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Cultural Anthropology

February, 2022


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BY Katyanna Horvath
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The ICA (Institute for Cultural Anthropology) is the semi-scientific journal of Itiwana, study association Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at the Leiden University. The ICA appears twice a year.

External Authors

Oliver Balch, Mari-Liis Madisson, Andreas Ventsel, Jesamine Mello, Foteini Tsigoni, Anders Björkvall, Pamela Cummins, Laura Oswald

The editors reserve the right to shorten and edit articles or not to post them. Acquisition of (parts of) articles is only permitted after consultation with the editors.

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Text editors Bente Heydelberg, Jelmer Sijperda, Saika Nishikawa     

Media editors Marthe Baalbergen, Katyanna Horvath

Editor in Chief Marthe Baalbergen



Marthe Baalbergen

Marthe is a second year Anthropology Student and is the Communications Officer in the current Itiwana Board. She is the Editor in Chief for the ICA and loves to Paint and to Travel

Communication is often seen as having a conversation. We speak with each other, in other words; we convey our thoughts through words so the other person will understand what we try to say. But do we actually only use our ears to pick up the message? Do we not also look at the expression on the person's face; do we not look at what kind of clothes this person is wearing; do we not look at where we are standing at that moment? Everything makes us understand the conversation. So, we do not only speak through words, we also speak through signs.


Symbols are also using the language of signs. They can be the ADIDAS logo on our clothes; the alphabet of our language; and the vegan label on our food. All these symbols are used by people to communicate something to someone else. But this can only work when the meaning is understood by both the giver and the receiver. For example; when you walk through Leiden, you can see the keys everywhere. On the bridge; in shops; at the gate. The keys are what represent Leiden, and when people see it, they will immediately associate it with Leiden. But this will only work if you had been told that the keys are connected to Leiden.

Symbols are often connected with the concept of culture because it is a way to present culture. And when we study these symbols, it is called; semiotics. We, as anthropologists, are very familiar with this study. On the Wikipedia page, we are described as: “Anthropologists also use semiotics to study the significance of folktales and rituals in specific cultures”. In this issue of the ICA, we will dive deeper into the understanding of some of these symbols. I hope you are going to enjoy it!


Faceless Inc
Why it's time for corporations to step out of the shadows

By Oliver Balch

Corporations, as their lawyers are invariably anxious to prove, are constituted as legal fictions. This is a handy sleight of hand, enabling them to operate seamlessly across borders, extract the benefits of human labour, and pay tax if and where they please.

But being effectively excused from the responsibilities to which we, as citizens, as workers, as parents, as neighbours, are obliged to face comes at a cost. And that cost is facelessness.

‘Wall St.’, ‘The City’, ‘Big Business’, ‘Multinational’, ‘Ltd.’, ‘Inc.’, all are terms that evoke a grey, drab uniformity. In as much as they have personalities attached, they are invariably negative. The sub-title of Joel Bakan’s 2003 classic text The Corporation sums it up perfectly: “The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.”

For some companies, blandness works. If you’re flogging automotive parts to an Asian OEM (Google it: anonymity in a nutshell) or, worse, military equipment to an African petrostate, then blending into the background represents a positive.

But for consumer-facing brands, lacking a face spells disaster. The manufacturers of mass consumable products want us, their target audience, to connect with them. When we look at their spaghetti sauce on the shelf or their hatchback on the forecourt, sensations need to be triggered inside us. ‘Trustworthy’, ‘safe’, ‘caring’, ‘sexy’. The more positive and evocative the connotation, the better. 

Welcome to the multi-billion-dollar world of marketing and advertising. Way before Mad Men, companies have been embossing their products with symbols and images in the hope of catching our eye. Think of some of the world’s most famous icons – the Coke swirl, the McDonald’s arches, the Adidas stripes, the Nike tick, the Apple (well…) apple. All are instantly recognisable; memorable differentiators in a sea of sameness.

