One cannot use the Internet for long without encountering its many dead ends. Despite the adage that everything posted online stays there forever, users quickly discover how fleeting Web content can be. Whether it be the result of missing files, platform moderation, or simply bad code, the Internet constantly displaces its archival contents. Eventual decay is the fate of all digital media, as Wendy Hui Kyong Chun observed in a 2008 article. “Digital media is not always there”, she writes. “We suffer daily frustrations with digital sources that just disappear” (160). When the media content we seek is something trivial like a digitised vacation photo, our inability to retrieve it may merely disappoint us. But what happens when we lose access to Web content about significant cultural events, like viral misinformation about a school shooting?
This question takes on great urgency as conspiracy content spreads online at baffling scale and unprecedented speed. Although conspiracy theories have long been a fixture of American culture, the contemporary Internet enables all manner of “information disorder” (Wardle and Derakhshan) to warp media coverage, sway public opinion, and even disrupt the function of government—as seen in the harrowing “Stop the Steal” attack on the U.S. Capitol on 6 January 2021, when rioters attempted to prevent Congress from verifying the results of the 2020 Presidential Election. Scholars across disciplines have sought to understand how conspiracy theories function within our current information ecosystem (Marwick and Lewis; Muirhead and Rosenblum; Phillips and Milner). Much contemporary research focusses on circulation, tracking how conspiracy theories and other types of misinformation travel from fringe Websites to mainstream news outlets such as the New York Times. While undoubtedly valuable, this emphasis on circulation provides an incomplete picture of online conspiracy theories’ lifecycle. How should scholars account for the afterlife of conspiracy content, such as links to conspiracy videos that get taken down for violating YouTube’s Community Guidelines? This and related questions about the dead ends of online conspiracy theorising are underexplored in the existing scholarly literature.
This essay contends that the Internet’s tendency to decay ought to factor into our models of digital conspiracy theories. I focus on the phenomenon of malfunctional hyperlinks, one of the most common types of disrepair to which the Internet is prone. The product of so-called “link rot”, broken links would appear to signal an archival failure for online conspiracy theories. Yet recent work from rhetorical theorist Jenny Rice suggests that these broken hyperlinks instead function as a rhetorically potent archive in their own right. To understand this uncanny persuasive work, I draw from rhetorical theory to analyse broken links to conspiracy content on Reddit, the popular social news platform, surrounding the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the worst high school shooting in American history. I show that broken links on the subreddit r/conspiracy, by virtue of their dysfunction, persuade conspiracy theorists that they possess “stigmatized knowledge” (Barkun 26) about the shooting that is being suppressed. Ultimately, I argue that link rot functions as a powerful source of evidence within digital conspiracy theories, imbuing broken links with enduring rhetorical force to validate marginalised belief systems.
Link Rot—Archival Failure or Archival Possibility?
As is suggested by the prefix ‘inter-’, connectivity has always been one of the Internet’s core functionalities. Indeed, the ability to hyperlink two different texts—and now images, videos, and other media—is so fundamental to navigating the Web that we often take these links for granted until they malfunction. In popular parlance, we then say we have clicked on a “broken” or “dead” link, and without proper care to prevent its occurrence, all URLs are susceptible to dying eventually (much like us mortals). This slow process of decay is known as “link rot”.
The precise extent of link rot on the Internet is unknown—and likely unknowable, in practice if not principle—but multiple studies have been conducted to assess the degree of link rot in specific archives. One study from 2015 found that nearly 50% of the URLs cited in 406 library and information science journal articles published between 2008-2012 were no longer accessible (Kumar et al. 59). In the context of governmental Webpages, a 2010 study determined that while only 8% of the URLs sampled in 2008 had link rot, that number more than tripled to 28% of URLs with link rot when sampled only two years later (Rhodes 589-90). More recently, scholars from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society uncovered an alarming amount of link rot in the online archive of the New York Times, perhaps the most prominent newspaper in the United States: “25% of all links were completely inaccessible, with linkrot becoming more common over time – 6% of links from 2018 had rotted, as compared to 43% of links from 2008 and 72% of links from 1998” (Zittrain et al. 4). Taken together, these data indicate that link rot worsens over time, creating a serious obstacle for the study of Web-based phenomena. Link rot is particularly worrisome for researchers who study online misinformation (including digital conspiracy theories), because the associated links are often more vulnerable to removal due to content moderation or threats of legal action.
