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Social media use and conspiracy thinking

Does the use of social media cause people to believe conspiracy theories? It’s an intuitive proposition: anyone using Facebook, Twitter or Reddit is bound to come across conspiratorial content on a regular basis, almost as if the platforms explicitly invite users to share, spread and subscribe to such content. Moreover, there is a correlation between social media use and belief in conspiracy theories (Stempel, 2007). Yet it would raise a lot of questions if humans, who are arguably not that gullible to begin with, would be easily persuaded of outlandish theories while under the spell of social media.

While some researchers are calling for turning social media studies into a “crisis discipline” (Bak-Coleman et al., 2021) — partly because of the supposed power of social media to popularize misinformation and conspiracy theories — there are others who are more skeptical of such effects, arguing that belief formation is conditional on well-aligned personal motivations and prior beliefs. In short, the latter group is not convinced that social media by itself causes people to believe misinformation and conspiracy theories.

A recent study tried to shed light on how conspiracy beliefs, social media use and individual beliefs and attitudes relate to each other, by investigating the role of conspiracy thinking (Enders et al., 2021b). Conspiracy thinking (which this blog has also referred to as conspiratorial ideation) was determined by using a four-item measure in which participants indicated how much they agreed with statements like “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places” — a measure of a conspiracist worldview (Uscinski & Parent, 2014). Conspiracy beliefs were measured by surveying agreement with a range of conspiracy theories (e.g. “School shootings, like those at Sandy Hook, CT and Parkland, FL are false flag attacks perpetrated by the government”).

The researchers found that respondents who use social media as their primary source for news are more likely to hold conspiracy beliefs than those who prefer another medium (bar newspaper-dependent people, but this is probably because their low count skewed the statistics). The frequency of social media use also matters and varies per platform: in the study, frequent Facebook use had the weakest correlation to conspiracy beliefs, Twitter and Reddit were more strongly correlated to such beliefs and 4chan/8chan was pretty much the worst offender.

These correlations depended most strongly, however, on the score for conspiracy thinking. At low levels of conspiracy thinking, the frequency of social media use does not predict conspiracy beliefs, but at higher levels an increasingly strong relationship starts emerging. In the view of the authors, this can be explained in two (non-exclusive) ways: either social media users only start believing in conspiracy theories because of some prior disposition to do so, or the conspiracy-minded social media users seek out more conspiracy theories and reinforce their worldview. The authors reject the idea that exposure to conspiracy theories on social media in itself drives conspiracy beliefs.

Now, misinformation alarmists would probably not be impressed by these results. Finding that people prone to conspiracy thinking also are the strongest believers in conspiracy theories is a nice validation of the four-item measure, but what does it tell us about the causes of conspiracy thinking? Their question would still be whether social media is driving this particular type of thinking — cultivating the cognitive dispositions that make people susceptible to conspiracy beliefs.

However, there are reasons to believe that social media use is not by itself adding (much) to the prevalence of conspiracy thinking. The rate of conspiracy theory endorsement appears to be stable over time (Enders et al., 2020) — despite a steady increase in the use of social media — and there is a wide range of predictors of conspiracy thinking that are independent from information exposure. While there’s some intuitive credence to the idea that social media fosters low trust and thereby promotes a conspiratorial worldview, empirical findings reveal a more complicated picture: yes, low institutional trust leads to conspiracy beliefs and those beliefs may reinforce low institutional trust, but active social media use appears to dampen these effects (Mari et al, 2021).

So is social media adding nothing new to the landscape of conspiracy theories? I’d speculate it is, but it’s the form of the theories and not the count of their followers that is changing. Conspiracy theories are a product of collective reasoning (albeit usually not very good reasoning) and their content and structure are influenced by the ways in which this reasoning takes place. QAnon is, I suspect, very much the shape of things to come: a globalized group effort in storytelling that is distributed across forums, social media platforms and messaging services. Its narratives are complex, they can quickly be tailor-suited to local events and the strong need for continuous replication means that new elements face a high selection pressure.

The resultant theories that come out of this may prove to be more actionable, as they are no longer just about some distant, historical event, but are tied to the direct environment of conspiracy believers. Therefore, we might need to brace ourselves for increasingly vocal, activist conspiracy believers. And that means that finding ways to limit conspiracy thinking should remain high on the priority list.


Bak-Coleman, J. B., Alfano, M., Barfuss, W., Bergstrom, C. T., Centeno, M. A., Couzin, I. D., … & Weber, E. U. (2021). Stewardship of global collective behavior. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences118(27).

Enders, A. M., Uscinski, J. E., Klofstad, C., & Stoler, J. (2020). The different forms of COVID-19 misinformation and their consequences. The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.

Enders, A. M., Uscinski, J. E., Klofstad, C. A., Seelig, M. I., Wuchty, S., Murthi, M. N., … & Funchion, J. R. (2021a). Do Conspiracy Beliefs Form a Belief System? Examining the Structure and Organization of Conspiracy Beliefs. Journal of Social and Political Psychology9(1), 255-271.

Enders, A. M., Uscinski, J. E., Seelig, M. I., Klofstad, C. A., Wuchty, S., Funchion, J. R., … & Stoler, J. (2021b). The Relationship Between Social Media Use and Beliefs in Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation. Political Behavior, 1-24.

Mari, S., Gil de Zúñiga, H., Suerdem, A., Hanke, K., Brown, G., Vilar, R., … & Bilewicz, M. (2021). Conspiracy Theories and Institutional Trust: Examining the Role of Uncertainty Avoidance and Active Social Media Use. Political Psychology.

Roozenbeek, J., Van Der Linden, S., & Nygren, T. (2020). Prebunking interventions based on “inoculation” theory can reduce susceptibility to misinformation across cultures. Harv. Kennedy Sch. Misinformation Rev.

Stempel, C., Hargrove, T., & Stempel III, G. H. (2007). Media use, social structure, and belief in 9/11 conspiracy theories. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly84(2), 353-372.

Uscinski, J. E., & Parent, J. M. (2014). American conspiracy theories. Oxford University Press.