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How Conspiracy Theories Emerge on Facebook

A new study shows how certain people, based the type of media they consume, make themselves vulnerable to conspiracy theories on social media.

ByAllison EckNOVA NextNOVA Next
"Chemtrails" are a common conspiracy theory on Facebook.

Chemtrails. HAARP. The Illuminati. Conspiracy theories are abound on the Internet, but they only prove one thing: that in a virtual world, people make themselves vulnerable to sketchy claims and spotty tales.

Conspiracy-tainted remarks are littered throughout social media networks like Facebook. Walter Quattrociocchi of Northeastern University wanted to better understand how they spread, so he and his colleagues studied the way people interact with Facebook posts that include content known to be either sound or suspect.

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MIT Technology Review:

[Quattrociocchi and his colleagues] studied how over 1 million people treated political information posted on Facebook during the Italian elections in 2013. In particular, they looked at how these people ‘liked’ posts and commented on them from mainstream news organisations, from alternative news organisation and from pages devoted political commentary.

They then studied how the same people reacted to false news injected into common circulation by “trolls” on pages known to produce satirical news content or otherwise false statements.

The results suggest that conspiracy theories may arise from posts made by users trolling the page, which are supposed to parody the target group. Eventually, though, “troll memes fomented animated debates and diffused through the community as any other information would,” Quattrociocchi and colleagues write.

The team also learned that people discuss ideas on Facebook for the same length of time across the board—no matter what kind of page they post to. They also found that people who are attracted to alternative news sites are more likely to feed into and perpetuate false claims.

It’s a somewhat ironic result, since some people who gravitate toward alternative sites do so to

avoid what they call the “mass manipulation” that they think occurs on more mainstream pages.

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