Conspiracies flourished during the COVID-19 pandemic. Cory Doctorow,

Companions in Conspiracy

Why are conspiracy theories so alluring? Sure, we’ve all had a hunch about something that ran counter to conventional wisdom, but that is vastly different from a systematic belief that a group of powerful people is planning to carry out evil deeds. Yet, during COVID-19, conspiracy theories proliferated, especially on social media platforms like Twitter. Conventional explanations may blame strongman personalities and exploitative media algorithms, but a new study in the American Sociological Review highlights how conspiracy theories are also about sense-making and social connection during unsettled times.

Aggregating over 700,000 tweets from 8,000 users, including both humans and bots, Henrich Greve and his team of colleagues from Stanford University identified 13 distinct COVID-19 conspiracies that fell into two broad clusters: COVID-19 as a hoax or exaggerated threat (e.g., hospitals are secretly empty) and COVID-19 as a bioweapon spread intentionally by bad actors (e.g., Bill Gates or the Chinese). Importantly, human engagement with conspiracy theories was much more nuanced than bots’; non-human posts tended to focus on a single theory in an effort to stoke moral panic. For humans, engaging with one conspiracy theory was found to act as a “gateway” to engaging with multiple conspiracy theories, especially when faced with a perceived threat (e.g., rising case rates) and when their conspiratorial posts were affirmed by other users via retweets.

Not surprisingly, when a user tweets and is engaged with by others, not only do they feel validation, but they become motivated to seek out further conspiratorial content in an act of “collective sense-making.” While we often think of conspiracy theories as irrational beliefs held by people wearing tinfoil hats, this research pushes us to consider how they also provide a sense of solidarity and security, both ontological and social, in times of unrest.