But do they have personality? That’s the key question in today’s age of fast-moving fashions, TikTok-like trends, and, most importantly, values-driven purchasing. Young people especially want their money to have a positive impact. They aren’t stupid. They know the corporation as a legal fiction is itself a lie. People work in their back offices, in their supply chains, in their delivery trucks. The shopper may never see them, but we know they are there.

Hence, the recent explosion of purpose-led advertising. Think of it as semiotics with a smile. Brands want to be one of the gang, to be ‘down with the kids’. They want to be our pal, our fellow citizen, even our yardstick for what’s right (or, pray no, what’s woke). Anything but a flat, friendless non-entity.

Imbuing a brand with purpose is notoriously difficult. The examples of big companies falling flat on their face (figuratively speaking, naturally) are legion. Famously, the British oil and gas major BP once tried re-pitching the origin of its acronymic name from British Petroleum to ‘Beyond Petroleum’. And this from one of the largest fossil-fuel firms on the planet. Really? 


But there are good examples out there too. A landmark example is the "Like a Girl'' campaign run by women's hygiene brand Always. The ad powerfully evokes the effect of gender stereotyping on adolescent girls. It ends with a call to show that "doing it #LikeAGirl is an awesome thing." The ad racked up over 37m views on YouTube in its first month. Nike's 'Find Your Greatness' campaign and Dove's 'Real Beauty' series have met with similar success.

Advertisers prodding their audiences to emote is nothing new. Beer brands have become synonymous with making us laugh. Others, like Benetton, are masters in shocking us. What's different today is the explicit use of social causes to stir our hearts and activate our tear ducts.

Why the shift? In part, because social and environmental issues are increasingly important to us. We’re more ready to reward companies with good eco credentials or happy workers, just as we are to boycott the ‘baddies’. Competition also plays its part. Modern brands operate in an incredibly crowded market. Cool labels are two a penny, but how many can genuinely touch our hearts? Answer: precious few.

To repeat: consumers aren’t stupid. When we see an on-pack label or a billboard promise, we all know deep down that we’re being played. But, for the most part, we’re happy co-conspirators. It’s not just brands that want to connect with us; we want to connect with them. 

But, for the most part, we’re happy co-conspirators. It’s not just brands that want to connect with us; we want to connect with them

We drop €2o0 on a jacket and we like to think that some of that till receipt is finding its way back to a seamstress in Bangladesh. We buy a pack of free-range eggs and we relist the image of a chicken hopping across an open field.

If such images link back to real life, then great. All is well with the world and consumer capitalism can continue on its merry way, with us its loyal accomplices. If they are not, then we have a problem. We can’t greenwash our way to a sustainable planet or advertise our way to a fair society.

Images matter. Companies are too powerful to operate in the shadows. They need to step out and show their face. Not some manufactured avatar, pimped up for our values-hungry age. We want to see their real face. So, the farmers who make their carrots or cotton; the suppliers who make their microchips; and the waste disposal teams who clear their trash.

It's a whacky idea, but not an impossible one. If Coke can track every can in its logistics chain, it can introduce us to some of the folk behind its brand. In an age of real-time digital communications, radical transparency is easier than ever. If companies want to connect, then it’s time to take off the mask.




Oliver Balch

Oliver Balch is a British independent journalist specialising in business and society. He writes for a range of UK and international publications, including The Guardian, The Times, and the Financial Times

Social Semiotics and the Motivated Sign
The destruction of election posters

by Anders Björkvall

Theories of meaning-making


One of the key aspects of classic, structuralist semiotics is the assumption of arbitrariness of the semiotic sign. Ferdinand de Saussure, the founding father of modern linguistics, calls arbitrariness the “first principle” of signs (de Saussure, 2013, p. 78). This principle rests on the assumption that the sign has two parts: the signifier and the signified. The former is the expression of the latter: /shop/, in English, is the signifier that expresses the meaning (that is, the signified) ‘a place in which goods are sold’. It is the relation between these two that is arbitrary; the meaning of ‘a place in which goods are sold’ could have been expressed by any other combination of sounds or letters than /shop/, as long the community in which the meaning-making takes place agrees upon the choice of signifiers.


