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Influence of social network processes on radical conspiracy theories

Heidi Campana Piva

April 3, 2024

Editor’s note: This post is part one of a two-part series that the author intends to publish over the next two months.

There is a structural tendency for extremists to uphold conspiracy theories, which is reflected in their dichotomic thinking style aimed at making sense of societal events by providing oversimplified explanations (van Prooijen et al. 2015). More specifically, “tragedies caused by extremism are rooted substantially in a tendency to be distrustful and paranoid toward groups of other-minded individuals” (Ibid), which is also a characteristic of conspiracy thinking, known as ‘us-vs.-them’ logic. In a general manner, conspiracy theories and radicalization are both fundamentally related to meaning-making processes that “may compensate for personal uncertainties by providing self-regulatory clarity, and by imbuing the world with meaning and purpose” (Ibid, 571), thus, meaning is “created in a situation of existential fragility” (Önnerfors, Steiner 2018: 33). Accordingly, conspiracy thinking may be seen as a core component of the process of radicalization into extremism.

Recent studies have been moving away “from debunking conspiracy theories towards exploring their meaning for those involved” (Harambam 2020: 280). A possible approach regards how “conspiracy theories serve as a way to express distrust and discontent with authorities, and perhaps even distrust towards society more generally” (Thórisdóttir et al. 2020: 313), showcasing how, in a more general manner, “relationships in public based automatically upon authority are in decline” (Fairclough 1995: 137).

In general, the last few decades have shown how epistemic authorities and distributions of power have changed (Lorusso 2022). More people are now able to intervene in the public sphere, feeling empowered by new media and its logics to act as reliable information sources (Ibid). In this context, the base of conspiracy narratives becomes what Mari-Liss Madisson (2014) calls ‘social trust’ – that is, the verification of these narratives transcends any reference to proven facts, but instead, they rely on other narratives to support it (Madisson 2014; Stano 2020), creating an interdependent web of conspiracy narratives.

Further, it is crucial to consider that the circulation of information – and consequently of mis/disinformation – is regulated by network processes rather than being driven by chance (Leal 2020: 499). This means that, when speaking about online communication, it is also important to consider some of the socio-technical affordances of social media and how they impact communication. Leal (2020) describes two basic processes by which online networks generally operate: “The ‘Matthew effect’ (related to centrality and power) and clustering (related to homophily and transitivity)”.

The ‘Matthew effect of accumulated advantage’ is “determinant of hierarchies in online social networks” (Leal 2020: 499), describing the emergence of interconnected hubs, actors, or nodes, whose path is “dependent and favours those who are already central, powerful and influential” (Ibid).

A couple of years ago, the Director-General of the World Health Organisation declared: “we’re not just fighting an epidemic; we’re fighting an infodemic” (WHO 2020: vii). In the face of this infodemic, the expansion of social media has reached a paradox:

The number of opinion holders and discussion platforms has multiplied to such a degree that it is quite likely that any particular posting will not be noticed by nearly anyone against the background of a general flood of information. This information overload has increased the relevance of focusers or filters of attention, which can be institutions, individual mediators (e.g. social media micro-celebrities) or algorithms (e.g. those that mark trending themes), that can bring attention to a certain topic or an event. (Madisson, Ventsel 2021: 17)

Visibility has thus become one of the most desirable resources in the landscape of online media, and yet, it largely tends to be obtained by those who are already in possession of it. Therefore,

While the scale, speed and reach are generally conceived as providing equal opportunities for communication between people and the spread of narratives, the reality shows that this horizontality is illusory. […] In social networks, especially, it is not the equal distribution of interconnections, but the fact that some nodes are more well-connected than others that makes an idea or a virus circulate faster and more efficiently. (Leal 2020: 499)

As a consequence, the “turn-of-the-century utopian dream of the internet as a space of liberation and as a birthplace of new democratic communities has vanished” (Puumeister 2020: 520). Horizontal distribution of power and equal opportunity are now illusions or lost to the past, having been replaced with the logics of algorithms, which merely increase the influence of those who already possess it. The effects of this can be seen on many spheres of human life, especially in processes of meaning-making.

Follow the continuation of this discussion (PART 2) here on the VORTEX blog, coming June 2024.

References

Fairclough, Norman. 1995. Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language. London: Lohgman.

Harambam, Jaron 2020. Conspiracy Theory Entrepreneurs, Movements and Individuals. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge, 278-291.

Leal, Hugo 2020. Networked Disinformation and The Lifecycle of Online Conspiracy Theories. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge, 497-511.

Lorusso, Anna M. 2022. Fake News as Discursive Genre: Between Hermetic Semiosis and Gossip. Social Epistemology37(17): 1-13, DOI: 10.1080/02691728.2021.2001604.

Madisson, Mari-Liis 2014. The Semiotic Logic of Signification of Conspiracy Theories. Semiotica 202 (2014): 273-300.

Madisson, Mari-Liis; Ventsel, Andreas 2021. Strategic Conspiracy Narratives: A Semiotic Approach. New York: Routledge.

Önnerfors, Andreas; Steiner, Kristian (2018). Expressions of Radicalization, Global Politics, Processes and Practices. London: Palgrave-Macmillan, 1507-1508.

Puumeister, Ott 2020. Conspiratorial Rationality. Sign Systems Studies, 48(2-4): 519-528.

Stano, Simona 2020. The Internet and The Spread of Conspiracy Content. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge. 483-496.

Thórisdóttir, Hulda; Mari, Silvia; Krouwel, André 2020. Conspiracy Theories, Political Ideology and Political Behaviour. In: Butter, Michael; Knight, Peter (eds.), Routledge Handbook of Conspiracy Theories. New York: Routledge. 304-316.

van Prooijen, Jan-Willem; Krouwel, André P.; Pollet, Thomas V. (2015). Political extremism predicts belief in conspiracy theories. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6 (5), 570-578. DOI: 10.1177/19485506145673

WHO 2020. An ad hoc WHO technical consultation managing the COVID-19 infodemic: call for action. Geneva: World Health Organization. Licence: CC BY-NC-SA 3.0 IGO. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789240010314, 06.03.23.

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