Understanding Conspiracy Online: Social Media and the Spread of Suspicious Thinking

Kim Mortimer


Even though the internet has dramatically changed the quantity and accessibility of information, there are large — and sometimes powerful — elements of society that are politically and emotionally invested in beliefs that are not supported by current evidence. These are generally referred to as “conspiracy theories”. Although this may be a pejorative term, to date there is no suitable neutral term, and the term conspiracy theory is used across multiple fields, ranging from computer science to cognitive science. In this paper I explore how conspiracy theories form, and how the internet has changed — or more frequently, not changed — the spread of conspiracy theories, in particular through social media networks such as Facebook or Twitter. Conspiracies theories spread much like scientific knowledge online, revealing that they are in some essences very similar constructs. The growth of user-specific filters and social exclusion are likely factors in the spread of these theories. Though some have argued to treat conspiracy theories as dangerous or harmful speech — such as in the case of vaccination refusal — I argue against limiting speech and instead suggest information literacy and a focus on analytical thinking as remedies. I also argue against further stigmatization of conspiracy theorists, as this will likely contribute to further radicalization. 


Conspiracy theories, echo chambers, Facebook, online social media

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DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5931/djim.v13i1.6928


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