Where studies of conspiracy theorists go wrong.
I have an article in Slate today about the psychologists and social scientists who study conspiracy believers. Much of their work is flawed, I argue—and when the scholars do get it right, the pop-science writers who cover them sometimes introduce errors of their own. Here's the opening:
In the run-up to last year's Italian elections, the country's senate did not—I repeat: did not—pass a bill giving legislators 134 billion euros "to find a job in case of defeat." But a satiric story along those lines spread on social media, and not everyone who passed it along understood that it was a spoof. In just one day, 36,000 people signed a petition against the alleged law. Soon it was being invoked at anti-government protests.
Their confusion caught the eye of a quintet of scholars, who were observing how a large sample of Italian Facebook users engaged with different sorts of stories: articles from the mainstream media, articles from alternative outlets, articles from political activists, and fake news crafted by satirists and trolls. In March, MIT's Technology Review covered the researchers' work in a piece headlined "Data Mining Reveals How Conspiracy Theories Emerge on Facebook." The article began with the tale of that imaginary Italian bill and the people who believed it was real, wrapping up the anecdote with the line, "Welcome to the murky world of conspiracy theories."
This was an odd way to frame the issue. The rumor involved a bill that had supposedly been passed by the legislature, not a secret plan being hatched by some invisible cabal; it was not in any meaningful sense a story about a conspiracy. The larger study was concerned with the transmission of false stories, whether or not they involve conspiracies; the word conspiracy and its variants appear only four times in the paper. Yet the Technology Review piece brushes past this distinction, then compounds the problem by generalizing rather expansively from the research. "Conspiracy theories," the writer speculates, "seem to come about by a process in which ordinary satirical commentary or obviously false content somehow jumps the credulity barrier. And that seems to happen through groups of people who deliberately expose themselves to alternative sources of news." Evidently more than one credulity barrier has been breached.