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The behavior of 30,000 Reddit users shows we fundamentally misunderstand conspiracy theorists

The behavior of 30,000 Reddit users shows we fundamentally misunderstand conspiracy theorists
[Photo: Miriam Espacio/Unsplash]

Ever wonder how climate change deniers and antivaxer conspiracists come to their beliefs? A trio of Australian researchers analyzed eight years of Reddit to trace the paths that 15,370 users took to becoming active commenters in Reddit’s r/conspiracy community.

It turns out that our perception of conspiracists is misguided: They are not crazy people with conspiratorial mindsets, nor are they unwittingly indoctrinated. Rather, they are, as the researchers put it, “attracted to a range of non-mainstream beliefs” and tend to be involved in a variety of debate forums (politics! porn! guns! cars!), of which the conspiracy forum is just one.

Researchers followed 30,740 users, half of whom were future conspiracists, and half of whom were typical users in the same threads. They found that future conspiracists tend to use language related to crime, stealing, and law long before they join r/conspiracy, as well as words related to dominance, power, government, deception, and terrorism. (“There are enemies among us!” and so forth.) Not in their vocabularies are words about friendship, optimism, and affection. “This is suggestive of alienation rather than positive bonding,” write the researchers.

They also found that future conspiracists are very likely to engage with the r/politics community, where they are 2.4-times as likely to appear, and where they post five times as often. “It appears that political debate is especially attractive to users who go on to post in r/conspiracy,” write the researchers.

Interesting findings:

  • Conspiracy theorists are wordy. They posted a median of 20,599 words, versus the 8,082 words of the control group.
  • Future conspiracists are likely to pop up in the Drugs/Bitcoin community (which covers a range of fringe ideas), as well as Toxic Reddit, which ranges from innocuous memes to hotbeds of sexism and racism. They also pop up in Porn and Overseas and are particularly engaged in the Internet Culture community.
  • They’re not crazy. Future conspiracists are not any more hostile than the control group, nor does their language indicate any more anxiety, mental illness, or negative emotional states.

This all indicates that future conspiratorial behavior is somewhat predictable (if you’re a brilliant researcher with a coding background) and ripe for deeper understanding.

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