Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories? Network Diversity, Political Discussion, and Conservative Conspiracy Theories on Social Media

AuthorSeong Jae Min
DOI10.1177/1532673X211013526
Published date01 September 2021
Date01 September 2021
Subject MatterArticles
https://doi.org/10.1177/1532673X211013526
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(5) 415 –427
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
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DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211013526
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Article
Introduction
Conspiracy theories are a special breed of misinformation.
They are an attempt to explain the ultimate cause of a sig-
nificant political or social event as a secret plot by powerful
individuals or organizations (Douglas & Sutton, 2017). They
have a long history and are pervasive today across people of
different backgrounds and political attitudes in the United
States (Federico et al., 2018; Oliver & Wood, 2014; Uscinski
& Parent, 2014). Conspiracy theories present serious chal-
lenges to society as they distort public opinions and attack
the informational basis of democracy. Those who believe in
conspiracy theories are often associated with political disen-
gagement or extremism that can hurt a healthy functioning
of democracy (Butler et al., 1995). Conspiracy theories do
cause real harms, as shown in the case of the so-called “anti-
vaxxers” who refuse to vaccinate their children because of
their belief in the theory that vaccines cause autism (Jolley &
Douglas, 2014), or the conspiracy theory-influenced capital
rioters in Washington, D.C. in 2021 who violently stormed
into the democratic institutions intending to inflict harm on
representatives.
As we enter the age of networked social media, conspir-
acy theories are finding a new ill repute, because untrust-
worthy information gets more easily fermented and spread
across the vast digital network. One of the most scathing
charges against social media is that it traps individuals in an
ideological silo of like-minded people, or an “echo chamber”
(Sunstein, 2017). Research suggests that social media users
who are accustomed to such an online echo chamber subse-
quently become polarized when faced with an outgroup
audience (Shmargad & Klar, 2019), which serves as a fertile
ground where conspiracy theories can flourish. Indeed,
major conspiracy theories travel fast on social media, and
even fringe and decades-old conspiracy theories can be eas-
ily discovered and revived among those who share similar
ideological orientations.
Focusing on individuals’ social media network character-
istics, this study attempts to find a segment of social media
users susceptible to conspiracy theories. Previous studies
have emphasized partisan ideologies or personal traits as key
factors that motivate and sustain people’s misperception
(e.g., Barron et al., 2014; Nyhan & Reifler, 2010; Swami
et al., 2011). These studies, mostly conducted from a social
psychological perspective, have rarely considered the impor-
tance of communication networks. But probing the structures
of individual and structural communication networks has a
1013526APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211013526American Politics ResearchMin
research-article2021
1Pace University, New York, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Seong Jae Min, Pace University, 41 Park Row, 505, New York, NY 10038,
USA.
Email: smin@pace.edu
Who Believes in Conspiracy Theories?
Network Diversity, Political Discussion,
and Conservative Conspiracy Theories
on Social Media
Seong Jae Min1
Abstract
A survey of 3,441 U.S. social media users showed that a high portion believes in conspiracy theories, and their beliefs
vary widely along the party lines and socio-demographic factors. In particular, conservative conspiracy theories were more
pronounced than liberal ones, and older White males with high conservatism and Protestantism showed higher endorsement
of conservative conspiracy theories. Furthermore, ideological conservatives who frequently discuss politics showed higher
association with a conservative conspiracy theory than conservatives who discuss politics less frequently. However, network
diversity moderated the interaction of conservative ideology and political discussion such that conservatives who discuss
politics frequently in a relatively heterogeneous social media network setting had lower beliefs in a conspiracy theory than
conservatives who do so in a more homogeneous network.
Keywords
conspiracy theories, network diversity, political discussion, political ideology, social media, conservatism

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