Conspiracy theories are a long-established phenomenon. Who really shot JFK? Did we actually put a man on the moon? What is fluoride in our drinking water doing to us? Not to mention the Illuminati’s diabolical efforts to mastermind a new world order.
And now we have the internet to work its time and distance-defying magic to facilitate loony ideas. But a recent study suggests an unexpected means by which such extreme theories spread: trolls. Not the “Repent all ye of this random forum, the world is ending and here’s my theory” trolls, but the “Making fun of everyone in this random forum” trolls. You know, like when people mistake satirical periodicals like The Onion or Borowitz Report for actual news?
Researchers looked at the way people interact with Facebook posts categorized as either reasonable or craycray. Based on data from more than one million people in Italy during that country’s 2013 elections, the team analyzed how people “liked” posts and made comments on three types of pages: mainstream news organizations, alternative news and pages devoted to political commentary. Then they compared reactions to interjections by trolls with satirical news stories and similar false statements.
And sadly, they observed that conspiracy theories would actually arise from these parody comments. As the researchers put it, “troll memes fomented animated debates and diffused through the community as any other information would.” Ironic that people would grasp onto the ideas of those who are actually just mocking them, huh? Looks like some people are actively looking for any shred of a conspiratorial idea to set their imaginations aglow.
And not surprisingly, they also found that people attracted to alternative news sites are more likely to tap into and spread the false claims. And here we see further irony: as another commentator pointed out, “people who gravitate toward alternative sites do so to avoid what they call the ‘mass manipulation’ that they think occurs on more mainstream pages.” So confirming what many of us identified already, alternative types can actually leave themselves very open to manipulation by assuming that not mainstream equals valid.
Image: A 9/11 "Truther" getting down with his delusional self. From commons.wikimedia.org.