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    Scientists Tried Trolling Conspiracy Theorists

    Written by

    Ben Richmond

    Contributing Editor

    Image: 2 Top/Flickr

    For all those people claiming to “fucking love science” on the internet, there's a bunch more rallying around bullshit conspiracy theories. And research just published in ​​PLOS ONE reveals that whatever critical thinking skills the conspiracy theorists lack, they make up for in numbers, passion, and the ability to stay in their own echo chambers. It's to the point where conspiracy theorists even have a hard time (to be kind) spotting conspiracy theory parodies. 

    I've got some conspiracy-theory friends who seem to be posting pretty earnestly about the dangers of chemtrails and GMOs, and you probably do too. If there's one thing to conclude from an 18-state measles outbreak, it's that we all probably have at least a few. It's bad enough that the World Economic Forum listed “digital misinformation” along with “terrorism, cyber attacks and the failure of global governance,” as a threats to modern society. 

    At least, that's what the “World Economic Forum” wants us to think are threats.

    And while a great video is making the rounds from the good folks at SciShow that explains the cognitive biases that contribute to an anti-vaxxer's vehement anti-vaccination stance, a team of Italian and American researchers dug deeper into conspiracy theory pages on Facebook and uncovered what social media biases may be feeding it too.

    The researchers looked at Italian conspiracy Facebook pages, which I'm sort of shamefully glad exist, if only to prove that America isn't the only country with this problem. According to the researchers, “pages like Scienza di Confine, Lo Sai or Coscienza Sveglia promote heterogeneous contents ranging from aliens, chemtrails, geocentrism, up to the causal relation between vaccinations and homosexuality.” 

    Far from admitting their own bias towards science sites, these scientists claimed, “we do not focus on the truth value of their information but rather on the possibility to verify their claims.”

    What they found is that the people who you see trolling with conspiracy theories on non-conspiracy sites are the outliers. An astounding 91.53 percent of people who like posts on conspiracy theory pages pretty much only engage with conspiracy theory pages.

    Not only that, compared to the science pages, conspiracy theory page posts are a lot more likely to be liked and shared. They call this a commitment to diffusion.

    This focus on liking and sharing only from conspiracy theory pages also keeps conspiracy theorists posting and sharing amongst themselves, and rarely venture to comment or like things on the science pages. The science page users get a little more variety in their liking and commenting, but the study notes that there's no accounting for irony.

    This was also a slight problem when the researchers looked at how members of each community would react to totally unsubstantiated rumors.

    “To test potential biases induced by the continued exposure to unsubstantiated rumors on users’ content selection," the wrote, "we conclude our analysis measuring how users respond to 4,709 troll information—i.e. parodistic and sarcastic imitation of conspiracy theories. We find that 77.92 percent of likes and 80.86 percent of comments are from users usually interacting with conspiracy stories.”

    So you've got a group of people who only engage with each other, do so vehemently, and are incapable of recognizing when they're being ridiculed. It's almost like being inoculated from critical thinking, but then, we can say pretty definitively that that isn't the case.