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Why do Covid conspiracy theories persist on social media?

The Covid-19 pandemic affected people all over the world in different ways, and the high uncertainties that accompanied this unprecedented situation caused fear and anxiety for many. During the pandemic, social media platforms such as Twitter was a major information source for many people, due to the quick and easily digestible news that it constantly provided. Sadly, such platforms also contributed to the spread of various conspiracy theories, rumors, and outright lies, which had an adverse impact on people’s compliance with public health measures.

Now, a team of researchers from the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) has analyzed the Twitter discussions of eight different widespread conspiracy theories. Instead of measuring the number of conspiracy-related tweets relative to the total number of tweets – as previous studies did – the researchers analyzed the discussions around conspiracy tweets themselves in order to find out more about what specific theories were discussed, to what extent, and how the frequency of these discussions changed over time.

The scientists collected a data set of nearly 1.3 million tweets associated to conspiracy theories between January 2020 and November 2021. These data included tweets related to eight different conspiracy theories: the 5G, Big Pharma, Bill Gates, biological weapon, exaggeration, Film Your Hospital, Genetically Modified Organism (GMO), and vaccine conspiracies. 

“Analyzing the distribution of tweets citing different conspiracy theories over time allowed us to instantly determine when the discussion of which theory prevailed and how the distribution changed over the time period we investigated,” said study lead author Dmitry Erokhin, a scientist in the Cooperation and Transformative Governance Research Group at IIASA.

The analyses revealed that conspiracy theories differed in terms of their development. For instance, some peaked at the beginning of the pandemic (the 5G and Film Your Hospital theories), some grew during the pandemic (the vaccine-related theories), others remained persistent during the pandemic (the Bill Gates and exaggeration theories), and some had two peaks (the GMO and the biological weapon theories). The number of active Covid-19 cases appeared to be a significant predictor for the frequency of conspiracy tweets a week later for seven of the theories.

According to the researchers, risk perceptions play a large role in the emergence and proliferation of conspiracy theories, which usually aim to describe difficult and unexpected events with a high personal risk. Fear and distrust drive people to search for seemingly logical explanations of the pandemic and bring together like-minded individuals, forming so-called “echo-chambers” consisting of, for example, pro- versus anti-vaccine groups.

“Conspiracy theories are an important part of the Covid-19 discussion, and they influence people’s behavior. In this regard, it is important to be careful and critical in evaluating the information we receive, especially from social media. This makes our findings important for policymakers, as it can help them identify theories that remain persistent despite two years of pandemic development and anti-conspiracy news campaigns, and to develop measures aimed specifically at combating the remaining conspiracies,” concluded co-author Nadejda Komendantova, the leader of the Cooperation and Transformative Governance Research Group at IIASA. 

The study is published in the journal Social Media and Society.

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By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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