How People Consume Conspiracy Theories on Facebook

Aug 15, 2014

By MIT Technology Review

Do you believe that the contrails left by high-flying aircraft contain sildenafil citratum, the active ingredient in Viagra? Or that light bulbs made from uranium and plutonium are more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly? Or that lemons have anti-hypnotic benefits?

If you do, then you are probably a regular consumer of conspiracy theories, particularly those that appear on the Italian language version of Facebook (where all these were sourced). It is easy to dismiss conspiracy theories as background noise with little if any consequences in the real world.

But that may be taking them too lightly. In 2013, a report from the World Economic Forum suggested that online misinformation represents a significant risk to modern society. The report pointed to a number of incidents in which information had spread virally with consequences that could hardly have been imagined by its creators.

In one case, somebody impersonating the Russian Interior Minister tweeted that Syria’s President Basher al-Assad had been killed or injured. The tweet caused the price of crude oil to rise by over one dollar before traders discovered that the news was false.  In another case in 2012, 30,000 people fled from the Indian city of Bangalore after receiving text messages that they would be attacked.

Clearly, the rapid spread of information can often have little to do with whether it is true or not.

33 comments on “How People Consume Conspiracy Theories on Facebook

  • To those of us who have studied media this is nothing new.

    Newspapers have been doing this since the middle of the C17.

    I heard a highly questionable Sky News report that included a specious poll statistic on Scotland earlier this week. It was broadcast on national radio.

    Only the medium has changed.

    Report abuse

  • I’ve been wrestling with the kernel of an idea for a while now and this research somewhat corroborates what I have been trying to distill from my rapidly aging brain.

    This says something about our species.

    Having divided up the posts, they found that around 60,000 involved mainstream scientific news and over 200,000 involved alternative conspiracy news. And while the scientific news received 2.5 million likes, the alternative news had over 6.5 million likes.

    AND

    There is one significant difference, however. Readers of conspiracy news are more likely to both share and like a post than readers of mainstream science news. That appears to reflect a greater desire to spread conspiracy-based information than mainstream information.

    The irrational of this world will always outnumber the rational. We, collectively the denizens of this forum are a minority, and always will be. The rational will always be outvoted in a democracy by the irrational. Just look at the failing state of America. The research speaks of belief in religions and gods. It has consequences for the future of humanity. How can we act on global warming, if, in a democracy, you can never get an elected government majority that will act because the nutters get to vote too. How can we reduce the harm of nutters and quacks when two to one, homo sapiens prefers the nutters.

    Is this innate in us? Are we doomed as a species to be so disabled by the irrational and un-silent majority? What has evolution got to say on this? Surely as homo sapiens evolved, there would have been positive selection pressure on a rational mind over an irrational one. Or does this research result show that somehow we are a product of our times? Are we, an evolutionary stone age hunter / gatherer, unable to cope in the world we’ve created?

    This research shows that homo sapiens represent a clear and present danger to the future of homo sapiens.

    So many questions. So little time.

    Report abuse

  • That is why I have had an erection for three years?

    Low IQ Americans are leading the fight for the Conspiracy Theorys Award.

    Please tell me I am wrong?
    Seriously, storytelling has been the way we assign importance to ourselves. It’s been going on since we could communicate. The more arrogant, the more elaborate the story becomes.

    Report abuse

  • 5
    Miserablegit says:

    It is part of the old adage that in society even one as supposedly sophisticated as ours, people seemed to be convinced that all is not what it seems and social media is expert at feeding peoples prejudices.

    Report abuse

  • alf1200 Aug 16, 2014 at 12:10 am

    Low IQ Americans are leading the fight for the Conspiracy Theorys Award.

    Please tell me I am wrong?
    Seriously, storytelling has been the way we assign importance to ourselves. It’s been going on since we could communicate. The more arrogant, the more elaborate the story becomes.

    The Muppet-media fed simpletons, like showing off their pseudo-knowledge, so show it off to their like-minded friends, who also know nothing about the workings of complex aspects of the real world!

    It is the world of gossip-columnists, air-head celebrities, TV commercials, and (pseudo-)”reality” game shows!

