Why We’re Thinking About Conspiracy Theorists Wrong

A study of millions of Reddit posts found there are people who fit the typical conspiracy caricature, but they’re not the majority.

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Apr 11 2018, 4:57pm

Screenshot:   It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Over the course of sorting millions of posts from the conspiracy subreddit, many things surprised researcher Colin Klein, but perhaps nothing as much as what one particular user posted.

Well, it wasn’t exactly what they posted—it was how much.

"I kept looking at it thinking, this can't be right. I looked to make sure it wasn't a bot or something,” Klein told VICE with a laugh. “You look at this and just think, 'my god, man, you're more productive than I am' and he's not ranting either, that's the thing.”

Klein’s incredulity comes from the fact that one user posted 896,337 words over 18,000 posts on the conspiracy subreddit. That is almost twice the length as the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

"The sheer energy that people put into this, even though I should have known, was surprising even to me."

Klein found this Tolkien-level redditor over the course of a study in which he and fellow researchers attempted to find out what a conspiracy theorist really is. The research was conducted by Klein, the acting director of the Centre for Philosophy of the Sciences at Australian National University, Peter Clutton, a graduate student at ANU, and Vince Polito, a postdoctoral research fellow in cognitive science at Macquarie University. The study was published in Frontiers of Psychology in February.

In doing so, they found that what we thought about conspiracy theorists is, at the worst, wrong and, at the best, misguided.

To understand why Klein, Clutton, and Polito put themselves in the way of several million Reddit posts, you have to understand the traditional way conspiracy theorists are viewed. When most people talk about conspiracy theorists they think of people who have a "monological" belief system connecting everything to everything else—think of the Conspiracy Charlie meme from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia—and this is usually considered pathological.

It’s no secret that conspiracies and those who peddle them have become more visible in the past few years. In some cases, such as pizzagate, they’ve led to real-life violence, and overall they have an immensely negative effect on our culture. So, with online theorists leading the way, Klein and company decided to test this caricature.

"We were a bit suspicious of that, we had been around the internet,” Klein told VICE. “We thought that might characterize some of the more extreme views but it's unclear. After arguing for a while we decided the best thing we could do would be to look to actual people involved in conspiracy theories."

So, look to them they did, using the data that Reddit has made public—2.2 million posts from 130,000 unique users over eight years—and a method of analysis called topic modelling which is a way to linguistically sort things. When they did, they found these these pathological “true believers” but also much, much more.

"There are a lot of other subgroups that don't seem to fit that pattern. Many in these groups seem to have a particular focus,” said Klein. “The anti-Semites are probably the clearest on this—they are people whose main interest is some sort of racist belief insofar as they can connect things to that racism they're fine with it but if they can't, they won't."

In fact, Klein and his fellow researchers were able to take the data they found and break the subreddit posters into 12 different subcategories. They are anti-authoritarians, patriots, anti-Semites, indignant posters, skeptics, truthers, downtrodden, anti-imperialists, redditors (described as “people as much concerned with interpersonal drama on the site as they are with any particular conspiracy theory”), posters obsessed with pseudo-science, and two types of true believers. Klein told VICE that he wasn’t all that shocked with what they found.

"None of them I was particularly surprised by in retrospect but I don't think we knew what we were going to find,” Klein said. “A lot of them you say, 'oh, of course, there are a lot of gun control people on here.' The ones that kind of surprised me the most was what we called the downtrodden in the paper who were just cynical in the face of power."

Put another way, there are people who fit the typical conspiracy caricature, but they’re not the majority, in fact they’re heavily outnumbered by single issue users—they’re just loud as fuck—and it’s a mistake to paint them all with one brush. Many are attracted to the social aspect of discussing conspiracies and may not fully believe it or use it as a way to express discontent. Furthermore, they found that these users weren’t solely obsessed with conspiracies, that this wasn’t their whole life (at least online) and they would post to subreddits about cute cats and shit.

In the paper, Klein and company dubbed this the “iceberg theory”—that what we think of conspiracy theorist is only the tip of a much larger iceberg. Frankly, if we’re going to attempt to fight the long-term toxic effects that conspiracies can have on our culture, we have to start viewing the theorists in more nuanced ways. People take from the conspiracy what they can which then works to grow the same conspiracy.

“Consider a thread about (e.g.,) 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,” reads a portion of the paper.

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When asked to take a step back from Reddit and what he thinks is causing the obvious increase in conspiratorial thinking, Klein said that there is no solid answer but he believes the massive amount of information ushered in by the internet has something to do with it. This includes seeing more mistakes made by traditional sources of newspapers, people sowing distrust from positions of power (a la Trump) and people peddling fake information. But, like most things, in the end it goes back to a lack of trust.

“Unfortunately a lot of what you see in conspiracy theorizing is a symptom of this larger breakdown of trust in things like the government and, in many cases, it's not entirely unjustified.”

Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.