Researchers from The Australian National University studied eight years worth of comments that were posted by a large number of people about different types of conspiracy theories on the online discussion forum Reddit. The more than two billion comments were on different types of conspiracies such as UFOs, 9/11, and other political theories such as “pizzagate”.
After analyzing the comments on different conspiracy theories, Dr. Colin Klein, who is the lead author of the study (which can be read in full here), said that most of the people who were involved in the discussions were actually quite normal. In fact, he said that conspiracy theorists are not always “crackpots wearing tinfoil hats”. Well, that’s good news for those who believe in conspiracy theories!
He went into further detail by explaining, “In the past before the rise of online forums like Reddit, we tended to only hear about the most extreme views, and those people tended to naturally be wary about talking to someone else about their beliefs,” adding, “These massive online forums paint a very different picture.”
Klein went on to say that many of the r/conspiracy users also had more “sensible” interests, such as theories about police officers abusing their power. Additionally, Klein mentioned that users who post in conspiracy forums aren’t all that different from those who post in other forums, such as politics.
“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 said, adding, “Low level theorizing goes on a lot in everyday life, I’m inclined to think the stuff you see online is just a strong outgrowth of that.”
Klein noted that current events can have quite an effect on conspiracy theories, with many new people joining Reddit following the election of Donald Trump. And not surprising, topics regarding the President of the United States have caused a lot of arguing among the users.
By studying Reddit users, the study also revealed how some people began using the r/conspiracy forum. “We followed people who started using Reddit and posted for about six months before they ended up on r/conspiracy,” Klein explained, adding, “You find two people, who, for example, both started on the popular ‘ask me anything’ Reddit, and one ends up talking about conspiracies and one doesn’t.”
He went into further detail by stating, “People who go on to post on r/conspiracy also tend to be over-represented in the political forums, but it’s not like they’re hyper-focused.” “This suggests a more active process where people are seeking out sympathetic communities. This process of finding like-minded people is something we see a lot of on the Internet.”
Well, at least we know for sure that conspiracy theorists aren’t “crackpots wearing tinfoil hats”. So, what does that say for those who don’t believe in conspiracy theories? Hmm…