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Do you believe that the contrails left by high-flying aircraft contain sildenafil citratum, the active ingredient in Viagra? Or that light bulbs made from uranium and plutonium are more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly? Or that lemons have anti-hypnotic benefits?

If you do, then you are probably a regular consumer of conspiracy theories, particularly those that appear on the Italian language version of Facebook (where all these were sourced). It is easy to dismiss conspiracy theories as background noise with little if any consequences in the real world.

But that may be taking them too lightly. In 2013, a report from the World Economic Forum suggested that online misinformation represents a significant risk to modern society. The report pointed to a number of incidents in which information had spread virally with consequences that could hardly have been imagined by its creators.

In one case, somebody impersonating the Russian Interior Minister tweeted that Syria’s President Basher al-Assad had been killed or injured. The tweet caused the price of crude oil to rise by over one dollar before traders discovered that the news was false.  In another case in 2012, 30,000 people fled from the Indian city of Bangalore after receiving text messages that they would be attacked.

Clearly, the rapid spread of information can often have little to do with whether it is true or not.

And that raises an interesting question. How do conspiracy theories spread through the Internet and do people treat these ideas in a way that is fundamentally different to conventional stories from established news organizations?

To find out, Alessandro Bessi and pals at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Lucca, Italy, examined the way people on Facebook consume conspiracy theories versus the way they consume mainstream news. And they say there are remarkable similarities but also some interesting differences that may help to better understand the way that false information spreads around the web.

The team began by studying over 270,000 posts created on 73 different Facebook pages. They classified these pages according to the kind of information they contained, whether conspiracy news or mainstream scientific news. They also counted the number of likes each post received, a total of almost 10 million, the number of shares, as well as the individuals who contributed.

Having divided up the posts, they found that around 60,000 involved mainstream scientific news and over 200,000 involved alternative conspiracy news. And while the scientific news received 2.5 million likes, the alternative news had over 6.5 million likes.

For the most part, though, people consume scientific news in the same way as they consume conspiracy news. They both have roughly the same number of likes per comment and comments per share. The posts also have a similar distribution of lifetimes, the period between the first and last comment on each post.

“Despite the very diverse nature of the information, posts are consumed in a similar way,” say Bessi and co.

There is one significant difference, however. Readers of conspiracy news are more likely to both share and like a post than readers of mainstream science news. That appears to reflect a greater desire to spread conspiracy-based information than mainstream information.

Having studied the way readers consume the different types of posts, Bessi and co studied the readers themselves by dividing them into those who consume mostly conspiracy news and those who consume mainly mainstream scientific news. In particular, there were interested in how these readers react to news of the opposite polarity.

It turns out that readers focused on conspiracy news tend not to engage with mainstream sites but instead devote their energies towards the diffusion of conspiracies. By contrast, readers focused on scientific news are more likely to comment on conspiracy pages. “A possible explanation for such behavior is that the former want to diffuse what is neglected by mainstream thinking, whereas the latter aims at inhibiting the diffusion of conspiracy news,” say Bessi and co.

What’s more, both types of reader are much more likely to interact with people of the same polarity. The groups tend not to overlap.

That’s an interesting insight into the way conspiracy theories perpetuate independently of evidence that may negate them. It agrees with other studies indicating that when people form opinions they tend towards accounts that are more consistent with their existing system of beliefs.

In other words, if you have believed in conspiracy theories in the past, you are more likely to believe in them in the future. And if you regularly read mainstream science news, you are likely to continue in future.

Readers of this blog will probably know which group they belong to. Any others who want to know more about contrails spreading Viagra through the skies can take a look at this post on the Italian language version of Facebook.

Incidentally, we’ve looked at the work of this group of Italian scientists before. The team has a certain fascination for conspiracy theories—explanations for this unusual interest in the comments section please!

Ref: arxiv.org/abs/1408.1667 : Science Vs Conspiracy: Collective Narratives In The Age Of (Mis)Information

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