We tend to think of conspiracy theorists as being fixated on far-fetched explanations. In fact they are not so much concerned with providing alternative accounts of historical events, rather they are driven by a mistrust of authority to discredit official narratives. That’s according to a new analysis of conspiracist and conventionalist online comments about the 9/11 terror attacks published on US and UK news websites around the time of the tenth anniversary of the atrocity.
Excluding contributions that were pure insults or just links to other sites, Michael Wood and Karen Douglas identified 2,174 relevant comments posted to ABC news, CNN, the Independent and the Daily Mail between July 1 and December 31 2011. The comments were made by 1,156 different authors; 1,459 were coded as conspiracist, written mainly by people who follow the so-called 9/11 Truth Movement, and 715 as conventionalist.
Conventionalist comments more often (56 per cent) contained information that supported their own position as compared with conspiracist comments (31 per cent). By contrast, conspiracist comments were more likely (64 per cent) to contain derogation of opposing explanations, as compared with conventionalist comments (44 per cent). Moreover, conspiracist comments more often signalled mistrust (10.6 per cent vs. 1.4 per cent). On the other hand, conventionalist comments were significantly more hostile in tone. Finally, neither side appeared happy applying the term “conspiracy theory” or derivatives to their own beliefs, suggesting the label has acquired derogatory connotations.
Wood and Douglas acknowledged there are problems with making inferences about people’s beliefs based on their online comments. Such comments are typically used to persuade others and are not a simple read out of an author’s own beliefs. Nonetheless, the findings confirm prior research into conspiracy theorist beliefs, most of which has been based on questionnaires. The central finding that conspiracists are motivated principally to challenge official accounts, rather than to endorse a particular alternative narrative, is also consistent with a study published last year that showed beliefs in contradictory conspiracy theories correlate with each other.
The researchers said their results also fit with the related idea that many conspiracists share a similar worldview – “a belief system conducive to conspiracy beliefs in general.” Characterised by mistrust, this perspective is often focused on finding anomalies in official accounts and assuming they are unexplainable. “For many conspiracists, there are two worlds,” said Wood and Douglas, “one real and (mostly) unseen, the other a sinister illusion meant to cover up the truth; and the evidence against the latter is evidence for the former.”
Wood MJ, and Douglas KM (2013). “What about building 7?” A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories. Frontiers in psychology, 4 PMID: 23847577