Listen: Dr Colin Klein in conversation with Stephen O’Doherty.
Dr Colin Klein from ANU studied a massive (legal) download of data from the main conspiracy forum of social media site Reddit.com. His work shatters the image of conspiracy theorists as deluded, tin-foil hat wearing people who insist all things are connected and are prepared to believe just about anything.
Pizzagate – a wild conspiracy spread on-line
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 warns 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.
Gunman was ‘rescuing’ conspiracy victims
Pizzagate was shared on twitter roughly 1.4 million times by more than a quarter of a million accounts in its first five weeks of life – up to the day a man with a gun showed up at a Washington DC pizza shop. He told police he’d gone to the restaurant to “self-investigate” reports of the child-trafficking ring. He was carrying a Colt AR-15 rifle, a Colt .38 handgun, a shotgun and a folding knife. He fired several shots from the AR-15 damaging property but did not injure any people. Police charged him and he has been given a four year prison term.
A massive trove of conspiracy data
Online forums provide a valuable window into everyday conspiracy theorizing. They can give a clue to the motivations and interests of those who post in such forums. Yet this online activity can be difficult to quantify and study. “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 says “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 conspiracy section of the world’s largest discussion website, Reddit. The data covered from 2007 to mid-2015 and was used to work out exactly who was taking part in spreading these conspiracies and why.
One conspiracy can appeal to different types of people
Dr Klein was surprised by the results. “You have to realise it’s not just people who are crazy and distrust everything. 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,” says Dr Klein
What makes a conspiracy successful?
“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 conspiracy theories.” according to Dr Klein.
Why do people fall for conspiracy theories?
“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 research paper concludes that the work “…demonstrated the degree to which conspiracy endorsers differ. Psychologists have suggested a wide variety of different motivations for belief in conspiracy theories, including the need for explanations, the desire for control in a complex world, political extremism, the desire for simple explanations, and so on. Some of these do not appear to be especially problematic motives per se.”
While it might be easy to consider that conspiracy theorists all operate on the assumption that everything is connected and even the most far-fetched conspiracy (like Pizzagate) is not just believable but grounded in verifiable fact the research found that “.. there are many different authors with different sets of concerns, each interacting with one another.”
Conspiracy theorists come in many varieties
The research paper came to the conclusion that turns the stereotype of a conspiracy theorist on its head “Ultimately, we doubt that there needs to be any particular set of psychological motivations which characterize conspiracy theorists. Some are irrational. Some are irate. Some are epistemically unlucky. Some are racist. Some are skeptical. We should not say that conspiracy theorists have overarching belief systems that encompass and unify a wide variety of different narratives. Instead, it may be the other way around: it is conspiracy narratives that are all-encompassing, pulling in a diverse group of people who may have little in common with one another, each of whom can find what they need in a fragment of the larger tale.”
The study was conducted in collaboration with researchers from Macquarie University and was published in Frontiers in Psychology.
To listen to our Open House podcast of this story click the red play button at the top of the page, or you can subscribe to Open House podcasts in iTunes and they will appear in your feed.