Computer keyboard, Nov. 15, 2018.

Two Virginia Tech researchers recently examined the nature of online discussions in a new study about conspiracy theories in online communities. The goal of the study is to help create strategies for countering conspiracy theories, especially in the wake of traumatic events.

Anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, holocaust deniers. These are just three groups associated with conspiracies that have made their way into the mainstream in recent years.

How are these ideas spreading?

Postdoctoral researcher Mattia Samory and Assistant Professor Tanushree Mitra in Virginia Tech’s Department of Computer Science recently published a paper answering that question.

What started as an attempt to understand how Twitter users talked about anti-vaccination conspiracies transformed into a study of how people talk about conspiracy theories in general in online forums. As for which online forum to study, Reddit’s subreddit r/Conspiracy provided the perfect space to observe user conversations. is part social media, part anonymous forum. Similar to other social media sites, like Facebook, users subscribe to and post content in online communities. Subscribers to Reddit’s online communities are called Redditors, and while Redditors can view each other’s post history, there is nothing on a person’s profile that would identify them in the real world. Reddit’s communities are called subreddits, and they are usually set up in a way to allow a safe space for like-minded Redditors to talk freely about a topic of interest to the subreddit.

R/Conspiracy is one such subreddit created specifically as a home for conspiratorial ideas and discussion. As this article is being written, the post pinned to the top of r/Conspiracy is anti-vaccine in nature, containing phrases like “Blind, unquestioning subservience to the criminal Medical Cartel,” and “complete trust in vaccines represents one of the pillars of this tyranny.” The ultimate goal of Samory and Mitra’s research is to inform strategies for countering conspiracy theories, especially in the wake of traumatic events. While interesting, posts like this don’t help researchers like Samory and Mitra understand how conspiracies are discussed, how they spread and how to counter them.

To achieve that goal, the researchers didn’t look at individual posts like the one quoted above. The researchers looked at “over 6 million comments spanning over 10 years of discussions in r/conspiracy,” according to their research paper.

“We looked at, how does this online community … behave soon after and just before these events happen on these platforms?” Mitra said. “There is this huge influx of new users chiming into these platforms whenever these … events (occurred).”

The increase in conspiratorial discussion surrounding traumatic events turned out to be a key observation in understanding how new Redditors were being exposed to conspiratorial ideas.

In addition, Samory and Mitra observed that specific Redditors discussed several different conspiracy theories. This observation led the researchers to develop a way of categorizing theories. They focused on the “key elements of a conspiracy theory: the conspiratorial agents, the actions they perform, and their targets.” These key elements (agent, action and target) form what Samory and Mitra call a narrative-motif.

A narrative-motif is a combination of the general claim a conspiracy theorist is making and the overall theme of that claim. For example, if a Redditor claimed “DEA orchestrates disinformation campaign to conceal surveillance powers,” and “FBI fabricates hoax of ISIS gold and silver coin story,” these claims would be categorized according to the agent, the actor and the target. While each conspiracy theory is about a different topic, they are both saying something similar: governmental agency controls communications.

Samory and Mitra used this process of categorizing claims as narrative-motifs to see how conspiracy theories were related.

“There are all these similarities and differences between these narrative-motifs and you could basically cluster them and see how people belong to one of these clusters or not one of these clusters,” Mitra said.

The goal of their research isn’t to stop the discussion of conspiracy theories. As Mitra said, “The main fascinating thing was you have these persistent conspiracy theories that never really go away, like 9/11 or the flat-earth conspiracy theories, or Obama’s birth. These are theories that never go away despite evidence.”

The comments and posts the researchers observed show deep mistrust of power and traditional narratives.

“So all these top organizations, they don’t believe them. That was the general theme that was happening in these discussion topics,” Mitra said. “I think we can only observe what is happening, but why it’s happening and to get that insight, we can only get that when we talk to these people.”

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