Still highly valid for many semiotic systems, and perhaps for language in particular, this view of absolute arbitrariness of semiotic signs has been challenged. Even before Saussure presented his theory, Charles Sanders Peirce suggested a typology consisting of three types of signs that are arbitrary only to various degrees: symbolic, indexical and iconic signs (Peirce, 1998, pp. 13–18). Even though not further discussed here, Pierce’s approach is definitely worth looking into for any researcher interested in the relation between signs, culture and society. 

The present article introduces another semiotic theory that takes the rejection of arbitrariness even further. Social semiotic theory was originally developed by the British-Australian linguist M.A.K. Halliday (1978). Halliday himself was primarily interested in language and grammar, and he was inspired by the functional anthropology of Malinowski. Halliday described how language, just as any other semiotic system, is driven by and develops through its social functions in various contexts. From the 1980s onwards, social semiotics has developed concepts and methods for interpreting and analyzing a wide range of texts, artifacts and meaning-making practices (Hodge and Kress, 1988; Kress and van Leeuwen, 2021; van Leeuwen, 2005). In particular, social semiotics has explored how communicative systems – semiotic modes – such as writing, color, music and image are combined. Multimodality has become a field of research in its own right, which also includes many other approaches than social semiotics (cf. Bateman et al. 2017; Jewitt, 2015; Kress, 2010, and the new academic journal Multimodality & Society).

The motivated sign


In a social semiotic approach, meaning-making is viewed less as an instance of someone picking signs with more or less fixed meanings from a given system of signs, but more as a process in which a sign-maker uses resources for meaning-making (called semiotic resources) that they find most appropriate for making the meanings they want to make at a specific time, place, and in a specific context. This way, the semiotic sign is continuously re-created and always motivated in relation to the interest of sign-makers (Kress, 2010). In contrast to a Saussurean view of the sign, signs are always fragmented and subject to re-negotiations in social semiotics. And they are motivated rather than arbitrary. 


Still, the signs and resources for meaning-making are not indefinite but depend on what is available to a specific sign-maker through their specific (sub)culture, previous experiences and knowledge. A 45-year-old political activist deeply engaged in issues of immigration and human rights might have access to different semiotic resources than a 9-year-old tennis player, even if they live in the same neighborhood.

The destruction of election posters on a local billboard


Social semiotic analysis can be illustrated by an example of complex sign-making, in which the distinction between the creation of a message (which is usually the focus of semiotics) and its destruction (or re-design) is in focus, and in which several layers of meaning-making materials are involved. Figure 1 shows a billboard with a number of election posters from the Swedish right-wing party the Sweden Democrats (Sverigedemokraterna). Put briefly, the Sweden Democrats want to reduce immigration to Sweden and they are a nationalist political party ( The billboard in Figure 1 was located on the Swedish island of Gotland, in the Baltic Sea, and includes a number of election posters showing the face of the party leader, Jimmie Åkesson, to the lower right, and probably a number of local politicians. It is difficult to tell what the exact messages are on the original election posters since somebody has covered them with black and white paint.

he semiotic action that has taken place in Figure 1 can be described as destruction of election posters, something that has increased during recent years in Scandinavia, and which is sometimes described as a threat to the democratic dialogue: political parties whose election posters are systematically destroyed during election campaigns do not have the same opportunity to get their message through in public spaces. Another view, of course, is that the image in Figure 1 shows the result of a democratic dialogue: messages of political opponents are responded to, or re-designed, by those who do not agree.


A brief social semiotic analysis of the meaning-making in Figure 1 focuses on the following aspects:

  • the interests of the sign-makers

  • the semiotic modes and resources that they have found most adequate for making the meanings they want to make in this particular context.


