PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Researchers at Washington State University studied nearly 400,000 tweets and found that the conspiracy theories shared the most on Twitter early on in the pandemic highlighted malicious intentions and secretive actions of supposed bad actors behind the crisis.
Through their studies, the researchers found commonalities in five of the most popular conspiracy theories. Those five conspiracy theories include ones related to Bill Gates, 5G Networks, vaccinations, QAnon and Agenda 21.
Porismita Borah, associate professor in Washington State University’s Murrow College of Communications, said even though each theory has a different subject, the social media narratives often overlap.
“The conspiracy theories might be using different strategies, but the narratives are often connected,” she said. “These theories have a lot in common in that they try to make the stories part of a bigger conspiracy so that if people believe in one conspiracy, then they tend to believe in the other.”
Borah is the corresponding author on the study published in the journal New Media and Society.
For the study, researchers collected Twitter posts associated with the five conspiracy theories from the first six months of 2020. Altogether, they had 384,592 posts to analyze and narrowed these tweets down to the top 10 most linked to URLs on a weekly basis.
WSU said this allowed the researchers to conduct a qualitative as well as quantitative study and to examine more of the theories’ content beyond the limited characters allowed in a tweet.
After studying the posts closely, researchers found that the posts that received the most engagement were ones that included statements about malicious purposes and secretive actions. These received even more engagement than posts that contained statements of belief that a theory was true.
The posts least likely to be shared were those that attempted to provide some sort of authentication or sources for the conspiracies, WSU said.
The authors of the study were surprised to find how quickly existing theories adapted the pandemic into their storylines. For example, before the pandemic, there was a relatively minor conspiracy theory that 5G cellular technology could harm human health.
However, after the COVID-19 outbreak, the theory expanded and some people began blaming 5G for the illness’ spread.
WSU researchers said COVID-19 was quickly incorporated into false narratives spun by believers of “mega-theories,” such as QAnon and Agenda21. QAnon theorists falsely believe the world is run by a political group of Satan-worshiping pedofiles.
“When you have overarching theories as big as QAnon and Agenda 21, they can really fit anything into them,” said Ital Himelboim, another author of the study and an associate professor at the University of Georgia. “Immediately, the pandemic fits into the existing conspiratorial way to explain the world – and of course, there’s a villain.”
The authors are interested in further researching what attracts people to theories that claim malevolent purposes and secretive actions.
“To combat these conspiracy theories, we have to keep in mind how the content is created, what people believe and what they share,” Borah said. “It’s a very complex situation, but it is important to understand the content to be able to counter it. You need to know what you are fighting.”