Why do people engage with conspiracy theories online?

This study by Morosoli et al was published a couple of months ago in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies. To answer the question in the title of this post, the researchers surveyed over 7000 people in 6 countries (Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, France, the UK and the U.S.) to check what the different motivations are for engaging with conspiracy theories online, linking them also to personality traits and political orientation.

The results are not that surprising:

Our analysis found that being convinced by or agreeing with the message was the primary motivation for disseminating conspiracy theories online.

But there is more:

Given the results of the surveys, we identified provoking reactions as the second most indicated motivation to engage with false and misleading content. Individuals were willing to like, share or comment on conspiracy posts in order to trigger reactions and gain attention within their social media network. Entertainment played a less prominent role on average, but was still mentioned by a significant group of people when it comes to the motivations behind the spread of conspiracy content.

But what about personality?

Here, our findings paint a more mixed image. We do show that narcissism and the need for drama are of great importance in the context of conspiracy sharing out of entertainment and provoking reactions. Individuals with narcissistic traits might be more willing to disseminate conspiracy theories to be in the spotlight and get recognition. This result is in line with previous research, where narcissistic individuals were found to share conspiracy theories to gain wanted attention online (Ahadzadeh et al., 2021). Individuals who show stronger manifestations of psychopathy are more prone to disseminate the conspiracy theories out of all three reasons but the effect is the most outspoken for entertainment reasons. For Machiavellianism, however, the effect goes in the opposite direction as this trait was mostly related to agreement and conviction. To some extent this makes sense, as those who score higher on this trait may be more inclined to share congruent posts out of instrumental and strategic (political) reasons to influence others.

Less surprising if it comes to political orientation:

…we expected political attitudes to be strongly related to engaging with conspiracy theories out of conviction. This turned out to be largely the case. Attitudinal congruence with the issue of the post mattered clearly more for disseminating conspiracy theories based on conviction than for the other two motivations. In addition, right-leaning individuals were also more likely to engage with conspiracy content out of agreement. Finally, the more politically interested people were, the less was entertainment driving this type of behavior. In sum, more political outspoken and interested people are mainly engaging with conspiracy theories because they believe that the message has to be told.

Abstract of the study:

The growing dissemination of conspiracy theories on social media has challenged the well-being of societies. This study aims to understand why individuals would engage with conspiracy theories and what role specific beliefs, but also individual factors such as personality traits play. To answer these questions, we conducted surveys in six countries (Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, France, the UK and the U.S.) and investigate three motivations (conviction, entertainment and reaction provocation) behind the dissemination of conspiracy content on social media. Our findings demonstrate that across issues, individuals who indicated they would engage with conspiracy theories do it mainly because they are convinced by the message. Political orientation and issue attitudes proof to be connected to individual engagement with conspiracy theories out of conviction, while dark personality traits such as narcissism and psychopathy are valid predictors for why individuals would disseminate conspiracy theories out of entertainment reasons or to provoke reactions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.