To start with, the Sweden Democrats’ interest is probably to make their political messages as salient and visible as possible for the voters of Gotland. In this endeavor, they make use of traditional semiotic modes such as writing with condensed, slogan-like messages (‘the whole of Gotland should live’/”hela Gotland ska leva”) and photos of persons that meet the eyes of the viewers passing by. In other words, they are using the signifiers from the field of political communication that they found most apt for making the meanings that they want to make. 


But there is also semiotic counteraction: the destruction of the messages of the Sweden Democrats. One of the obvious interests of the counteractive sign-maker is to remove the political messages of the Sweden Democrats from the public space in which the billboard is placed. Thus, the choice of semiotic modes and resources is not that of a linguistic message, a logo, or an image, but that of predominantly black paint. This, of course, is a motivated semiotic choice serving the interest of the sign-maker: black paint can cover any previous messages quite well. The meaning being produced here is that the messages of the Sweden Democrats are so repulsive or threatening that they need to be covered and made unreadable.

However, if ‘covering’ were the sole purpose of this semiotic act it would have been more apt to cover the entire billboard with black paint. But the meaning-maker seems to have a more sublime interest than just covering; the black paint is complemented by the use of other semiotic resources, or other signifying materials: shapes and white paint. There are rounded, soft corners of the black paint, enforced by using contrastive white paint. In terms of cultural connections, these shapes relate the covering up of the election posters to graffiti, with associations of, among many other things, disorderly behavior – a message quite opposite to that of the highly conservative ideology of the Sweden Democrats. 

This, of course, is a motivated semiotic choice serving the interest of the sign-maker: black paint can cover any previous messages quite well.



Figure 1. Sweden Democrats, election posters on billboard (, published with permission from the Sweden Democrats, Gotland)

Further, there may be other motivations for the choice of white paint and rounded shapes here. Possibly, the two rightmost circles of paint in Figure 1 can be interpreted as representations of Mickey Mouse. From the perspective of the ‘destructive’ sign-maker, are the ideology and politics of the Sweden Democrats Disney-like?


It can also be noted that the semiotic struggle between sign-makers does not end with the black and white paint. The ladder is up; new election posters are presumably soon covering the paint, which was also confirmed on the webpage of the Sweden Democrats (author’s translation from original Swedish): ‘SD’s election posters were damaged on a daily basis, but as soon as they were destroyed we posted new ones.’ (


To sum up, the billboard in Figure 1 contains traces of semiotic acts of various kinds, very few of which rely on fixed and uniform meanings. Instead, the billboard can be viewed as a collection of traces of meaning-making as part of social practices and interests of social groups in society at a specific time and place. Social semiotics offers tools and perspectives for researchers interested in above all meaning-making as social and cultural practice. The focus on situated, concrete meaning making practices also makes the theory somewhat compatible with ethnographic and anthropological research interests. At least, the structure of signs, texts and other communicative artefacts is never allowed to overshadow what persons actually do with them in situated acts of meaning-making. This allows for dialogues between social semiotics, the broader field of multimodality, ethnography (Flewitt, 2011) and anthropology (Moretti, 2021). It also encourages the semiotic study of complex social phenomena such as destruction of texts and artefacts in political contexts, because “the social” is always at the core of social semiotic inquiry.


Anders Björkvall

Anders Björkvall is professor of Swedish at Örebro University, Sweden. He has a PhD in Scandinavian languages from Stockholm University. Anders’s research revolves around meaning-making in different contexts, and he has published books, articles, and book chapters on topics as diverse as gender and advertising; young children’s meaning-making with technology; ‘upcycling’ as value adding in South Africa and Sweden; ‘value texts’ at public authorities; affective potential of airports; and ‘flight shame’ in relation to the climate crisis. He is also one of the founding editors of the journal Multimodality & Society (Sage), in which a special issue on “Multimodal Anthropology” was recently published.



