Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design

Committee Chair/Advisor

Cynthia Haynes

Committee Member

Jan Rune Holmevik

Committee Member

Darren Linvill

Committee Member

Mary Ellen Pethel


This dissertation addresses three issues that intertwine: Disinformation, polarization, and the politics of identity. Social media currently dominates how we receive our news and information. This coincides with a disinformation pandemic full of false news and propaganda running rampant online. What often ensues is a social distortion that poses as reality. Seventy-two percent of all Americans use some type of social media according to Pew Research. Not all social media is nefarious, but the design of the social platforms further aggravate how people learn and communicate. Through original and peer-reviewed mixed methods research on topics including the conspiracy theories of QAnon and “The Disinformation Dozen,” I examine how conspiracy theories fuel deep polarizations. Gatekeeping and agenda building roles are explored by analyzing social media outlets, which have few ethical standards or consequences in place when false news trends. Research shows the architecture of social media is partially to blame for the spread of disinformation as it motivates group identities using emotion, which captures people’s attention, and amplifies false content through person-to-person sharing as well as built-in technologies including algorithms and feedback loops. Therefore, insights into rhetorical listening and Socratic questioning are investigated to understand these deep-rooted issues. Engaging experiential learning through original interviews with experts and scholars studying disinformation, polarization, and the politics of identity, as well as deeper analysis through twenty years of personal experience as a White House reporter and media professional who has covered three sitting presidents of varying political parties, provides unique and original perspectives to help combat this growing problem. Additionally, guideposts for handling extreme polarization are presented by academics, policy makers, politicians, and peacebuilders who studied and worked through the Troubles in Northern Ireland, which ended with one of the most prominent peace agreements of our current time. This dissertation concludes with proposed educational foundations based on scholarly research, original interviews, and experiential learning to build a greater understanding of how to discuss and manage online disinformation, which creates polarization and ingrained political identities.

Available for download on Saturday, August 31, 2024