There’s a reason why we avoid the comments section of sites like Fox News and Reddit’s r/worldnews: rampant conspiracy theorists. Actually, there are a bunch more reasons (rampant racism, rampant dickery, rampant homophobia), but we’re most annoyed by the conspiracy theorists.
Fortunately, researchers Michael Wood and Karen Douglas were willing to put up with that nonsense, and they’ve discovered that conspiracy theorists are more focused on discrediting conventional explanations than constructing their own accounts. Wood and Douglas detailed their findings in a study published in Frontiers of Psychology.
Wood and Douglas gathered data by reading through the comments sections of ABC News, the Independent, the Daily Mail, and CNN between July 1 and December 21, 2011, identifying 2,174 relevant comments made by 1,156 authors. 1,459 were labelled “conspiracist”, and 714 as “conventional”. Of the conspiracist comments, the majority supported the inappropriately named 9/11 Truth Movement.
Conventionalist comments were more likely (fifty-four per cent) to contain information supporting their position, versus conspiracists (at a scant thirty-one per cent). Conspiracists, by contrast, were more likely (sixty-four per cent) to denigrate other positions versus conventionalists (forty-four per cent). Furthermore, only 1.4 per cent of conventionalist comments singled mistrust, versus 10.6 for the conspiracists. Finally, the conspiracists were more likely to be hostile in tone.
Of course, the main takeaway we have from this research is that reading the comments section of most websites is an exercise in intellectual masochism, and engaging with conspiracy theorists is dumb and futile. Finally, we sincerely hope that, after reading thousands of Internet comments, Wood and Douglas are getting the support they need.