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Conspiracy theorists will truly believe anything, says science

More on the science of the Facebook echo chamber.


Cynthia McKelvey


Posted on May 31, 2015   Updated on May 28, 2021, 5:18 pm CDT

Admit it, you love to hate-read the conspiracy theory bullshit your friend or relative regurgitates all over Facebook. But have you ever asked yourself why he or she believes the seemingly unending drivel?

Scientists in Italy tested an idea that people who are active on conspiracy theory-promoting news websites are more likely to believe even obviously false claims, compared to their more scientifically minded Internet counterparts. They recently published their results in the open-access online journal, PLOS One.

The researchers tracked the Likes, comments, and shares of 1.2 million people as they interacted with “alternative” news posts and mainstream news posts. They found that people who were more invested in alternative narratives tended to stay within their group. Their Likes, comments, and shares were mostly doled out to alternative news websites and rarely did they venture to the mainstream posts to Like or comment. On the other hand, mainstream news-oriented folks were more willing to sojourn on the conspiracy pages to participate in debates in the comment section.

The researchers went a step further by monitoring more than 4,000 pieces of “troll” information—obviously false information with a satirical bent—on two dedicated pages. Fringe news included: chemtrails are laced with Viagra, an infinite energy machine has been created, and mosquito poison used in parks is made from chemicals toxic to humans. They found that conspiracy theorists were more likely to Like and share the troll information than the mainstreamers.

But the study is not without its detractors. Rebecca Watson, a prominent blogger and podcast host in the skeptic community, voiced some criticism in the study on her YouTube channel.

“I really thought that the researchers would go above and beyond to come up with something ridiculous [in their troll information],” Watson said. “But if you think Viagra chemtrails are ridiculous, you don’t know what conspiracy theorists actually believe.”

Watson defends her claims by saying that conspiracy theorists believe that spraying vinegar above their heads protects them from the effects of chemtrails, and that the world economy is run by lizard people.

Watson’s criticism is understandable, but she seems to be missing the point of the research.

“These kind of studies are important because they quantify social phenomena,” Walter Quattrociocchi, the study’s corresponding author, told the Daily Dot. He added that even people in the skeptic community (or anyone, really) can construct their own echo chambers.

This study is also just one of a series of studies by Quattrociocchi’s group. We’ve covered their work before. In general this group has found that people tend to self-select their own echo chambers based on their pre-existing beliefs and the social reinforcement that comes with those beliefs through Likes, follows, comments, and shares. It makes sense when you think about it. After all that hate-reading your aunt’s various posts about crystals and chemtrails, didn’t you eventually unfollow her because you couldn’t take it anymore? Have you ever had the experience of being unfollowed or unfriended because you challenged your Facebook friend’s beliefs in the comments?

In another study that is pending publication, the authors also find that, most dishearteningly, debunking campaigns do little to affect change in conspiracy theorists’ minds. Why? “Because users segregated in their echo chambers are not reached by the information. The few that are reached reinforce their consumption of conspiracy-like stories,” Quattrociocchi said.

Other groups have also found that sending debunking information directly to people with false beliefs also causes them to cling to their beliefs more strongly, in a psychological phenomenon called the Backfire Effect.

Quattrociocchi and his colleagues, by researching the Facebook echo chamber and seeing how far people’s false beliefs can go will ultimately help researchers to understand how and why the “alternative news” is so contagious.

One reason, the researchers posit in their study, is that as science gets more complex as it progresses and the mainstream news reflects that. This is both in a singular article about science, and in the overall spectrum of scientific articles, which can often contradict one another (newsflash: so do scientific studies, that’s how science progresses.)

Conspiracy theories and alternative news narratives generally offer simple explanations for complex problems, which may make them more attractive. The staggering volume of information on the Internet, paradoxically, also makes it easier for people to cherry-pick the information that suits their beliefs. They go on to share and reinforce those beliefs when their like-minded friends like, share, and comment on their posts.

It’s also important to know that conspiracy theorists are more likely to believe obviously false information because it’s already caused problems for people at large. Conspiracy theories hindered progress in containing the Ebola epidemic in Africa in 2014. Even 4-chan had a disturbingly successful fearmongering campaign with Ebola-chan, “The viral goddess of love and Afrocide.”

The Internet is not unlike the wild west of information, and if we’re going to stay on top of how that (mis)information is spread, we have to know what we’re dealing with.

Screengrab via Arpingstone/Wikimedia (Public Domain)

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*First Published: May 31, 2015, 10:00 am CDT