by Laura R. Oswald, President of Marketing Semiotics


Laura R. Oswald

I founded Marketing Semiotics in 2000 as a consumer research and consulting firm serving blue-chip brands including Ford, American Express, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Pfizer, and Dominos. We help CEO's and senior executives anticipate cultural change and manage its effects on brands, consumer behavior and innovation strategy. We manage a range of projects including communication research, design development, and large multi-market consumer studies for brand positioning, new product development, and market expansion

Brand Literacy: Why Western Brands Fall Flat in Emerging Markets 

The Case of China

The term "literacy" is rooted in cultural assumptions about the “correct way” of decoding a sign system, a norm defined by the dominant culture. An American is considered language literate if they have mastered the codes structuring meaning production in English grammar and vocabulary. In contrast, immigrants may be stigmatized as “illiterate” because they lack fluency in the dominant language. This principle also applies to semiotic systems other than language. The ability to read images, navigate public spaces, and make sense of fashion is also culturally coded. In the article below I report findings from an advertising research ethnography I conduced in Shanghai several years ago, where I discovered that Chinese affluents routinely made very different interpretations of advertising for Western luxury brands and, unlike their Western counterparts, did not invest brands with personal meanings or symbolic associations, the stuff of brand value in the West. The findings had dire implications for the Western luxury market, because they revealed that cultural barriers interfered with Chinese consumers’ ability to differentiate one brand from another – they all “displayed status,” identify with the brand world (i.e. the West) or remain loyal to any given brand. In other words, the massive growth in Chinese luxury market in the mid-2000s would probably be short-lived, because it was based upon vague perceptions of social status and wealth rather than cultural identification and brand loyalty.

Brands are sign systems that form the identity of specific products or services and distinguish them from other brands in a product category


Brand Literacy

Brands are sign systems that form the identity of specific products or services and distinguish them from other brands in a product category. This, the semiotic function of brands, thereby defines the strategic management process. Managers develop the brand positioning by laying claim to a distinctive semantic territory carved out of the broad field of meanings consumers associate with a product category. They reinforce these associations in consumers’  minds by representing them consistently in specific words, stories, and images in advertising.  For example, Coke and Pepsi both belong to the carbonated cola beverage category, but they each claim different semantic territories. Coke’s positioning as “the real thing” speaks to the brand’s authenticity, consistency, and tradition. By contrast, Pepsi, “for the new generation,”  is positioned as a trendy, young, and evolving brand. Brands succeed or fail in direct proportion to the strength and clarity of these positionings in consumers’ minds.


Consumer Needs and Wants

Consumers draw upon the semiotic resources of brands when they use name brands to build self-confidence, extend their personal identity (Belk 1988), or use brands to enhance their self-presentation (Goffman 1956). Consider the amateur athlete who is motivated to train by wearing Nike sportswear, inspired by the brand message - “Just Do It!”  Consumers may also use brands to mark their identification with social groups and subcultures. Consumers immigrating to the United States, for instance, may choose iconic American brands to blend into their new culture, though they may resort to familiar ethnic traditions to feel the comfort of the homelands they left behind (Peñaloza 1994; Oswald 1999). 


 The Challenge of Global Branding


      At each stage of the brand hierarchy, brand meaning relies increasingly on matching the brand heritage to the social and cultural contexts of the marketing event and communicating the brand message in signs and symbols that consumers can relate to. In order to move consumers up the hierarchy, from logo recognition toward personal engagement, brand strategy must be focused on calibrating brand meanings to the evolving culture of the target market and the changing needs, wants, and identity projects of consumers. This process is particularly important for global branding strategies in developing markets.


      As sign systems, brands face the same tensions in foreign markets as tourists who do not speak the local language. For example, in non-Christian cultures, how do consumers interpret Santa Claus? Do Arab consumers compare the Mr. Clean genie to the jinns from  Arabic folklore? Such cultural differences are likely to create ambiguity and even barriers to brand acceptance abroad, particularly in developing consumer societies where brand culture may be an emerging phenomenon. To succeed in the global marketplace, managers must adapt the brand message, not just the language, to the local culture - without losing the core brand identity in the process. Translating brands from one culture to the next may be as simple as changing the cultural references in a print ad or as complex as creating a new communications strategy built upon new media, special events, and/or educational forums. 


