There’s a certain image that comes readily to mind when someone uses the term “conspiracy theorist.” One pictures a neck-bearded, ghostly white male in his late-30s, illuminated by the blueish glow of a homebuilt computer in the cloying darkness of his mum’s basement. If he isn’t wearing a tinfoil hat, it’s a cheap cane fedora. His fingers, typing feverishly, are thick with Cheetos dust. He is delivering an impassioned thesis on why J.K. Rowling doesn’t actually exist.
Given that we find ourselves in the post-truth era, it’s probably worth interrogating this stereotype. How accurate is it to assume that the habitués of the r/conspiracy Reddit forum are all home-schooled eccentrics who are so disconnected from reality that they genuinely believe The Matrix was a documentary? Are these fair assessments, or are we taking an uncharitable view of our fellow netizens? In other words: what is the average conspiracy theorist really like?
Researchers at The Australian National University (ANU) set out to answer this very question, for a study published this month in the science journal PLOS ONE. By trawling through eight years of content and more than two billion Reddit comments—including everything posted on the aforementioned r/conspiracy subreddit—the paper’s authors developed a well-informed cross section of some of the Internet’s most suspicious cynics. And according to lead author Dr Colin Klein, they aren’t always a bunch of “crackpots wearing tinfoil hats”.
“In the past, before the rise of online forums like Reddit, we tended to only hear about the most extreme views,” Dr Klein pointed out. “[But] these massive online forums paint a very different picture. The enormous set of comments we examined show many r/conspiracy users actually have more ‘sensible’ interests.”
Common examples of these “sensible” interests include conspiracy theories to do with police abusing their power—which, as Dr Klein is quick to note, is “not so crazy.”
“These people might believe false things,” he says, “but with good reason—because similar things have happened in the past.”
The study also found that the type of language used by people posting on forums like r/conspiracy does differ slightly to the average Reddit user—but not enough to set them apart in any meaningful sense. Dr Klein suggested, in fact, that the kind of chat one finds in these subreddits is fairly similar to what one might expect to see in a forum like r/politics—with frequent conversation circling about issues of power, power structures, etc.
All things said and done, he concludes that most online conspiracy theorists are more or less just like everybody else, if only a little more outspoken in their views.
“It’s very easy to look at conspiracy theories and think they’re super wacky, and the people who believe in them are crazy, but it’s actually much more continuous with a lot of things we do every day,” he says. “Low level theorising goes on a lot in everyday life, I’m inclined to think the stuff you see online is just a strong outgrowth of that.”