    Report abuse

  • Strangely, there are a couple of words, ‘couple’ in the sense of two individuals together, which should be immediately adjacent to one another in this article, but which aren’t even there; they are, confirmation, and, bias.

    I say ‘strange’ because I don’t think I’ve ever seen a clearer description of the said phenomenon, and it would have been a perfect summation of the piece.

    I do know one conspiracy theorist, and I enjoy sending him up, by regularly bouncing spoofs on to him, to see if he cottons on; some of them are so obviously jokes that I find it difficult to see how anyone could take them seriously.

    But maybe that’s just a lack of imagination on my part.

    Report abuse

  • I had one fellow countryman tell me the Fukishima Reactor contamination was the reason for the star fish wasting syndrome. Which started years before the earthquake.
    He also stated the radiation was coming ashore at letal doses. Hmmm………

    I didn’t argue with him. What would be the point?

    I think I’ll move to Albania. Wherever that is…………………….

    Report abuse

  • Alan, I asked you to tell me I was wrong.
    That didn’t make me feel any better. I’m still moving to Albania. ……….and I still don’t care where it is………….

    Report abuse

  • 15
    Claudia Odile says:

    Maybe conspiracy theories are nothing new, but with all the media technologies these days those stories are being spread in a breathtaking speed. I’m a member of the RDFRS group on FB and just last week I was involved in a discussion about Israel/Gaza which led to some really inappropriate comments and posts, including some conspiracy videos/links and the assumption that there’s even a conspiracy within the RDFRS against some of the members, which is outrageous.

    Report abuse

  • alf1200 Aug 17, 2014 at 2:28 am

    Alan, I asked you to tell me I was wrong.

    Why? You seem clear to me, from here in England – although some of our muppets keep trying to import US conspiracy theories!

    That didn’t make me feel any better. I’m still moving to Albania. ……….and I still don’t care where it is……

    You could take a flight over England, head east and south a bit! http://www.worldatlas.com/webimage/countrys/europe/al2.htm If you reach Greece or Macedonia you have gone too far!

    Report abuse

  • The fact is that conspiracies do exist. Nixon conspired to obstruct justice, Bin Laden and others conspired (successfully) to goad Americans into acting insane.

    Contrails contain a “top secret” compound called hydrocarbon smog. (residue from the combustion of “Jet A”) Older efficient fluorescent light tubes contained mercury. (They may still, I haven’t looked into it in a while) Lemons contain acids that can erode your tooth enamel.

    One of the worst things about silly conspiracy theories is that they distract from very real issues. I sometime suspect that Corporate America encourages such nonsense. It distracts people from paying attention to real corporate malfeasance such as the promotion of global warming denialism. (“Global Warming is a Liberal Conspiracy”)

    Is that last statement a “Conspiracy Theory”? No. It is an observation. Many industries get some benefit from it. It’s business.

    Report abuse

  • Addendum; This just in. People in Liberia, convinced that Ebola is part of some international conspiracy have been “liberating” people “imprisoned” in quarantine.

    This is bad.

    Report abuse

  • Dave Aug 17, 2014 at 3:48 pm

    Addendum; This just in. People in Liberia, convinced that Ebola is part of some international conspiracy have been “liberating” people “imprisoned” in quarantine.

    This is bad.

    It could turn out to be VERY bad!

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-28827091

    Police fired warning shots but failed to disperse several hundred people around the Ebola centre in Monrovia .
    A quarantine centre for suspected Ebola patients in the Liberian capital Monrovia has been attacked and looted by protesters, police say.

    The incident happened in the densely populated West Point township on Saturday evening.

    At least 20 patients who were being monitored for signs of the illness have left the centre.

    Other reports suggested the protesters believed Ebola was a hoax and wanted to force the quarantine centre to close.

    It is not known if those at the centre were infected with the virus, though one report suggested they had proved positive.

    A senior police officer said blood-stained mattresses, beddings and medical equipment were taken from the centre.

    “This is one of the stupidest things I have ever seen in my life”, he said.

    Any advocates of “Let them choose what they want to believe in the name of freedom”! ?????

