New research provides evidence that social media usage, particularly at higher frequencies, is associated with heightened belief in conspiracy theories. But the relationship between social media use and conspiracy beliefs only exists among people who have a strong conspiratorial mindset. The findings, published in the journal Political Behavior, suggest that social media does not promote the belief in conspiracy theories among the general population.
While previous research has shown a correlation between social media use and beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation, the researchers behind the new study wanted to delve deeper into the underlying factors that influence this association. They recognized that individual-level motivations and predispositions are crucial in understanding why people are attracted to certain perspectives.
“Numerous studies show that social media use is correlated with conspiracy theory beliefs such that the more social media a person uses, the more conspiracy theories they believe, on average,” said study co-author Joseph Uscinski, a professor of political science at the University of Miami and author of “Conspiracy Theories.”
“However, most of these studies are observational in nature, meaning that we don’t know if social media use is causing people to believe more conspiracy theories, if people who already believe lots of conspiracy theories use more social media, perhaps to find conspiratorial ideas they already agree with, or if there is no causal connection between conspiracy theory beliefs and social media use.
“So, the point of this study was to contextualize the previous observational studies, by testing whether the previously identified correlations were conditional on people being generally inclined towards conspiracy theories,” Uscinski explained.
Uscinski and his colleagues conducted two studies to investigate whether the relationship between social media use and conspiracy theory beliefs was dependent on having a strong conspiratorial mindset.
In Study 1, the researchers aimed to examine the relationship between different types and frequencies of social media use and beliefs in conspiracy theories. They collected data using the Qualtrics platform from March 17 to 19, 2020. The sample consisted of 2,023 individuals who matched the sex, age, race, and income demographics of the 2010 U.S. Census records.
To measure beliefs in conspiracy theories, respondents were presented with 15 conspiracy theories covering various domains such as science, government, individuals, and health. (e.g. “The number of Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II has been exaggerated on purpose.”)
In addition to the 15 conspiracy beliefs, the researchers included a specific dependent variable related to the QAnon conspiracy theory. Respondents were asked to rate their feelings about the “QAnon movement” using a 101-point feeling thermometer scale, ranging from 0 (very negative feelings) to 100 (very positive feelings).
The researchers examined three variables to understand how social media use relates to conspiracy beliefs. First, they asked people where they usually get their news from, like TV, radio, newspapers, internet news sites, or social media. Second, they asked how often people use specific social media sites, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, and 4chan/8chan. Third, they measured conspiracy thinking, which refers to the psychological predisposition to interpret major events as the product of conspiracy theories. (e.g. “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places.”)
To account for potential confounding factors, the researchers controlled for various demographic variables, including partisanship, ideological self-identification, interest in politics, educational attainment, age, household income, gender, and race and ethnicity.
In Study 2, the researchers expanded their investigation to include beliefs in conspiracy theories and health misinformation related to COVID-19. They wanted to see if their previous findings from Study 1 held true in these specific domains of belief. While misinformation and conspiracy theories are not the same, they expected that the relationship between belief in COVID-19 misinformation and social media use would be influenced by conspiracy thinking.
Data for Study 2 was collected between June 4-17, 2020, using the Qualtrics platform. A total of 1,040 responses were collected from individuals who matched the demographics of the 2010 U.S. Census. The dependent variables in this study were similar to Study 1, but with additional measures specifically focused on beliefs in COVID-19 conspiracy theories and health misinformation such as “The coronavirus is being used to install tracking devices inside our bodies” and “Putting disinfectant into your body can prevent or cure COVID-19.”
In Study 1, the researchers found that individuals who primarily use social media as their source of news tend to hold more conspiracy beliefs compared to those who rely on other mediums. Higher frequency of social media usage, across platforms such as Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, and 4chan/8chan, was associated with endorsing a greater number of conspiracy beliefs. However, Facebook usage exhibited the weakest correlation with conspiracy beliefs.
The researchers also conducted regression analysis, taking into account conspiracy thinking and other factors, and found that both choosing social media as the primary news source and the frequency of social media usage had a significant effect on conspiracy beliefs. They observed that the relationship between social media use and conspiracy beliefs was contingent on the level of conspiracy thinking, suggesting that social media alone does not cause belief in conspiracy theories but rather amplifies existing conspiratorial sentiments.
“The most important thing is that we should not assume that people believe everything they see on the internet,” Uscinski told PsyPost. “Oftentimes, people use the internet to seek out ideas that they are already inclined towards. And people are not easily persuaded of ideas they don’t already agree with.”
“There has been a lot of talk lately about the effect of the internet on beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation, and there is an assumption that the internet and social media have created a ‘golden age’ of conspiracy theorizing. But the jury is still out on this idea. It isn’t clear that conspiracy theories are more believed now than in the past, and even if that was the case, it might not be the internet driving people to adopt conspiracy theories.”
In Study 2, the researchers found similar patterns as in Study 1, with social media users holding more beliefs in conspiracy theories compared to other media consumers. The correlations between the number of beliefs and social media usage were significant across all platforms, with Twitter and Instagram showing the strongest associations.
The researchers analyzed the data using regression analysis, and they found that there is a positive connection between people’s tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, how often they use social media, and the number of conspiracy beliefs they hold. They also examined how social media use affects these beliefs based on the intensity of an individual’s conspiracy thinking. They discovered that as a person’s inclination towards conspiracy thinking increases, their use of social media becomes even more influential in shaping their conspiratorial beliefs.
“We found that, among those who exhibited the weakest proclivities toward conspiracy theorizing, there was no relationship between time spent on various social media platforms and beliefs in specific conspiracy theories and misinformation,” explained co-author Adam M. Enders, an associate professor at the University of Louisville.
“This finding is critical for contextualizing previous findings regarding the correlation between social media use and conspiracy beliefs –– social media does not appear to foster conspiracy theory beliefs among people who were not already naturally disposed to interpret events and circumstances as the product of real-world conspiracies, to view the world through a lens of conspiracism.”
“Even though popular narratives hold that algorithms are dragging people kicking and screaming down conspiracy theory-laden rabbit holes, our evidence shows that many conspiracy theory believers began their social media journey already well-entrenched in those rabbit holes,” Enders told PsyPost.
But the study, like all research, has some limitations that should be considered. The data is cross-sectional, meaning it was collected at a single point in time. This prevents the researchers from establishing a cause-and-effect relationship between social media usage and conspiracy beliefs. To gain a deeper understanding of the causal process, it would be beneficial to conduct experiments or gather longitudinal data.
The study, “The Relationship Between Social Media Use and Beliefs in Conspiracy Theories and Misinformation“, was authored by Adam M. Enders, Joseph E. Uscinski, Michelle I. Seelig, Casey A. Klofstad, Stefan Wuchty, John R. Funchion, Manohar N. Murthi, Kamal Premaratne, and Justin Stoler.