How should scholars understand the function of link rot within digital conspiracy theories? If our academic focus is on how conspiracy theories circulate, these broken links might seem at best a roadblock to scholarly inquiry or at worst as totally insignificant or irrelevant. After all, users cannot access the material in question; they reach a dead end. Yet recent work by rhetoric scholar Jenny Rice suggests these dead ends might have enduring persuasive power. In her book Awful Archives: Conspiracy Rhetoric and Acts of Evidence, Rice argues that evidence is an “act rather than a thing” and that as a result, we ought to recalibrate what we consider an archive (12, original emphasis). For Rice, archives are more than simple aggregates of documents; instead, they are “ordinary and extraordinary experiences in public life that leave lasting, palpable residues, which then become our sources—our resources—for public discourse” (16-17). These “lasting, palpable residues” are deeply embodied, Rice maintains, for the evidence we gather is “always real in its reference, which is to a felt experience of proximities” (118). For conspiracy theorists in particular, an archive might evoke a profound sense of what Rice memorably describes as “Something intense, something real. Something off. Something fucked up. Something anomalous” (12, original emphasis). This is no less true when an archive fails to function as designed. Hence, for the remainder of this essay, I pivot to analysing how link rot functions within digital conspiracy theories about the 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida. As we will see, the shooting galvanised meaningful gun control activism via the March for Our Lives movement, but the event also quickly became fodder for proliferating conspiracy content.
From Crisis to Crisis Actors: The Parkland Shooting and Its Aftermath
On the afternoon of 14 February 2018, Nikolas Cruz entered his former high school, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, and murdered 17 people, including 14 students (Albright). While a horrific event, the Parkland shooting unfortunately marked merely the latest in a long line of similar tragedies in the United States, which has been punctuated by school shootings for decades. But the Parkland shooting stands out among the gruesome lineage of similar tragedies due to the profound resolve of its student-survivors, who agitated for gun policy reform through the March for Our Lives movement.
In the weeks following the shooting, a group of Parkland students partnered with Everytown for Gun Safety, a non-profit organisation advocating for gun control, to coordinate a youth-led demonstration against gun violence. Held in the U.S. capitol of Washington, D.C. on 24 March 2018, the March for Our Lives protest was the largest demonstration against gun violence in American history (March for Our Lives). The protest drew around 200,000 participants to Washington; hundreds of thousands of protestors attended an estimated 800 smaller rallies held across the United States (CBS News). Furthermore, likeminded protestors across Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia held allied events to show support for these American students’ cause (Russo). The broader March for Our Lives organisation developed out of the political demonstrations on 24 March 2018; four years later, March for Our Lives continues to be a major force in debates about gun violence in the United States.
Although the Parkland shooting inspired meaningful gun control activism, it also quickly provoked a deluge of online conspiracy theories about the tragedy and the people involved, including the student-activists who survived the shooting and spearheaded March for Our Lives. This conspiracy content arrived at breakneck pace: according to an analysis by the Washington Post, the first conspiracy posts appeared on the platform 8chan a mere 47 minutes after the first news reports aired about the shooting (Timberg and Harwell). Later that day, Parkland conspiracy theories migrated from fringe haunts like 8chan to InfoWars, a mainstay of the conspiracy media circuit, where host/founder Alex Jones insinuated that the shooting could be a “false flag” event orchestrated by the Democratic Party (Media Matters Staff). Over the ensuing hours, days, weeks, and months, Parkland conspiracies continued to circulate, receiving mainstream news coverage when conversative activists and politicians publicly espoused conspiracy claims about the shooting (Arkin and Popken). Ultimately, the conspiracist backlash was so persistent and virulent throughout 2018 that PolitiFact, a fact-checking site run by the Poynter Institute, declared the Parkland conspiracy theories their 2018 “Lie of the Year” (Drobnic Holan and Sherman).