The Culture Factor


      Luxury manufacturers in the West rely on the double-digit growth in emerging  markets such as China, but have rushed into this market without adapting the brand message  to the culture of local consumers. The first generation new rich in China may have been content to show off famous, expensive brand names even if they did not engage with the brand on a visceral level. However, the current research suggests that the second and third generation of affluent Chinese consumers will not be satisfied with the current, somewhat  generic association of luxury brands with money and success seeking brands that satisfy their  needs for personal expression and relationships. In order to develop a more personal relationship to Western luxury brands, marketers in the West must relate brand meanings to unique culture and identity projects of consumers in emerging markets.



The Role of Advertising


      Management itself is responsible for creating barriers to consumer engagement with luxury brands, if not to the luxury category as a whole, by assuming that Chinese consumers  already know the ‘rules of the road’ relating to luxury goods, rituals, and culture in the West.  The Western images used in advertising are structured by cultural as well as linguistic and

esthetic codes, and these cultural codes interfere with the brand recognition and identification  process. In similar fashion, reading Chinese would present problems for the untrained  American tourist. 


      The challenge for advertisers is to adapt brand communication to the culture of local  consumers without losing the essence and meaning of the brand across markets (Sherry 1987  and Cayla and Eckhardt 2008). Ogilvy and Mather took steps in this direction in the  “Journey” campaign for Louis Vuitton luggage. They embedded the product in scenes,  sometimes two pages across, that highlighted substantial, highly achieving personalities that  included Mikhail Gorbachev, Madonna, and David Beckham. They replaced the single page  ad featuring anonymous bodies on a black backdrop with texture, history, and high values.  Whether the campaign was targeted specifically to the Chinese market or not, it in fact  responded to Chinese consumers’ need for context, notable characters and noble actions.


      However, marketers may have to go a step further and replace the traditional  magazine ad with a new creative strategy altogether, one that would include different forms  of consumer contact and non-traditional media. In addition to celebrity endorsers (see Wicks  et al. 2007), luxury marketers may have to abandon the assumption that luxury transcends  time and culture (Wetlaufer 2001) and find ways of weaving their brands into the lifestyles and values of Chinese consumers. They need to move beyond the single image print ad and  the iconic fashion model in order to initiate Chinese consumers into the luxury brand culture.  They may also have to follow the lead of marketers in other categories, such as household  appliances, where brand recognition has been built upon personal selling, shopping mall  tutorials, trade shows, and other non-traditional media to educate consumers about a new  category or brand. The French luxury house Hermès made the correction in recent years by developing a new brand, Shang Xia, a lifestyle brand that embodies cultural cues and rituals rooted in Chinese culture. In other words, the European brand acquired "literacy" in Chinese culture.


Mari-Liis Madisson

Andreas Ventsel

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Conspiracy theories can amplify society’s fears, confusion and polarization


Mari-Liis Madisson

Andreas Ventsel

is researcher of semiotics at Tartu University. Her research interests lie primarily in cultural semiotics, media semiotics and political semiotics. Since 2014 she has taught multiple courses on online culture and critical media literacy. She is the author of The Semiotic Construction of Identities in Hypermedia Environments: The Analysis of Online Communication of the Estonian Extreme Right (Tartu University Press, 2016) and Strategic Conspiracy Narratives: A Semiotic Approach (Routledge, 2020) (co-author Andreas Ventsel). 

is an associate professor of semiotics at Tartu University and a lecturer in Pallas University of Applied Sciences in Tartu.  His  research is interdisciplinary which includes semiotics, discourse theory, visual communication, rhetoric and political analysis.  He has presented the results of the research on these topics in around 100 academic articles and been the initiator and editor of several international scientific journals. Ventsel is the author the books Strategic Conspiracy Narratives: A Semiotic Approach. Routledge 2020 (co-author Mari-Liis Madisson) and Introducing Relational Political Analysis - Political Semiotics as a Theory and Method Palgrave Macmillan 2020 (with Peeter Selg). 

