The Iceberg effect

Why conspiracy theorists are not all the same

When we think about conspiracy theorists, the image that often comes to mind is not a flattering one. Typically we conjure up images of man with a tinfoil hat, writing crazed blog posts from his mothers basement, detailing how 9/11 was perpetrated by a cult of lizards. While this stereotype may not be particularly endearing, recent research suggests it may not be accurate either. At least not entirely.

Die-hard conspiracists make up only a portion of conspiracy theorists.

For many years, psychologists assumed that conspiracy theorists were all like-minded. As the sociologist Ted Goertzel put it, conspiracy theorists "offer the same hackneyed explanations for every problem". The notion was that conspiracy theorists believed in every conspiracy they encountered even if they completely contradicted one another. In one famous study, researchers found that the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more likely they were to also believe that she was also murdered. Scholars therefore concluded that conspiracy theorists did not endorse conspiracies based on their content. Instead they believed them due to a general overarching belief system that accepted conspiracy theories at face value. They referred to this as having a "monological belief system".

However, recent research has contradicted this notion that conspiracy theorists all share same belief system. A study published by Frontiers in Psychology examined the data of one of the most popular conspiracy forums on Reddit, r/conspiracy. The researchers set to analysing the forum data using a myriad of data science programming techniques that would make most psychologists shudder. Rather than finding evidence suggesting that conspiracy theorists on the forum all shared the same beliefs, the researchers discovered a range of subgroups who believed in only a subset of conspiracies. For examples, some users may believe that vaccines caused autism, but they may not be particularly convinced that the government is concealing the existence of Bigfoot. In fact, many conspiracy groups, such as the Patriots and Anti-Imperialists, were at complete odds with one another. Additionally, they also found that the various conspiracy subgroups did not share a particular set of common beliefs i.e. they all had different reasons as to why they believed conspiracies existed.

(Klein et al, 2018) Table detailing the various subgroups found.

But while there were a vast array of different conspiracy theorists among the sample, the researchers did find evidence for users that had a monological belief system. These 'true believers' indeed had a worldview that consisted of a wide range of diverse and interweaving conspiracy beliefs. What was noteworthy though, was that these 'true believers' only made up 5% of all users on the forum, yet were responsible for 64% of the content posted. The authors referred to this as the iceberg model. They concluded that monological believers are only a small, but incredibly vocal subgroup of the conspiracy community. But due to the sheer amount of content that true believers produce, it is easy to think that this small group represents the mindset of every conspiracy theorist.

So, might the fanatical conspiracy theorist be just the tip of the conspiracy iceberg? If so, are majority of conspiracy theorists below the water where we can't see them?