking and prevailing collective beliefs. Their plausibility potential is based on this property.Footnote 6

Content-related and structure-related topographic analysis

In the context of work oriented towards political and discourse linguistics, the topos concept of ancient rhetoric was received differently. Accordingly, two toposanalytical research perspectives can be distinguished: a content-related and a structure-related one. The content-related toposanalysis (cf. Wengeler 2003) asks about the typical argumentation patterns within thematically and temporally limited discourses. Wengeler (2007, p. 166) understands a topos to be a "topos of argumentation" as introduced by Aristotle in his writings on topos and rhetoric. In doing so, he makes use of the vagueness of the concept of topos insofar as a topos oscillates categorically between content-indeterminate formal and content-specific material topics. In this sense, Wengeler understands topoi as rules of closure that are based on the one hand on general formal closing patterns and on the other hand are linked to discourse-specific knowledge segments.We are talking about context-specific topoi that are significant for a subject area in public-political discourse and with which plausible arguments can be realized within this area. (Cf. Wengeler 2007, p. 169) Their analysis should »provide insights into the thinking, (feeling) and volition of historical subjects and groups and thus about the social knowledge, the construction or constitution of social realities through language and thus also mentality- , The history of knowledge and consciousness. "(Wengeler 2003, p. 170 f.)

Also following on from the topos concept of ancient rhetoric, Klein (1995, 2000 et al.) Develops the idea of ​​a constellation of abstract, topic-independent, epoch-spanning basic topoi that are characteristic of political communication and the justification of political action (cf. Klein 2011a, p . 291). This approach differs from Wengeler's approach, on the one hand, in that topoi, as already mentioned, are modeled as abstract, relatively unspecific categories in terms of content and, on the other hand, by the assumption that they are always integrated into a structure-forming network of other topoi. The following components are prototypical for this "complex topical pattern" (Klein 2000):

  1. 1.

    A data topos, i.e. justification by describing an initial situation / by situation data.

  2. 2.

    A motivation topos / valuation topos, i.e. justification through (readiness to act) assessment of the situation.

  3. 3.

    A final topos, i.e. justification through goals / purposes.

  4. 4.

    A topos of principles, i.e. justification through norms and values ​​on which the assessment of the situation and the objectives of the argument are based.

According to Klein (2011a, p. 291), these basic topoi form the "basic pattern of political argumentation" and are indispensable for the justification of political projects. Their networking in linguistic action should result in “approval of the favored political action as a conclusion” (Klein 2011b, p. 7). The sequence of the topos is not fixed, the pattern can remain incomplete and - depending on the type of text, for example - it can be supplemented by other topoi (cf. Klein 2019, pp. 130 and 134-135).

As part of a discourse-historical, argumentation-analytical study of the economic crisis discourse in the FRG, Römer (2017) combines the approach of analyzing context-specific topoi with the analysis of context-independent topical patterns. The context-independent topoi function as basic topoi, which are filled with context-specific topoi. Together they form a "topological discourse formation" (Römer 2017, p. 123).

This enables a stronger convergence to Foucault's theoretical definition of discourses as a system of formation of statements and to knowledge archeology. The discourse structure-related analysis of topoi provides information about the being organized of argumentation patterns and thus about important properties of the discourse according to Foucault in the sense of a formation system of statements. The discourse content-related analysis provides information about social thinking and knowledge in a thematically determined discourse. By revealing what discourse actors recognize as valid knowledge and valid version of reality and according to which principles they use it productively in discursive practice or in linguistic action in order to realize arguments, the content-related toposanalysis makes a contribution to the knowledge archeology in Foucault 's senses.

When comparing the topological discourse formations of different economic crises, historical continuities and changes in the respective context-specific topoi can be determined with a constant abstract topos constellation of data topos, cause topos, topos of the maxim and final topos. For example, in the context of the justification of the so-called Agenda 2010 in 2003, no goals were cited as premises of the arguments under the final topoi that contained implications critical of capitalism. In the discourse on the banking and financial crisis in 2008, on the other hand, in the context of justifying political measures, a primary goal was to counteract financial market capitalism.