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Semiotics of fear and conspiracy theories

Academic discourse usually defines “conspiracy theory” as a form of narrative explanation that insists that a group of people, acting in secret with malicious intent, are the orchestrating force behind events. These days, conspiracy theories are most often discussed in the context of growing populist and extremist movements, increases in informational influence activities, and fake news. These phenomena have become more common as a result of the 3Cs, i.e. periods of conflict, catastrophe and crisis. In the following paper we will discuss some of the semiotic mechanisms that underlie conspiracy theories and societal fears. [js1]

Collective fear often finds its expression in conspiracy theories and according to Juri Lotman, leading figure of our [js2] Tartu-Moscow school of Cultural Semiotics, we may witness an increase of both motivated and unmotivated fears during periods of 3Cs (Lotman 2007). In the case of motivated fear, the cause of the fear is obvious for all who experience it (e.g. a fear that COVID-19 may harm one's family). Such fear has a “real” point of reference that is recognizable for the people involved and historians who study them. Conversely, with unmotivated fears (e.g. a fear that a secret cabal[1] is spreading lies about non-existent COVID-19 in order to infect people with harmful vaccines and gain more control over the masses), fear does not result from an actual horrifying origin, but from the fact that some elements of reality are merely interpreted to be fearful omens and warning signs, the origins of which often elude both the people involved as well as the historians studying them. As such, the object of fear is indeed constructed through semiotic imagery, adopted by a society to make sense of themselves and the world.  

As such, the object of fear is indeed constructed through semiotic imagery, adopted by a society to make sense of themselves and the world.  

Hermeneutics of Fear

Conspiracy theories have gained a lot of attention in explanations that try to make sense of the Coronavirus infodemic, but it is important to acknowledge that conspiracy theories are rooted in deep layers of cultural memory. According to Lotman, ambiguous tales told by the anonymous voice of the masses have a crucial role in establishing an atmosphere of fear. These vague stories are shaped by fear, and in turn those tales reinforce the collective feeling of fear, playing a significant role in further fueling the atmosphere of fear and its hermeneutics of meaning-making. This meaning-making creates new associations between things and signs, as well as signs among themselves, significantly altering the previous understanding of reality.

  Umberto Eco has pointed out that the semiotic process that explains the emergence of fear and conspiracy theories is that of communion. This type of meaning-making, which is based on analogies unintelligible to outsiders, is developed through the concepts of paranoid interpretation and hermetic associations (Eco 1990). In this type of meaning-making, every time that a new analogy is discovered it brings about a new analogy, and so on and so forth ad infinitum. For example, contemporary conspiracy theorists that speak of harmful 5G waves often support their claims with the following “evidence”: the symbol of the Satan, the pentagram, is recognizable in the term “5G” (they read 5 as “penta” and G as “gram”) and as such they must be related.                                The loose criteria of similarity established in hermetic meaning-making gives rise to the assumption that a sign consists in signifying a hidden meaning (Eco 1990: 163-166). Hence one important principle of hermetic meaning-making is that when two things are similar, the former is a sign of the latter and vice versa (Eco 1990: 164). For example, conspiracy theorists tend to disagree with the media-coverage of various shocking events because they believe that journalists are using such events as a smoke screen to distract public attention and keep it occupied with “pseudo-topics” while conspirators perform their evil deeds undisturbed. Nevertheless, that does not mean that conspiracy theorists are not interested in the media; on the contrary, they often work through numerous visual and verbal narratives enabling them to “prove” that there are paradoxes and contradictions in the official versions of events. (Leone, Madisson, Ventsel 2020).

