Remember when conspiracy theories were fun (and usually harmless) entertainment for those of us who appreciated kook culture and the fringes of thought and reason? Sadly, those days are over. Now, as these ideas spread and infect so quickly across social platforms, they can undermine science, destroy trust, polarize us, and incite violence. As part of a research project "to understand why and how conspiracy theories persist and persevere over time on social media," sociologist Christine Abdalla Mikhaeil at the IÉSEG School of Management and colleagues outlined the four stages of how conspiracy theories are embraced and then spread:
1. Identity confirmation: Users consult and view different types of content (via fora, mainstream media and social media) to actively verify and confirm their own views.
2. Identity affirmation: Individuals disassociate or pick selectively information from their original sources of information (mentioned above). In the case of "Pizzagate," conspiracy-minded users took pictures from the Clinton Foundation's support work in Haiti, created visual materials supporting supposed connections to a sex-trafficking ring, and then posted them on Reddit and 4chan. While obviously altered and taken out of context, the images were widely shared to promote the conspiracy theory.
3. Identity protection: Individuals safeguard their "informational environment" by actively seeking to discredit individuals or organizations that present contradictory evidence, for example with antagonistic or negative posts or comments.
4. Identity enactment: Individuals seek broader social approval from a more mainstream audience. This can also lead to efforts to recruit more people and call for violent actions, leveraging the community userbase.
"Explaining online conspiracy theory radicalization: A second-order affordance for identity-driven escalation" (Information Systems Journal)