It's Really Easy to Troll Conspiracy Theorists

It's Really Easy to Troll Conspiracy Theorists
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Once conspiracy theorists were mostly relegated to the fringes of society, but today they have a home where they can congregate and spread their wonky messages. That home is Facebook.

It is to this home that a team of social scientists from the IMT Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy recently navigated, to study conspiracy theorists in their newfound native realm. The results of their foray were published Monday to the journal PLoS ONE.

Alessandro Bessi and his team first sought to examine how conspiracy theorists share information on Facebook. To do that, they had to identify them. Bessi targeted followers of 73 different Italian Facebook pages with the purpose of spreading "alternative news" -- that is, unsubstantiated information based on narratives outside the mainstream. Those sites had produced 271,296 posts. To ensure they were analyzing genuine conspiracy theorists, Bessi and his colleagues focused their observations only on the followers who were the most active in liking and sharing conspiratorial content. They also used the same methods to identify science-minded Facebook users from the followers of 40 science news pages. In total, the researchers identified 255,225 science-minded users and 790,899 conspiratorial users.

Differences between the users and their activity were stark. Conspiracy theorists were much more likely to restrict their sharing, liking, and commenting activity purely to conspiratorial content. Moreover, conspiratorial posts garnered many more shares than science news posts.

Since conspiracy-minded users spent much of their online activity interacting with unsubstantiated information, the researchers were curious how they would react to troll posts -- satirical, obviously incorrect information meant to simultaneously emulate and poke fun at conspiracy theories, stuff like "the undisclosed news that infinite energy has been finally discovered, or that a new lamp made of actinides (e.g. plutonium and uranium) might solve problems of energy gathering with less impact on the environment, or that the chemical analysis revealed that chem-trails contains sildenafil citratum (the active ingredient of Viagra)." Would conspiracy-minded users realize that these posts were false and make fun of them, or would they be fooled and share the content like any other conspiracy post?

It was the latter. Analyzing like and share activity on 4,709 confirmed troll posts produced by a parody page, the researchers found that conspiracy-minded users shared and liked those posts in great numbers, at vastly higher rates than science-minded users in fact.

"We find that polarized users of conspiracy pages are more active in liking and commenting on intentionally false claims," the researchers noted.

Which, if you think about it, makes perfect sense. Conspiracy theorists already live in a realm of falsehoods. Drenched daily in such drivel, what's left of their critical thinking skills surely wanes. How then, can they possible tell fact from fiction, or much less, recognize when they're being ridiculed?

Source: Bessi A, Coletto M, Davidescu GA, Scala A, Caldarelli G, et al. (2015) Science vs Conspiracy: Collective Narratives in the Age of Misinformation. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0118093. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0118093

(Top Image: Shutterstock)

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