As with many conspiracy theories, the Parkland conspiracies remixed novel information with longstanding conspiracist tropes. Predominantly, these theories alleged that the Parkland student-activists who founded March for Our Lives were being controlled by outside forces to do their bidding. Although conspiracy theorists diverged in who they named as the shadowy puppet master pulling the strings—was it the Democratic Party? George Soros? Someone else?—all agreed that a secretive agenda was afoot. The most extreme version of this theory held that David Hogg, X González, and other prominent March for Our Lives activists were “crisis actors”. This account envisions Hogg et al. as paid performers playing the part of angry and traumatised students for media coverage about a school shooting that either did not occur as reported or did not occur at all (Yglesias). While unnerving and callous, these crisis actor allegations are not new ideas; rather, they draw from a long history of loosely antisemitic “New World Order” conspiracy theories that see an ulterior motive behind significant historical events (Barkun 39-65).
Parkland conspiracy theorists circulated a wide variety of media artifacts—anti-March for Our Lives memes, obscure blog posts, and manipulated video footage of the Parkland students, among other content—to propagate their crisis actor claims. But whether due to platform moderation, threat of legal action, or simply public pressure, much of this conspiracy material is now inaccessible, leaving behind only broken links to conspiracy content that once was. By closely examining these broken links through a rhetorical lens, we can trace the “lasting, palpable residues” (Rice 16) link rot leaves in its wake.
“All part of the purge”: Parkland Link Rot on r/conspiracy
In this final section, I use the tools of rhetorical analysis to demonstrate how link rot can function as a form of evidence for conspiracy theorists. Rhetorical analysis, when applied to digital infrastructure, requires that we expand our notion of rhetoric beyond intentional human persuasion. As James J. Brown, Jr. argues, digital infrastructure is rhetorical because it determines “what’s possible in a given space”, which may or may not involve human beings (99). Human intentionality still matters in many contexts, of course, but seeing digital infrastructure as a “possibility space” opens up productive new avenues for rhetorical inquiry (Brown, Jr. 72-99). This rhetorical perspective aligns with the method of “affordance analysis” derived from Science and Technology Studies and related fields, which investigates how technologies facilitate certain outcomes for users (Curinga). Much like an affordance analysis, my goal is to illustrate how broken links produce certain rhetorical effects, not to make broader empirical claims about the extent of link rot within Parkland conspiracy theories.
The r/conspiracy page on Reddit, the popular social news platform, serves as an ideal site for conducting a rhetorical analysis of broken links. The r/conspiracy subreddit is a preeminent hub for digital conspiracy content, with nearly 1.7 million members as of March 2022 and thousands of active users viewing the site at any given time (r/conspiracy). Beyond its popularity, Reddit’s platform design makes link rot a common feature on r/conspiracy. As a forum-based social media platform, Reddit consists entirely of subreddits dedicated to various topics. In each subreddit, users generate and contribute to threads with relevant content, which often entails posting links to materials hosted elsewhere on the Internet. Importantly, Reddit allows each subreddit to set its own specific community rules for content moderation (so long as these rules themselves abide by Reddit’s general Content Policy), and unlike other profile-based social media platforms, Reddit allows anonymity through the use of pseudonyms. For all of these reasons, one finds a high frequency of link rot on r/conspiracy, as posts linking to external conspiracy media stay up even when the linked content itself disappears from the Web.