Before examining, using an empirical example, the question of whether a topological discourse formation can be identified for conspiracy theories and which context-specific topoi are used in conspiracy-theoretical narratives, the term ›conspiracy theory‹ has to be clarified. The focus is on the justification of conspiracy theories as a specific form of narrative.

conspiracy theories

Knowledge-sociological definition

conspiracy theoriesFootnote 7 are an integral part of modern media society. Numerous events - such as migration (see Römer / Stumpf 2019) or the corona pandemic (see Römer / Stumpf 2020a, 2020b) - are reinterpreted in terms of conspiracy theory. Above all, the "Internet [has] a great influence on the circulation and the effect of conspiracy theories" (Butter 2018, p. 180). Web 2.0 makes conspiracy theories more visible than before, easily accessible to everyone at any time and therefore always available. Apparently in connection with the general loss of trust in the state's ability to act and the increasing skepticism of some social groups towards the politico-social system, the established political parties and their representatives as well as the traditional media, conspiracy theories are currently finding approval (cf. Bartoschek 2017).Footnote 8

On the occasion of the current Corona crisis and the spread of anti-science hostility in this context, Chancellor Angela Merkel recently called in a speech to the Bundestag for research into the question of how to get into a world »which speaks a different language, so to speak, and which we use our fact-based language cannot achieve at all «.Footnote 9 Conspiracy theories have been the subject of research in the humanities and social sciences in Germany since the mid-1990s - in isolated cases even earlier.Footnote 10 The leading scientific perspective of early preoccupation with conspiracy theories is essentially shaped. Conspiracy-theoretical knowledge is illegitimate, is based on untrue assertions and in the sense of a cognitive deficit thesis, possession of such knowledge and belief in its validity are symptoms of mental illnesses (delusionality, paranoia). Corresponding research then focuses on proving the falseness and intellectual inferiority of conspiracy theories or conspiracy theorists. (Cf. Anton / Schetsche / Walter 2014, pp. 10–11) Such a perspective underlies Butter's approach in the current research discussion on conspiracy theories, when he says that these are “wrong” and “belong in the realm of fantasy” ( Butter 2018, p. 39). Assessments of this kind, which every descriptive linguist would have to question, can only be made on the basis of one's own worldview, which is assumed to be correct. Anything that deviates from this is classified as wrong.

Newer constructivist understandings reject the definition of the truth content of conspiracy theories. Especially in the context of sociological knowledge work, it is assumed that conspiracy theories are collective systems of knowledge (about conspiracies),

at the center of which are explanatory or interpretation models that interpret current or historical events, collective experiences or the development of a society as a whole as the result of a conspiracy. As socially constructed bodies of knowledge [...] conspiracy theories fulfill the function, human experience and action with sense to provide. (Anton 2011, p. 119)

Knowledge is »socially determined« (Anton 2011, p. 27). After all, it encompasses everything that is thought to be real and must be examined in all its manifestations - "regardless of its validity or invalidity" (Berger / Luckmann 2010, p. 3) (cf. Anton 2011, p. 27).

Linguistics can be linked directly to the sociological knowledge term ›conspiracy theory‹. Accordingly, even the linguistic analysis of conspiracy theories is not about proving their "falseness". It is crucial that conspiracy theories are held to be true. In this respect, the point is to make the linguistic credibility of conspiracy-theoretical knowledge understandable.

Conspiracy theories as narratives

Conspiracy theories sometimes arise in response to uncertainties or insecurities. They interpret events or processes - often difficult to explain, crisis-ridden - that cannot be embedded or cannot be well embedded in prevailing interpretive patterns, thus giving them meaning and thus integrating them better into existing horizons of knowledge (this of course only applies to those who support conspiracy-theoretical explanations are receptive). As noted in section two, making intelligibility is a central feature of narratives. It is therefore not surprising that conspiracy theories are fundamentally structured in a narrative manner.

