Tuesday 31 July 2018

Big Data Analysis of Conspiracy Theorists

Today's post on conspiracy theories is by Colin Klein, Peter Clutton and Vince Polito.

Colin Klein works on the philosophy of neuroscience at The Australian National University, and is interested in delusions and related phenomena.

Colin Klein

Peter Clutton is a graduate student in philosophy at The Australian National University, working on delusions and beliefs. is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University, interested in belief formation, self representation, and altered states of consciousness. 

Peter Clutton

Vince Polito is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University, interested in belief formation, self representation, and altered states of consciousness.

Vince Polito

Conspiracy theorists are often thought to be distinctively irrational. When you picture a conspiracy theorist, you might imagine someone scouring the internet and joining dots between seemingly unrelated events, constructing a grand web of interconnected conspiracies in order to explain the mundane chaos of everyday life. Intuitively, it seems, there must be some fundamental epistemic or psychological error behind such activity.

For example, it has sometimes been claimed that conspiracy theorists possess a “monological” belief system, in which belief in one conspiracy leads to belief in others, until eventually a person explains every significant event, however unrelated, through the same conspiracy “logic”. This conception of conspiracy theorists has also influenced the philosophical and psychological literature on delusions.

As philosophers and cognitive scientists interested in rationality, beliefs, and delusions, we found this picture highly suspect. Surely there can be many ways into conspiracy beliefs, just as there can be many ways into other kinds of beliefs. Perhaps the “monological” view arises from a selection bias: typical “monological” conspiracy theorists do exist, but their voluminous, florid outpourings tend to stand out more, obscuring a greater heterogeneity among conspiracy believers generally.

In a recent paper we made use of so-called “big data” techniques to examine this hypothesis. We used online comments in a conspiracy forum on reddit.com (r/conspiracy) to try and discover something about individuals who are interested in these types of ideas. r/conspiracy is a common meeting ground for all things conspiracy, and our dataset included 2.2 million comments from roughly 130,000 distinct usernames across 7 years.

We used topic modelling, a type of linguistic analysis that tries to find common clusters of words and themes across a large collection of documents. From this we were able to identify subgroups of individuals who used language in distinct ways, and who appeared to hold different beliefs and attitudes about a range of conspiracies.

We found that there were posters who fit the monological pattern, writing at length on a wide variety of different topics. However, these were only the tip of the iceberg: most posters had more specific interests. For example, we also found subgroups who appeared to discuss conspiracy theories as a way of expressing general frustration with authority, and subgroups who may be using conspiracy topics as a way to express racist or otherwise socially unacceptable ideas.

Moreover, many posters to r/conspiracy seem to treat it as a hobby, spending as much time trading puppy pictures on other parts of reddit as discussing conspiracies. Ultimately, there appear to be many routes into conspiracy beliefs, and they are not marked by one shared epistemological or psychological feature.

We have emphasised the heterogeneity of posters to r/conspiracy, but perhaps there is still something to be said about what they share. Many posters use conspiracy theories to express legitimate doubts about structures of power: Reddit’s conspiracy forum links on its front page to "list of confirmed conspiracies" many of which are accurate. If conspiracy theorists share anything, it is a deep distrust of institutions like the government and the media, often with some cause.

Separating out what might be reasonable (if not entirely supported) doubts from actual failures of reasoning might thus help delineate and clarify the extent to which conspiracy theorists fall short of rational norms.

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