Study reveals who is spreading online conspiracies

Study reveals who is spreading online conspiracies
Conspiracy theories are on the rise and playing an increasingly significant role in global politics. Credit: Australian National University

Due to the Internet, conspiracy theories are on the rise and playing an increasingly significant role in global politics. Now new research from The Australian National University (ANU) has analysed digital data to reveal exactly who is propagating them and why.

Lead researcher Dr Colin Klein of the ANU School of Philosophy said that conspiracies such as Pizzagate (which falsely claimed high-ranking Democratic Party officials were running a child-sex ring out of a pizza shop) and the anti-vaccination movement are becoming a bigger issue.

"Conspiracy theories are on the rise and that's a problem. Just look at the influence they have had on recent political discourse," Dr Klein said.

"Over time these conspiracies start to break down public trust in things like governments, institutions and even doctors."

Dr Klein and his team used a huge, publicly available dataset of every comment made on the section of the world's largest discussion website Reddit from 2007 to mid-2015 to work out exactly who was taking part in spreading these conspiracies and why. He was surprised by the results.

"You have to realise it's not just people who are crazy and distrust everything," he said.

"It is commonly believed that conspiracy believers tend to be the kind of people that connect every conspiracy to everything else - like the typical tin foil hat wearing stereotype.

"We found that there are those people, but they are the tip of a much larger iceberg."

The analysis showed that most conspiracies built traction when a range of different people and groups could connect it to their own preconceived beliefs or agendas.

"People have an agenda and are looking for conspiracies that can hook into it," Dr Klein said.

"The most successful conspiracies were the ones where everyone can get something out of it.

"Consider a conspiracy about secret CIA prison camps. One person might care about its relationship to 9/11, another might use it to fuel their anti-Semitism, a third to make a point about gun control.

"Each gets what they need, and each contributes to the larger whole."

The study also looked at the reasons people engaged in .

"There are some people who don't even seem to believe the things they are saying. Rather, it's a way of expressing a dislike for something - like a politician or a group of people," he said.

"Pizzagate is a really interesting case, where it starts off as a form of trolling by people who didn't like Hillary Clinton, but then others were willing to pick it up seriously and take it further."

The study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from Macquarie University and was published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Explore further

Belief in conspiracy theories associated with vaccine skepticism

More information: Colin Klein et al. Topic Modeling Reveals Distinct Interests within an Online Conspiracy Forum, Frontiers in Psychology (2018). DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00189
Journal information: Frontiers in Psychology

Citation: Study reveals who is spreading online conspiracies (2018, April 3) retrieved 17 August 2019 from
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Apr 04, 2018
It is a problem with such studies that they fail to delineate what qualifies as a conspiracy theory. Some CTs are purely rational, for example, 9/11 theories are based on the physics of building collapse, melting point of steel, and chemical analysis of dust particles. Other CTs are less rational. For example chemtrail beliefs ignore contradictory evidence. Beliefs in reptilian overloads are outright irrational or delutional. Automated text analysis cannot capture this difference. We could gain more insight by using social cognition theory. A rational CT may facilitate beliefs in irrational CTs by fostering a world view where conspiracies are likely. Evolutionary psychology tells that powerful leaders have an incentive to fabricate false dangers because it gives them a fitness advantage, and there is historical evidence that such conspiracies have indeed happened (see Agner Fog: Warlike and peaceful societies, 2017)

A theory by psychologists of evolution that assumes that it would be natural for leaders (or anyone else) to use intentional lies for supporting unvalues such as power-hunger, greed, lust for dominating others etc. is off track. We should keep the term evolution clean, as describing what is natural in our universe, an energy of relentlessly striving towards progress.

Apr 07, 2018
The concept of 'progress' makes no sense in biological evolution. Only the number of descendants counts. The book I have cited above demonstrates that leaders can strengthen their own power, get multiple vives, and get more children by making their population think that the tribe is in danger so that they need a strong leader. This was the case in the past but perhaps not today where norms of monogamy are strong. The psychological mechanisms that evolved in a distant past are still working, however.

Apr 07, 2018
The term 'conspiracy theory' implies that the theory is wrong. So its not an objective thing its a pejorative opinion.

Humans conspire and deceive. They are 2 of our most useful traits. So we should expect to find them as elements in all our interactions.

We also anticipate future events and plan for them. And of course we are prepared to conspire and deceive in order to make them turn out the way we want. Also the most human of activities.

Conspiracy and deception in the context of the tribe goes like this: we want to improve our lot in relation to all the other tribes so we are going to conspire with our fellow tribesmen, and perhaps other tribes with mutual interests, to deceive enemy tribes to our benefit and/or their detriment.

And we have little choice in the matter because we have been living in the context of the tribe for a million years and the tribes who weren't as good at this game have been consistently eliminated by those who were.

And so it's genetic.

Apr 07, 2018
Why do I even bother reading the comments anymore?

Apr 07, 2018
The use of the term 'conspiracy theory' can certainly be a strategy to deflect suspicion when your planning, conspiring, and deceiving is in danger of being exposed.

So we ought to immediately suspect and distrust anyone who uses it.

Apr 07, 2018
"Lead researcher Dr Colin Klein of the ANU School of PHILOSOPHY"...
"Consciousness... Insects are conscious. Certain kinds of severe brain damage spare consciousness. I and co-authors explore these issues as a means towards dissolving the hard problem of consciousness."

"Traditional issues in intertheoretic reduction and realization. All of my work is concerned with the ontological commitments that our best theories do (and do not) bring."

"Reduction and Realization
"Psychological Explanation, Ontological Commitment, and the Semantic view of Theories " New Waves in PHILOISOPHY of Mind (2014)"

"Consciousness, Cognition, and 'Consciousness and Cognition'"

-Etc. Seriously, would you trust this man?

Apr 07, 2018
I just did a search on 'is formal philosophy one big fat conspiracy?' And found that a lot of philos are in fact spending a lot of energy on the topic of conspiracy theories.

Which could signify their intent to fortify the idea that it is an objective ding an sich and not like I say a pejorative weapon to be used against their detractors and the detractors of their liberal political allies, without whom academic philos would have no reason to exist whatsoever.

@anonym: what matters in nature is the ever-increasing fitness of self and one's species. I call that strive towards relative perfection, progress and alike. For this to work out in the long run, meaning sustainably, it requires own, descendant, group etc. life conduct to align in the smartest possible way with laws and recommendations of nature. In that nature one can learn from plants and animals (which are not undergoing ages of disorientation, misalignment as we humans currently do) how that works. No needless harm to co-creatures, offspring only such in number that the environment can sustain it, all time seeking and using synergetic effects with other species. While such aligned behavior in the plant and animal kingdoms happens in automatic mode via impulses and instincts respectively, we humans are able to additionally behave via conscious thinking.

This great extra option of conscious behavior allows us to perform more advanced things, and as collateral effect, it unfortunately also allows us to grossly deviate from what is ultimately most beneficial for us, the own species and the whole ecosystem, because being the natural choice. The real task is thus to differentiate between exhibited features of psychopathic and otherwise destructive character by individuals and groups/societies and those that are sustainably benevolent, healthy and evolutionary. Just because we see fraud, dishonesty and alike in some political and criminal careers does e.g. not mean that absence of conscience is the realistic way to go for bringing mankind ahead.

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