As also mentioned, narratives make the world understandable by selecting, sequencing and thereby depicting experiences, events and changes in state over time. We recognize conspiracy-theoretical narratives by the fact that they describe "a change in the situation towards the worse" (Seidler 2016) and explain and justify this as a result of secret actions by a group of people (cf. Bartoscheck 2017, p. 22). Empirical studies (see note 2) have shown that the important hypothesis is that the conspirators are pursuing a plan to achieve selfish goals (according to the question typical of conspiracy theories cui bono). This supposedly well thought-out project, the conspiracy, makes the conspiracy theory visible.

According to Seidler (2016), who fundamentally defines conspiracy theories as narratives, conspiracy theories are narrative because they

never merely asserting that a conspiracy exists, but always address a change in state (for example revolutions, wars, terror, economic crises), which they explain on the basis of conspiratorial courses of action. In principle, however, these courses of action take place in secret and must be made 'visible' by the narrator. (Seidler 2016, p. 34)

Another characteristic of conspiracy-theoretical narratives is that they are composed of two plots, "which are antagonistic to each other" (Seidler 2016, p. 35; cf. also Kelman 2012, p. 18). The visible plot corresponds to the official version of an event. The invisible plot corresponds to the plot of the conspiracy theory. The latter refers to the visible plot and retells it assuming a conspiracy. The visible plot and the more invisible plot are related to each other in such a way that a seemingly logical narrative results. Seidler describes the relationship between the two plots as the relationship between texts:

The relationship between the two plots shows itself [...] as a relationship of intertextuality, since the conspiracy-theoretical text always refers to an event representation that lies outside the own text and that is typically located in the context of mass media reporting. This external text acts here as a visible plot, while the conspiracy theory is merely the invisible plot or adds the ›secret truth‹ as a second plot. (Seidler 2016, p. 36)

That is, conspiracy-based narratives never completely deviate from the visible plot; they are counter-narratives that always tie in with existing "stories" and make use of them. The invisible plot reveals "defects" in the visible plot and reinterprets it in the sense of conspiracy theory (cf. Kelman 2012, p. 6).

Following Goffman (1989), Seidler understands this central aspect of conspiracy-theoretical narration as framing, ie a given fact is given a certain communicative meaning through the reorganization of the »facts«: »The› invisible plot ‹arises above all from the fact that the external› visible plot ‹is placed in the framework of› conspiracy ‹and then each individual elements are given meaning in the sense of this framework.« (Seidler 2016, p. 37)

Uncovering inconsistencies in the visible plot is also conceived as a “framework attack” (Seidler 2016, p. 41). The conspiracy-theoretical narrative attacks the framework or the interpretation scheme of the visible plot and puts the framework ›conspiracy‹ in its place. Any event can thus become the subject of a conspiracy theory. Scientific and media explanations, for example, are often not recognized.

The aim of the linguistic analysis of conspiracy theories is to work out with which linguistic means the "framework attack" takes place and how conspiracy-theoretical knowledge is legitimized. In addition to various linguistic means that we have examined elsewhere (see note 2), arguments are used insofar as claims to validity are questioned on the one hand and raised on the other according to the plot structure. As conspiracy-theoretical narratives select and sequence information in such a way that they try to justify questionable knowledge, namely the controversial connection of a conspiracy, as a conclusion, they are not only structured narrative, but also argumentative. This should be illustrated in the last section of the post.

Sample analysis

Bill and Melinda Gates and the Corona crisis

In particular in "alternative media" on the Internet, which see themselves as independent and take a stand against the politically controlled "mainstream" - the elite - there are numerous conspiratorial counter-narratives about the causes, backgrounds, consequences, etc. of the corona pandemic.

