How Conspiracy Theories Spread Online

Misinformation is ripe online, and so it’s perhaps not surprising that a growing amount of effort is being put into understanding not only who creates it, but how it spreads.  The latest effort comes from The Australian National University (ANU), who have published a study that analyzes digital data to understand how conspiracy theories spread throughout the web.

“Conspiracy theories are on the rise and that’s a problem. Just look at the influence they have had on recent political discourse,” the authors say.  “Over time these conspiracies start to break down public trust in things like governments, institutions and even doctors.”

The researchers mined the conspiracy sub of Reddit between 2007 and 2015.  The community is believed to be the largest publicly available dataset on the topic, and it provided some fascinating insights into how misinformation spreads.

Tin foil hats

The analysis found that it wasn’t always the people we traditionally associate with conspiracies who were most involved in spreading them.  Indeed, those people were actually the tip of a much larger iceberg.

It emerged that most conspiracies gathered steam when a diverse pool of people and groups were able to connect the conspiracy to their own preconceived beliefs or agendas.  It’s a form of confirmation bias in action, with people gladly spreading conspiracy theories that conform to their preconceived beliefs.  Indeed, the best conspiracies were those where everyone could get something from them.

“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,” the authors explain.  “Each gets what they need, and each contributes to the larger whole.”

The study also uncovered some of the motivations for participating in conspiracy theories.  For instance, it wasn’t always necessary to actually believe what you were sharing, especially if the theory provided you with a way of expressing your dislike for the subject.

The challenge, you suspect, will now perhaps move to how such theories can be debunked so that people have access to more accurate information.