Everything Is Connected: Conspiracy Theories in the Age of the Internet

Lead Research Organisation: University of Manchester
Department Name: Arts Languages and Cultures

Abstract

Conspiracy theories are increasingly rife on the Internet. With their potential for spreading virally, they can reach large audiences across the globe. In their relentless drive to connect the dots into one over-arching explanation, conspiracy theories seem to be made for the hyperlinked world of the Internet. Once marginal ideas now readily find an online community of believers. Although conspiracy theories encountered online are at times merely harmless entertainment or a sign of healthy scepticism, they can also lead to a loss of faith in scientific authorities and expert knowledge, to political disengagement, and even to violence. This research project addresses the question of how and why the Internet has changed conspiracy theories.

Combining the 'close reading' techniques of cultural studies and ethnography with the 'distant reading' possibilities offered by big data methods, the project will analyse the difference that the Internet has made to the production, aesthetics and consumption of conspiracy theories. The team brings together cultural studies researchers and a cutting-edge lab that is developing new methods for the analysis and data visualisation of online conspiracy culture. Using digital methods, we will first map out the scale and scope of contemporary conspiracy theory culture in both the mainstream and the 'deep' web. This will shed light on the forms of conspiracy theory that generate the most engagement; how they spread on particular platforms; the role of recommendation algorithms; and the identity, connectedness and political stance of the main creators of conspiracy content. The second strand of research will place the production and transmission of conspiracy theories on the Internet in historical perspective, comparing earlier moments of 'new media' transformation (such as radio), and tracing how conspiracy theories have changed as the Internet itself has evolved over the last half century. By examining the content moderation policies, this strand will also consider how various digital platforms encourage or hinder the exchange of conspiracy theories online. The third research strand will focus on the form and function of online conspiracism by focusing on its dominant images, metaphors and narratives. In particular we will consider whether the ease of creating links on websites tends to push conspiracy theories to more elaborate, hyper-connected forms. The fourth research strand will study how conspiracy theories are consumed and appropriated on the Internet. Where psychology has tried to identify the personality traits that attract people to conspiracy theories, our research will use an ethnographic approach to analyse online discussion fora and conduct interviews with conspiracy theorists to determine how their encounter with conspiracy theories helps forge individual and group identities, for better or worse. In the final strand we will also assess when online conspiracism turns harmful, and what, if anything, can be done about it.

The main outcome of the project will be a definitive book that sets out the findings of the research. In collaboration with the Institute of Education and the charity Sense About Science, we will develop workshops and materials (a) to train school teachers how to deal with the problem of conspiracy theories in the classroom, including creating educational materials for use with young people and (b) to help scientists and science communicators address conspiracy theories about e.g. climate change and vaccinations. Working with the think tank Demos, we will hold a high-profile end-of-project event and produce a report for stakeholders.

Planned Impact

In the era of fake news, disinformation and post-truth politics, the viral circulation of conspiracy theories on the Internet presents a pressing problem for civil society. Our research examines whether conspiracy theories are merely harmless entertainment, or whether they are particularly harmful to democracy and scientific knowledge. The 'Everything Is Connected' research project has been designed in consultation with a number of key stakeholders, who are keen to learn more about how and why conspiracy theories proliferate online, and what can and should be done about them. The potential impact of our research involves two areas:

1. Government policy making, and Internet platform provision and regulation
Our research has been designed in consultation with representatives from various UK government departments and EU agencies who are concerned to understand the role that conspiracist misinformation plays in (a) undermining trust in civil institutions and expert knowledge and (b) the promotion of 'hateful extremism' (the term developed by the UK's Commission for Countering Extremism). We have also framed our research in consultation with some of the Internet platforms. In recent years there has been increasing public debate about the responsibilities of social media providers to police potentially misleading or harmful content on their platforms, and conspiracy theories are often one of the most prominent examples. Working with our project partner Demos (the London-based think tank), we will produce a report summarising the key research findings of the project, and organise two public events to engage with stakeholders from government and the digital media industry.

2. Critical digital literacy education and science communication
Young people are believed to be particularly vulnerable to the attractions of fake news and misinformation (for example, a report by the UK Parliament's Commission on Fake News and the Teaching of Critical Literacy Skills in Schools found that only 2% of children in the UK have the skills they need to tell if a news story is real or fake). School teachers often find that they are confronted with conspiracy beliefs in the classroom, but are not equipped to deal with these situations. Likewise those involved in science communication (especially in the fields of climate change and vaccination) frequently find that their work is undermined by the popularity of conspiracy theories that claim the scientists are part of a deliberate hoax or cover-up. Working with our project partners the Institute of Education and the campaigning charity Sense about Science, we will develop workshops and toolkits for teachers and science communicators to help them understand more about how conspiracy theories work and how to tackle them.

Publications

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Tuters M (2022) Deep state phobia: Narrative convergence in coronavirus conspiracism on Instagram in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies