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Understanding conspiracy theories

The earth is flat.

The moon landing was faked.

Vaccines cause autism.

Some conspiracy theories can have major negative societal impacts and yet the study of how these theories are formed and maintained is still in its infancy. Since online conspiracy forums are an important enabler of the spread of conspiracy theories, an interdisciplinary team, led by Dr Colin Klein, looked at the similarities and differences between participants in the conspiracy forums of ‘reddit.com.’

The team examined the complete corpus of comments on the site from 2015. The results of this research and two other ongoing projects show that individuals come to these conspiracy forums through a variety of distinct pathways. Once in the forum, they form distinct but highly interactive subgroups. A small (but vocal) minority of posters on these forums fit the classic model of the ‘monological’ conspiracy theorist, meaning they connect everything to everything else. Many more posters, however, appear to combine a limited set of concerns with a distrust of traditional sources of information leading to consideration of and engagement with increasingly radical ideas.

Critically, the internal logic of people engaged in conspiracy theorising has similarities to the delusional thinking that is seen in clinical cases, such as schizophrenia. This insight may help researchers understand how conspiracy theories are formed and how they can be dismantled.

In conjunction with this research, the Belief Formation Program and the Macquarie University Centre for Agency, Values and Ethics (MQ-CAVE) hosted a 2-day workshop on “Conspiracy Theories, Delusions, and other ‘Troublesome’ Beliefs” on 10-11 August 2017. This thought-provoking workshop brought together researchers from different disciplines to consider a range of ‘sub-clinical’ but problematic beliefs, the psychological processes which underlie those beliefs, and the similarities and dissimilarities with delusional thinking processes. These included conspiracy theorising, anti-vaccination sentiments, extreme and radical political beliefs, climate change denial, belief in an intrinsically just world (and associated victim-blaming), and more. Speakers included cognitive scientists working on misinformation, delusions, and motivated beliefs; social psychologists working on conspiracy theories and related factors; philosophers working on evidence and social trust; and health informatics researchers interested in the effects of anti-vaccine beliefs.

This work was conducted by Dr Colin Klein (Department of Philosophy), PhD Student Peter Clutton (Department of Philosophy), Dr Vince Polito (ARC Centre for Excellence in Cognition and its Disorder) and Dr Adam Dunn (Centre for Health Informatics in the Australian Institute of Health Innovation).

To get the full details of their reddit.com study, read the article in Frontiers in Psychology.

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