Strategic use of conspiracy theories

Communities that are overwhelmed by fear tend to circulate stories that see a small but extremely dangerous sect (a Cabal) as the main reasons for their troubles. These “sects” usually feature minority groups such as the Jewish people, as showcased by Madisson and Ventsel’s study on Estonian extreme rightwing blogs (2018). These blogs expressed the notion that the “real” cause of the European migrant crisis were the Jews, who were plotting to weaken the white race and used secret signs which these bloggers usually derived from either physical appearance or performative acts. In order to depict their own behavior as moral conspirators tend to level stereotypical accusations against the members of these “cabala”, such as accusing them of being Satanic. Such an immoral, malignant and influential enemy, acting undercover, makes it possible to present one’s own views as something ethical, transparent and justified.

It is especially after Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the Brexit referendum in 2016 and the Infodemic related with the Corona virus that the power of viral conspiracy theories has become undeniable. In strategic communication, conspiracy theories have proven themselves an effective means of creating distrust towards political opponents, dramatizing statements being made, and constructing a positive self-image of moral superiority (Madisson, Ventsel 2021: 1). As we know, fear is an effective tool for mobilizing attention and a powerful force for undermining people’s capacity to think critically. The myth that most clearly emerges when we discuss the strategic use of conspiracy theories is based on the idea that strategic actors or teams of their PR-specialists and spin doctors create such theories from scratch and successfully plant them in their information ecosystem. The fallibility of the myth lies in the fact that, in their essence, conspiracy theories are a folklore or vernacular phenomenon. They are based on the repetition of similar cultural universal motifs of fear: society has become rotten, infested with selfish and amoral malignant forces! Important information is being hidden from the public! The conspirators are using a secret code! These motifs are continuously being supplied with new context, new villains, and new buzzwords, and as such the disseminators of strategic conspiracy theories undoubtedly engage in monitoring the social media, tracking ideas that make their messages more intriguing and enticing. For example, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán has blamed Hungarian billionaire George Soros for bringing into Hungary more than a million Muslim immigrants in order to destabilize the traditional Western way of life. Donald Trump leveled similar accusations wherein he blamed Soros for Central American migrant caravans. Anti-Vaxxers also often blame Soros for manipulating people into taking harmful vaccines that diminish their agency. However, it would be wrong to credit Trump, Orban, or the anti-vaxxers with creating the boogeyman “George Soros'' considering they hijacked these conspiracy theories from the KGB. The roots of the conspiracy about Soros lead back to the mid-1980s, that is, the period when he started his philanthropic activities in Easter Europe. Then, the KGB began to disseminate conspiracy theories accusing Soros of being a US spy and engaging in subversive activities targeting the USSR. Orbán’s theories, however, saw Soros and the foundations he supported as a means of enforcing Americanization, globalism and brainwashing (Kaufman 2002: 12). The Soviet Union has long disappeared from the world’s map, but Soros’s popularity as a scapegoat figuring in conspiracy theories is higher than ever.

To Conclude

Conspiracy theories can amplify society’s fears, confusion and polarization. In this sense, they mirror collective fears and amplify them. However, we do not want to say that all conspiracy theories should be treated in the light of cultural fears. Conspiracy theories are also used for entertainment, for they pique many interpreters’ curiosity and provide pleasure in the detection and discovery of hidden patterns… 



The cloudy water has always been a symbol for a troubled or unsure mind. I wanted to do something with that idea because it can be relatable for a lot of people. The trees are unclear and out of focus, just like someone's thoughts. I also just really liked the trees in the water with the sunset, I thought that it would be a nice thing to photograph


Vera in 't Hout

Hi I'm Vera, an 18 year old photography student from Rotterdam. I like to photograph people and tell story's with my photos. A topic I'm interested in for example is the lgbtq community, because it's close to me personally and I want to bring more representation for the community. I also like to do street photography. 

In the Picture