Consider the following screenshot of an r/conspiracy Parkland post from 23 February 2018, a mere nine days after the Parkland shooting, which demonstrates what conspiracist link rot looks like on Reddit (fig. 1). Titling their thread “A compilation of anomalies from the Parkland shooting that the media won't address. The media wants to control the narrative. Feel free to use this if you find it helpful”, this unknown Redditor frames their post as an intervention against media suppression of suspicious details (“A compilation of anomalies”). Yet the archive this poster hoped to share with likeminded users has all but disintegrated—the poster’s account has been deleted (whether by will or force), and the promised “compilation of anomalies” no longer exists. Instead, the link under the headline sends users to a blank screen with the generic message “If you are looking for an image, it was probably deleted” (fig. 2). Fittingly, the links that the sole commenter assembled to support the original poster are also rife with link rot. Of the five links in the comment, only the first one works as intended; the other four videos have been removed from Google and YouTube, with corresponding error messages informing users that the linked content is inaccessible.
Fig. 1: Parkland Link Rot on r/conspiracy. (As a precaution, I have blacked out the commenter’s username.)
Fig. 2: Error message received when clicking on the primary link in Figure 1.
Returning to Jenny Rice’s theory of “evidentiary acts” (173), how might the broken links in Figure 1 be persuasive despite their inability to transport users to the archive in question? For conspiracy theorists who believe they possess “stigmatized knowledge” (Barkun 26) about the Parkland shooting, link rot paradoxically serves as powerful validation of their beliefs. The unknown user who posted this thread alleges a media blackout of sorts, one in which “the media wants to control the narrative”. This claim, if true, would be difficult to verify. Interested users would have to scour media coverage of Parkland to assess whether the media have ignored the “compilation of anomalies” the poster insists they have uncovered and then evaluate the significance of those oddities. But link rot here produces a powerful evidentiary shortcut: the alleged “compilation of anomalies” cannot be accessed, seemingly confirming the poster’s claims to have secretive information about the Parkland shooting that the media wish to suppress. Indeed, what better proof of media censorship than seeing links to professed evidence deteriorate before your very eyes? In a strange way, then, it is through objective archival failure that broken links function as potent subjective evidence for Parkland conspiracy theories.
Comments about Parkland link rot elsewhere on r/conspiracy further showcase how broken links can validate conspiracy theorists’ marginalised belief systems. For example, in a thread titled “Searching for video of Parkland shooting on bitchute”, a Redditor observes, “Once someone gives the link watch it go poof”, implying that links to conspiracy content disappear due to censorship by an unnamed force (“Searching for video”). That nearly everything else on this particular thread suffers from link rot—the original poster, the content of their post, and most of the other comments have since been deleted—seems only to confirm the commentor’s ominous prediction. In another thread about a since-deleted YouTube video supposedly “exposing” Parkland students as crisis actors, a user notes, “You can tell there’s an agenda with how quickly this video was removed by YouTube” (“Video Exposing”). Finally, in a thread dedicated to an alleged “Social Media Purge”, Redditors share strategies for combating link rot, such as downloading conspiracy materials and backing them up on external hard drives. The original poster warns their fellow users that even r/conspiracy is not safe from censorship, for removal of content about Parkland and other conspiracies is “all part of the purge” (“the coming Social Media Purge”). In sum, these comments suggest that link rot on r/conspiracy persuades users that their ideas and their communities are under threat, further entrenching their conspiratorial worldviews.
I have argued in this article that link rot has a counterintuitive rhetorical effect: in generating untold numbers of broken links, link rot supplies conspiracy theorists with persuasive evidence for the validity of their beliefs. These and other dead ends on the Internet are significant yet understudied components of digital conspiracy theories that merit greater scholarly attention. Needless to say, I can only gesture here to the sheer scale of dead ends within online conspiracy communities on Reddit and elsewhere. Future research ought to trace other permutations of these dead ends, unearthing how they persuade users from beyond the Internet’s grave.
“A compilation of anomalies from the Parkland shooting that the media won't address. The media wants to control the narrative. Feel free to use this if you find it helpful.” Reddit. <https://www.reddit.com/r/conspiracy/comments/7ztc9l/a_compilation_of_anomalies_from_the_parkland/>.
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