UFO SIGHTINGS, alien encounters and claims of the Illuminati may seem bizarre and outlandish on the internet but the people behind the popular conspiracies are far from “crackpots wearing tinfoil hats”, a researcher has claimed.
Researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) took a deep dive into online conspiracy forums to study the people who write them. The study, published in PLOS ONE, trawled through more than two billion Reddit comments to build a profile of conspiracy theorists. Surprisingly, the research found conspiracists, on the whole, tend to be pretty ordinary individuals.
According to ANU’s Dr Colin Klein, conspiracy theorists on Reddit’s R/Conspiracy forum discuss a wide range of topics from UFOs to the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But Dr Kelin said the people who post about and discuss the conspiracies are not a group of “crackpots wearing tinfoil hats”.
Dr Klein said: “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.
“These massive online forums paint a very different picture.
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“The enormous set of comments we examined show many r/conspiracy users actually have more ‘sensible’ interests.
“For example conspiracy theories about police abuse of power are common. That’s not so crazy.
“These people might believe false things, but with good reason – because similar things have happened in the past.”
According to Dr Klein’s research, there are slight differences in the language online conspiracists use, compared to other active forum members.
But Dr Klein found the differences in language are too subtle to make conspiracists stand out from the crowd of Reddit users.
He said: “You might find they talk more about power or power structures, but their language is not that different from what ordinarily goes on in a forum like r/politics. You can’t distinguish them that
These people might believe false things, but with good reason
“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.
“Low-level theorising goes on a lot in everyday life, I’m inclined to think the stuff you see online is just a strong outgrowth of that.”
On top of outlandish theories and wacky claims, Dr Klein said conspiracists are also very motivated by current affairs and events.
The 2016 presidential election of Donald Trump, for instance, marked a critical moment for Reddit users.
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Dr Klein said: “For example, Reddit attracted a whole new set of users following the election of US President Donald Trump.
“He also generates quite a lot of in-fighting amongst users.
“This is what makes it such a great way to study social dynamics.”
Dr Klein’s study also looked at how people are drawn to post on conspiracy forums in the first place.
Being able to find likeminded individuals on the internet has helped conspiracists congregate on forums.
But online conspiracists will also actively seek out others to share their theories about the world.
Dr Klein said: “We followed people who started using Reddit and posted for about six months before they ended up on r/conspiracy.
“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.
“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.”