    Report abuse

  • While you do make some valid points, and there are tons of exaggerated claims and stories, you assume that all “conspiracy theories” are products of the irrational or in contradiction to science. That is implying that conspiracies never existed on earth – which is false, if we just take a quick look at history. Recently, this word is being used as a synonym for myth, and advocates of such a “myth” are labeled “crazies”, “theorists” etc. The negative impact of this is that the arguments these people have are not taken seriously by many – they are not even considered by most. Further more, official stories of several important events in the past century have some obvious logical inconsistencies(and some obvious groups of people who benefited from them, in contrast to the vast majority) and, therefore, it is only natural for a person who places reason above all else, to ask questions related to that particular event(rather than blindly accepting authority). Then, that person can search for evidence, and, in some cases, he or she may be quite suprised to learn that a conspiracy is actually real and factual. At least, one can become agnostic toward a particular event, unable to prove it either way(e.g.: 9/11). I don’t see how this is a negative thing. The conspiracy theories that 23 headed giant pink aliens were reported on the moon are very different than others(and will never be taken seriously by any scientist – although scientific arguments should be used for debunking any “conspiracy theory”), where factual arguments are presented.

    Report abuse

  • Like in TURKEY tremendous majority of people belive that a plane crash, regardless of where it is in the world, is harbinger of an upcoming major earthquake, lol!.. public is so ignorant!

    Report abuse

  • Further more, official stories of several important events in the past century have some obvious logical inconsistencies(and some obvious groups of people who benefited from them, in contrast to the vast majority) and, therefore, it is only natural for a person who places reason above all else, to ask questions related to that particular event(rather than blindly accepting authority). Then, that person can search for evidence, and, in some cases, he or she may be quite suprised to learn that a conspiracy is actually real and factual. At least, one can become agnostic toward a particular event, unable to prove it either way(e.g.: 9/11).

    Dan. I’m trying to read between the lines with this to see if you are conspiring to fool me. Can you clarify. Are you saying, as I think you are saying, that the 9/11 attacks on the world trade centre were not as the official investigation says?

    Report abuse

  • 25
    victorclf says:

    I have a UI suggestion for the website maintainers: indicate at the end of the citation that this is only the beginning of the original text and that by clicking the button below you can read the full text. This was confusing for me at first.

    Keep up the great work!

    Report abuse

  • I think that evolution and possitive selection pressure both act too slow. Just like you have said we are still in stone age. The whole world we’ve created exceeds the power of evolution. It needs an evolution of other kind – an evolution that will happen in a digital environment. I am also cinvinced that conspiracy theories are very popular because of the lack of education and partly because of secondary analphabetism. Good education is a great challenge therefore.

    Report abuse

  • 29
    Matthew says:

    David. I’m trying to read between the lines with this to see if you are conspiring to fool me. Can you clarify. Are you saying, as I think you are saying, that the 9/11 attacks on the world trade centre were exactly as the official investigation says?

    Report abuse

  • Matthew Aug 18, 2014 at 10:12 am

    David. I’m trying to read between the lines with this to see if you are conspiring to fool me. Can you clarify. Are you saying, as I think you are saying, that the 9/11 attacks on the world trade centre were exactly as the official investigation says?

    I don’t think anyone claims that official investigations are infallible, exact in every detail, and never fail find some details, or misreport others.

    That is not the same as an organised cover-up (which can happen on occasions).

    Conspiracy theories can usually be spotted by the sheer lack of comprehension of the issues by the conspirators, their disregard of evidence, and their readiness to cling to anything which MIGHT support their preconceptions and biases.

    Report abuse

  • Conspiracy theories suffer from the same problem that many fields of human endeavour do- the mixture of true and false information. For every valid theory there are 10 ludicrous ones. This is a good way to discredit a field, particularly when parts of it are a threat to current power structures. There has also been a concerted effort to discredit the term “conspiracy theory” as if no event in human history has ever been the result of a conspiracy! Of course, for the highly intelligent amongst us (as found here on Richard’s site) these things are not a problem, for we possess a discriminating mind!

    Report abuse

  • David. I’m trying to read between the lines with this to see if you are conspiring to fool me. Can you clarify. Are you saying, as I think you are saying, that the 9/11 attacks on the world trade centre were exactly as the official investigation says?

    How, in your view, does the official investigation differ from what really happened.

    Report abuse

Leave a Reply

View our comment policy.