A scientific way to better understand conspiracy theories

For a long time, conspiracy theories have not been taken very seriously. They were considered to be relevant only for the fringes of society. This view has changed.

This links to an interesting scientific article published in February 2022. The report provides a relevant and updated view on how to handle “conspiracy theories”.

“Findings show that the majority of studies lack a definition of conspiracy theories and fail to conceptually delineate conspiracy theories from other forms of deceptive content. We also found that while the field employs a variety of methodological approaches, most studies have focused on individual, “mainstream” social media platforms, “Western” countries, English-language communication, and single conspiracy theories.”

Conspiracy theories are “alternative explanations of historical or ongoing events claiming that people or groups with sinister intentions are engaged in conspirational plotting have permeated online communication, news media coverage, popular culture and political rhetoric”.

If you have encountered a believer of such theories you will know: A debate with people who believe such theories can be quite stressful – usually it is not a discussion but quickly turns into a war over who is right.

The scientific article explores the evolution of such topics in an online environment and provides an overview of the research on this topic, including recommendations towards future scientific analysis.

“For a long time, conspiracy theories were perceived as harmless phenomena that were “silly and without merit” (Keeley, 1999: 109) or only existed as “‘soft’ beliefs” (Sunstein and Vermeule, 2009: 220) that people quietly kept but rarely acted upon.”

But, especially during the COVID-19 years the world witnessed a rising influence of such views and a high visibility of groups supporting such theories on almost all social networks.

Profound changes in the media and platform ecosystem and particularly the advent of social media platforms, which have enabled faster communication about and dissemination of conspiratorial narratives, have changed this, however. Thus, the last few decades have seen a plethora of “high-profile conspiracy theorizing” (Uscinski, 2018: 233) around topics such as vaccination, climate change, the 9/11 attacks (Mahl et al., 2021), or, most recently, the COVID-19 pandemic (Zeng and Schäfer, 2021).
The article provides an overview of current research on the topic, research orientations and recommendations on how to conduct future research.

Conspiracy Theories in online environments: An interdisciplinary literature review and Agenda for future research

By Daniela Mahl, Mike S. Schäfer 3, and Jing Zeng

Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

14. June 2023

Written by Mirko Lorenz

Mirko Lorenz, Innovation Manager Research and Cooperation team at Deutsche Welle. More: DW Innovation

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