For example, on May 3, 2020, the former radio presenter Ken Jebsen published on his now blocked YouTube channel KenFmFootnote 11 a 30-minute video with the title »Gates hijack Germany!«.Footnote 12 By the end of August, the video had been viewed well over three million times.Footnote 13 The popular conspiracy theory narrative that Jebsen uses in the video can be paraphrased as follows:

Behind the corona pandemic, known as relatively harmless flu (00:12:44–00:12:46)Footnote 14 is called, stuck the American billionaire couple Bill and Melinda Gates. By influencing the World Health Organization (WHO) financially and making targeted investments, they would plan (00:06:30) follow, compulsory vaccination through the back door (00: 06: 36–00: 06: 39) in order to earn money. The federal government would implement these plans politically through appropriate measures. In addition, by vaccinating and issuing a vaccination certificate, people would become one digital identity (00: 25: 05–00: 25: 09) that have a cloud from private corporations (00: 15: 57–00: 16: 00) run, which makes the couple Gates total control (00: 15: 50–00: 15: 54) over all people. Finally, Jebsen prophesies one digital dictatorship (00: 16: 08-00: 16: 13). With reference to Article 20 of the Basic Law of the FRG, the population must be aware of the oppose (00:16:16–00:16:17).

In addition to the Gates couple, the American elite (00: 02: 17–00: 02: 20) and the Pharmaceutical industry (00: 15: 04–00: 15: 07) named two other conspirators, Jebsen in a populist manner we, the 83 million citizens (00: 18: 44–00: 18: 48). And politics, the media and science (namely the virologist Christian Drosten) are part of the conspiracy.

Overall, the statements in the video have all the characteristics of a conspiracy-theoretical narrative: They interpret the corona crisis as the result of a conspiracy and thus give it a specific meaning, making it understandable in a certain way. From the possible explanations in the sense of the conspiracy theory, certain ones are selected, e.g. that the gates were behind the corona crisis and - according to the question cui bono - would secretly pursue selfish goals. This exposes the conspiracy theory. So it is not just asserted that a conspiracy exists, but the corona crisis is explained on the basis of these conspiratorial acts, which correspond to the invisible plot.

Analysis of the argumentative topoi

The conspiracy-theoretical narrative is based on a certain topological discourse formation, which first structures the conspiracy theory as coherent and plausible. It essentially consists of three types of reasons or abstract basic topoi, each linguistically filled with context-specific topoi: the data topos, the cause topos and the topos of the maxim.Footnote 15

  1. 1.

    Within the overall narrative and argumentative structure, the top priority is the data topos.It describes the starting position in which we would find ourselves at the end of 2020. Depending on the context, it can be understood as a topos of danger: Because of the Corona crisis or because of the political measures to cope with the crisis, Germany and the Basic Law are in massive danger (00: 00: 52-00: 00: 56). We would find ourselves in an unlawful, illegitimate state (cf. 00: 18: 19–00: 18: 36).

  2. 2.

    The topos of the cause acts as a further premise. Based on the description of the situation, he names the causes of the crisis and explains who is to blame for what behavior. That is, he marks according to the principle of cui bono the conspirators: The restrictions were initiated by Bill and Melinda Gates, for reasons of profit (that's currently determined by the bill and melinda gates foundation (00:01:47–00:01:52); the bill and melinda gates foundation funds over 80 of the world health organization% and determines what health is really tough there (00:02:39–00:02:48); you [the gates] have also bought in with our federal government you finance mr. drosten with you also finance those who finance the robert-koch-institute with you have also bought media (00: 03: 02-00: 03: 13)). Depending on the context, it could be understood as an elite topos: Because certain elites benefit, they are causally responsible for the crisis.

  3. 3.

    After all, the topos of the maxim functions as a premise. This means statements that justify the need for certain actions on the basis of social and political models, principles, norms and values. Depending on the context, it can be defined as a topos of fundamental rights: In his video, Jebsen repeatedly invokes the right of resistance in Article 20 of the Basic Law (i call on you to remember article 20 of the constitution (00:16:17–00:16:23); I would like to say the following to the officials. Article 20 is also aimed at you (00:18:18–00:18:23)).

These three topoi form a topical pattern, a relatively stable sequence, the sequence of which is not fixed. Rather, they are taken up again and again at different times in the video and filled in differently in order to quasi-logically check a conspiracy for plausibility. In addition, the interplay of the topoi results in the necessity for certain actions, in particular they suggest the conclusion to provide resistance, which Jebsen also verbalizes. Here are two examples:

  • therefore, at this point I would like to explicitly call on the german population to oppose this (00:16:13–00:16:20).

