New research sheds light on conspiracy theories and the people who believe them.
From UFOs to what really happened to America’s 35th President, John F. Kennedy, a lot of conspiracy theories might seem far-fetched.
But do all conspiracy theories totally miss the mark, or is there usually a grain of truth? And what type of people share them?
ANU researcher Dr Colin Klein delved into the world of popular Reddit forum r/conspiracy to find out.
He says conspiracy theories have traditionally been very difficult to study – but that’s changing thanks to social media.
“You tend to only hear about the people with the most extreme views, and those people tend to naturally be wary about talking to someone else about their beliefs,” Dr Klein said.
“People have a bit more freedom online. This drift we’ve seen towards r/conspiracy is partly people trying to find communities where they feel welcome.
“That process of finding like-minded people is something we see a lot of on the internet.
“This suggests people aren’t being mysteriously seduced by r/conspiracy so much as working their way towards something that seems like it aligns with their values.”
Reddit also provides researchers like Dr Klein with a treasure-trove of data.
For his recent study, Dr Klein and his colleagues sifted through about two billion Reddit posts spanning from 2007 to 2015.
They found a lot of people who post in r/conspiracy actually have quite ‘sensible’ interests, debunking the image of a “crackpot in a tin-foil hat”.
“Low-level theorising goes on a lot – even amongst academics! I’m inclined to think the stuff you see online is just a continuation of that,” Dr Klein said.
“For example, there are a lot of r/conspiracy users whose theories are mostly about police abuse of power. That’s not so crazy. These conspiracy theorists might believe false things because similar true things have happened in the past.”
The data also reveals how people come to start posting on r/conspiracy.
“For researchers, the really great thing about it is you can see what people did before they ever started posting on r/conspiracy,” Dr Klein said.
“So you can go through and pick people who started using Reddit and then posted for about six months on other forums before they ended up on r/conspiracy.
“You find two people who, for example, both started on the popular ‘ask me anything’ Reddit, and one ended up talking about conspiracies and one didn’t.”
Dr Klein found most people who use r/conspiracy do have some things in common.
“Generally, they’re also active on the political forums – so they’re interested in politics. But it’s not like they’re hyper-focused, they also post in some of the more general forums that everyone tends to post in.
“There’s also noticeable differences in the language they use – there’s a lot more discussion around power and power structures. But again, this is not that different from what ordinarily goes on in r/politics – so it’s hard to distinguish them that way.”
Dr Klein says Reddit is great way to study social dynamics. Perhaps unsurprisingly, just because people find their way to the same online forum, this doesn’t mean they’re going to agree on everything.
“Our data set ends just before President Trump came to power, but that really changed the dynamics of Reddit a lot,” Dr Klein said.
“There’s actually quite a lot of internal schisms now about Trump – there’s a lot more in-fighting.
“Two people might both be convinced there’s a conspiracy going on, but they’re not trying to build one grand narrative – each of them has their own perspective.”
Dr Klein says there are certain conspiracy theories that pop up over and over again.
“For example, theories surrounding certain public figures, like George Soros and Jeffrey Epstein. Or major events like 9/11.
“The phrase gets used a lot by people trying to dismiss something – that is essentially what’s going on in the US politics right now, one side saying ‘this is all a dumb conspiracy theory’.
“It’s interesting the extent to which at least some conspiracy theorising is a symptom of broader distrust in the government and political power – it’s not unjustified.”
Dr Klein’s research was recently published in the journal PLOS ONE.
Top image: President John F. Kennedy on the day of his assassination in 1963. Photo: Walt Cisco, Dallas Morning News/Wikimedia Commons
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