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“Here’s what really happened…”

Wednesday, August 28, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

2013 conspiracy theoryWe’ve written before (a fair amount, in truth) about conspiracy theorists showing up for our mock trials. And while they result in entertainment for observers behind the window, we want to question them closely to ascertain what holes in the story are resulting in their cognitive leaps. They will take sharp digressions to imagine sexual affairs between parties, or a desire to push person out of the organization, or some sort of substance placed in the water-cooler at the office. We need to plug those holes in the narrative so actual jurors in the deliberation room can respond to facts and evidence, and minimize or ameliorate the impact of the conspiracy theorist’s insistent voice.

Yet, we find ourselves always curious about the reasons behind the conspiracy theorists’ insistence (despite the facts and evidence) on their beliefs. New research reaffirms previous findings regarding motivations but they looked at it a bit differently. Instead of questionnaires to elicit information, these researchers went online and gathered comments posted between July 1, 2011 and December 31, 2011 on four mainstream news websites (ABC News, CNN, the Independent and the Daily Mail). Researchers say they chose this date range since there were a “large number of 9/11 related articles around the tenth anniversary of the attacks and [snip] the reasoning that an ideal sample would not be restricted to a single country, journalistic style, or ideological position”.

While I was told, when last featured on CNN’s news site, to not read the comments, apparently, there is value in them. Thankfully, these researchers read them so we don’t have to scroll through ourselves. They culled through the comments to retain only those of substance and ultimately had a sample of 2,174 comments with 1,156 unique authors (321 commented more than once).

As an aside, it can be worthwhile in voir dire to inquire about whether anyone has ever posted a comment on an internet news site. If you find someone who has done it more than a couple of times you probably have a fairly kooky person of one type or another.

About 2/3 of the comments (N = 1459) were coded as conspiracist, while about 1/3 (N = 715) were coded as conventionalist. [See voir dire suggestion above…] This ratio held across all four news sites (about twice as many conspiracist as conventional comments). And here is what they found:

Conspiracists mentioned positive opinions about other, unrelated conspiracy theories than did conventional commenters. (This is consistent with prior research finding that if you believe one conspiracy theory, you are more likely to believe another.)

Conspiracists expressed more mistrust in their comments than did conventional commenters. (This is also well-established in prior research.)

Conspiracists rarely advanced alternative theories of their own. Instead, they attempted to debunk official explanations. Or, as the researchers say, “for the adherents of the 9/11 Truth Movement examined here, the search for truth consists mostly of finding ways in which the official story cannot be true”.

Conventionalist comments coded as persuasive were more hostile than persuasive comments by conspiracists. The researchers say the conventionalists are trying to make conspiracists conform to the majority. We would also say it’s very frustrating when someone advocates what to you is a nonsensical argument. If you are the sort of person who engages in on-line “persuasion”, it makes sense you would sometimes be hostile.

It’s an interesting study. One thing the researchers propose is that conspiracy theorists hackles might be raised when you present facts as official accounts of the situation/dispute. On the other hand, they might be more prone to support facts presented to them as refutations of the official account of the same event. Those two thoughts could lead to an intriguing idea if you are looking for a hung jury, but we’ve said this before: we know our readers would never use research results for evil.

Sometimes, although not as often as we would like, academics have comments in their articles that are so evocative, we are forced to include them:

“Conspiracism is rooted in several higher-order beliefs such as an abiding mistrust of authority, the conviction that nothing is quite as it seems, and the belief that most of what we are told is a lie. [snip] For many conspiracists, there are two worlds: one real and (mostly) unseen, the other a sinister illusion meant to cover up the truth; and evidence against the latter is evidence for the former.”

There are some people you cannot satisfy with mere truth. Be very careful before you place your case in the hands of such people.

Wood MJ, & 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


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