  • you gotta get your ass out on the street (00:28:23–00:28:25).

The conclusion that goes hand in hand with the conspiracy theory or with the topical structure of the same of data topos, topos of the cause and topos of the maxim, and which is expressed in the evidence, can be summarized as follows: We need a new government (because Germany and the Basic Law protect have to become / because we are externally determined). How radically Jebsen argues can be seen, for example, when he denies the legitimacy of state power by invoking the Basic Law: and when the police say that is forbidden, then you just have to say, I don't give a damn because the law what the police are trying to enforce at the moment contradicts this law, it is illegal, it is not legal and such a government can abdicate (00:28:25–00:28:40).

Rhetorically and stylistically striking is the fact that individual topoi are realized in particular by means of enumeration or enumeration, for example the topos of the cause, which is central to the foundation of the conspiracy theory or the invisible plot. What is listed is often linked anaphorically or the sentences always start the same. The pattern-like strings create a catalog-like connection or a quasi-logical relationship between certain events or people. In its context-specific version, the topos is implemented in two different variants:

  1. 1.

    Jebsen points out what the Gates, i.e. the conspirators, determine everything about. The argumentation pattern in this variant is formed according to the following scheme: Whether (you) X is not determined by you, that is currently determined by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Step into the X position: your children [...] can be visited by you (00:01:16–00:01:24); your children can go to school (00:01:24–00:01:27); be able to practice their profession (00:01:27–00:01:29); be able to approach another person more than 1.50 meters in public space (00:01:29–00:01:33); wear a mask (00:01:33–00:01:35); this country is still in lockdown (00:01:35–00:01:38); be able to fly on vacation (00:01:38–00:01:40); you can also go on holiday by car in austria (00:01:40–00:01:43).

  2. 2.

    Jebsen lists who the gates bought everything. The argumentation pattern in this variant is formed as follows: The Gates couple buys / finances X. world health organization (00:02:37; 00:02:55; 00:09:39; 00:19:36), federal government (00:03:02), mr drosten (00:03:05), the robert koch institute (00:03:11), media (00:03:13), mirror (00:03:14), the time (00:03:15), johns hopkins university (00:03:20).

With his conspiracy theory, Jebsen addresses, among other things, the medicine-critical, science-denying "lateral thinking movement". In the context of the addressing, another noticeable feature is that in the context of analogy topoi or historical comparisons that support the central conclusion of the conspiracy-theoretical narrative of resisting, numerous parallels are drawn between the corona pandemic, the GDR and National Socialism. What is currently happening in Germany is extremely dangerous [...] for this country (00: 01: 02-00: 01: 06). One could the numbers 33, 89 and 20, i.e. 2020, can be mentioned in one sentence (00: 01: 08-00: 01: 09). Most often, however, you can find GDR comparisons:

  • why we have this big problem in germany that if something is law we have already pulled it through twice, there were for all these there were for auschwitz there were laws and there were for the shooting orders and what we did to each other in the gdr always existed also bills and we always went along with it and we shouldn't go along with it the third time because that leads us totally into slavery (00:22:12–00:22:34).

  • that is exactly like back in 89 when mielke, egon krenz and erich honecker said it had to go on and on and the citizens disregarded it and tore down the wall that was also illegal for that there was no law but that is the only way into freedom (00:28:40–00:28:52).

  • and there were also people's police officers who were told from above that they might shoot people or use tanks to counteract it and they didn't do that and that's why we live in a united Germany today (00:18:56–00:19:05).

The revolutionary and aggressive rhetoric of resistance and the equation of democracy and GDR dictatorship are typical phenomena of (new) right-wing discourses in the "alternative media" context. Talk of an illegitimate government, of the fact that our government lies, that we would live in a GDR 2.0, that we need a new turning point, etc., is to be understood as a form of narrative identity management in addition to the argumentative embedding in calls for resistance. This means that identity is specifically formed, communicated and strengthened through certain expressions. Specifically, rights should feel addressed. The comparisons are, however, arbitrary, they are deliberate historical-political distortions that are used as arguments. Ultimately, they serve to legitimize one's own anti-democratic goals.


