Jan 26 2023

Which Conspiracies Spread Most

Grand conspiracy theories are a curious thing. What would lead someone to readily believe that the world is secretly run by evil supervillains? Belief in conspiracies correlates with feelings of helplessness, which suggests that some people would rather believe that an evil villain is secretly in control than the more prosaic reality that no one is in control and we live in a complex and chaotic universe.

The COVID-19 pandemic provided a natural experiment to see how conspiracy belief reacted and spread. A recent study examines this phenomenon by tracking tweets and other social media posts relating to COVID conspiracy theories. Their primary method was to identify specific content type within the tweets and correlate that with how quickly and how far those tweets were shared across the network.

The researchers identified nine features of COVID-related conspiracy tweets: malicious purposes, secretive action, statement of belief, attempt at authentication (such as linking to a source), directive (asking the reader to take action), rhetorical question, who are the conspirators, methods of secrecy, and conditions under which the conspiracy theory is proposed (I got COVID from that 5G tower near my home). They also propose a breakdown of different types of conspiracies: conspiracy sub-narrative, issue specific, villain-based, and mega-conspiracy.

A sub-narrative includes theories that subsumed COVID into their existing narrative – “5G towers are unhealthy” incorporates COVID to become “5G towers cause COVID”. Issue-specific is a contained conspiracy theory that refers to just one issue – COVID was deliberately released from a lab. Villain-based focus on a specific person who is responsible for the conspiracy – for the COVID conspiracies Bill Gates was the most popular target. And mega-conspiracies involve world-spanning conspiracies that easily incorporate COVID as a specific instance. The two most common were QAnon (the world is secretly run by cannibalistic pedophile demon-worshipers) and Agenda 21 (the UN has a secret program to depopulate the world).

There is a lot of detail in the study, but to cut to the bottom line, they found that conspiracy tweets that included references to malicious purposes and secretive action spread the most, while those referencing belief and authentication spread the least. There are many potential confounding factors here, but this was a large data set so it’s probably telling us something about the psychology of conspiracy believers. Tweets including authentication were common, so the tweeter felt the need to support what they were saying (which the authors attribute partly to the common criticism that conspiracies lack evidence). However, on the receiving end, people who read those tweets did not feel especially compelled to spread them. Also statements of personal belief did not seem to be a motivating factor for spread.

What seems to capture the imagination, as measured by a desire to spread the tweet with other people, is the idea that there are evil people in the world who are acting in secret and with malicious intent. This is a common feature of grand conspiracy theories. It raises the question – why are so many people willing to believe such horrible things about their fellow human beings? It’s one thing to say that people are biased, selfish, greedy, and short-sighted – because those are common frailties we all share to some degree. And of course there are a small percentage of truly horrible psychopaths out there.

But the occasional serial killer is a very different thing that seemingly ordinary citizens hiding in plain site while they secretly run the world so that they can have a steady stream of babies to kill and eat is just cartoonish. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that many such theories are just silly – they collapse under their own weight if you think about them logically for even a minute. How could such mass murder by politicians in the public eye be hidden from the world (except, of course, for our plucky group of conspiracy theorists)? In order to justify such a belief conspiracy theories have to spread and grow – because the government is in on it, and so is the press, and their influence is international, etc. Before long we have lizard people and secret societies with space lasers.

This is a multifaceted phenomenon, that includes not only psychology but also how we come to believe what we believe and how we maintain and justify those beliefs. Conspiracy theories such as these represent a glitch in the functioning of the human brain. They are one of the things that can happen when our belief mechanisms go horribly awry.

What this study highlights is the role that social media plays in magnifying and spreading conspiracy beliefs. They seem to prefer spreading misinformation, based largely on psychological appeal and sensationalism rather than logic, evidence, and veracity. People don’t even seem to care if the conspiracy rumors are authenticated. There is also reason to believe that this is not a bug but a feature of social media algorithms, designed to maximize engagement without concern for societal effects. Big tech is making some movement to deal with this aspect of their products, but so far there is no easy solution. There are complex trade-offs as well, which can be used to justify various approaches.

This is an area ripe for further research. I don’t think any simply solutions will emerge, but at least we can make better informed decisions about the trade-offs.












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