‘Insinuation by questions’ is a devious rhetorical tactic increasingly being used in political campaigns. It also a way of dog whistling to conspiracy theorists.
The aim of this tactic is to try to discredit popular political figures by undermining their trustworthiness. The method is to keep asking questions that have already been answered by the political figure under attack. These answers have often been corroborated by independent evidence. The theory is that if such questions keep being asked, voters will come to think that they must have some substance. This in turn will raise doubts and suspicions in the minds of some voters.
A notorious example of this tactic was the ‘birther movement‘ in the USA, before and during President Obama’s term of office. Questions were continually raised as to whether Obama was actually born in Hawaii rather than Kenya as alleged. These questions persisted despite Obama’s pre-election release of his official Hawaiian birth certificate in 2008, confirmation by the Hawaii Department of Health based on the original documents, the April 2011 release of a certified copy of Obama’s original long-form birth certificate, and contemporaneous birth announcements published in Hawaii newspapers. As usual, conspiracy theorists dismissed this convincing evidence as being part of the alleged conspiracy.
Closer to home, questions have recently been asked during the Victorian state election campaign about two incidents involving the Premier, Daniel Andrews. These were a car accident about 10 years ago, and his fall on some wet steps at his holiday accommodation in Sorrento. Both incidents were independently investigated, and Andrews’ account was corroborated. Yet questions continue to be asked via tabloid media such as the Herald-Sun newspaper. One of the world’s leading experts on the amplification of conspiracies, University of Oregon Assistant Prof Whitney Phillips, says mainstream coverage like the Herald Sun’s presents a ‘huge turning point’ in helping to legitimise conspiracy theories.