Using the example, it could be shown that the conspiracy-theoretical narrative is constituted by a certain topological structure, consisting of data topos, topos of the cause and topos of the maxim. This structure-forming topos constellation is filled on a lower level of abstraction with context-specific topoi, which are realized linguistically by means of certain narrative segments or also through rhetorical means such as enumeration. In further investigations it should be examined to what extent an overarching topological discourse formation typical of conspiracy theories can be assumed and how the context-specific topoi differ.


  1. 1.

    Recently, individual articles in the two themed issues of the Journal of Literary Studies and Linguistics (LiLi) with the titles “Narration - Persuasion - Argumentation” (Hannken-Illjes / Till / Bleumer [ed.] 2019) and “Everyday practices of narration” (Spieß / Tophinke [ed.] 2018). Hannken-Illjes (2018) and Klein (2019) also address the connection between narration and argumentation. In addition, a special issue has recently been published by Journal for German Linguistics with the title "Narrativity as a linguistic category" published (Zeman [ed.] 2020).

  2. 2.

    Thomas Niehr takes a similar perspective in his article in this issue. On the state of linguistic research on conspiracy theories: Stumpf / Römer (2018); Römer / Stumpf (2018); Römer / Stump (2019); Stump (2020); Stump / Römer (2020); Römer / Stumpf (2020a, 2020b); Belosevic (2020).

  3. 3.

    See also the contribution by Martínez (2017) in the manual Tell.

  4. 4.

    On the persuasive function of narratives in political communication see also Girnth / Burggraf (2019).

  5. 5.

    See Toulmin's work, first published in 1958 The uses of arguments (Toulmin 2008 [1958]) and the treatise published in the same year Traité de largumentation by Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca with the subtitle La nouvelle rhetorique (Perelman / Olbrechts-Tyteca 2004 [1958]). According to Kienpointner (1992, p. 900) it is thanks to these two authors "to have revived the topic tradition." The anthology published in 2006 by Kopperschmidt provides an introduction to the reinterpretation of the topic and rhetoric by Perelman The new rhetoric (Kopperschmidt 2006 [ed.]) Or the article "Nouvelle Rhétorique" by Kienpointner im Historical dictionary of rhetoric (Kienpointner 2003).

  6. 6.

    For the topos concept presented here, more detailed Romans (2017) and Romans (2018b).

  7. 7.

    In his typology of specialist literature on conspiracy theories, Boltanski (2013) cites works that use the expression Conspiracy theory thematize and try to clarify it. To the use of the word Conspiracy theory in the public-political discussion and in the scientific discourse why it is rejected to speak of conspiracy theory and why it is correct to stick to the term, see Römer / Stumpf (2020a, 2020b).

  8. 8.

    See also the Mitte study by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung from 2019 (www.fes.de/forum-berlin/gegen-rechtsextremismus/mitte-studie, December 8th, 2020). Almost half of the approximately 1,900 participants (45.7%) believe that secret organizations have a major influence on political decisions; around a third (32.7%) are of the opinion that politicians and other leading personalities in public space are "puppets" of other powers; one in four (24.2%) assumes that the media and politics would cooperate with each other and secretly coordinate with each other. The survey also reveals that attitudes towards democracy, xenophobia and misanthropy are shared to a greater extent by those respondents who are more likely to join conspiracy theories than by those who are opposed to them. The same applies to a higher degree of violence. As a result, conspiracy theories are often linked to the (right-wing) populist tendencies that are currently widespread worldwide (cf. Niehr / Reissen-Koch 2018, pp. 141–159; Römer / Spieß [ed.] 2019; Römer / Stumpf 2019).

  9. 9.

    www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/angela-merkel-zu-verschwoerungsideologien-angriff-auf-unsere-ganze-lebensweise-a-95cb7814-515f-48e1-8092-9384ecd22e7c, December 16, 2020.

  10. 10.

    For a compilation of lexicographical and scientific definitions and the interdisciplinary status of research on conspiracy theories, see Anton (2011