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Do Conspiracy Theorists Leave More Critical Comments on News Websites?

The next ECREA 2016 session starts with Marc Ziegele, whose focus is on the presence of conspiracy theories and truth demands in user comments on the news. Some theorists have had high hopes for the role of user comments as a deliberative medium, increasing the diversity of viewpoints and enabling a broad discussion about the news by ordinary participants.

Comments can have a broad reach and can contribute to opinion formation, but there are also many problems: first, there is often an unnecessarily disrespectful and uncivil tone; some 20-25 per cent of comments on news Websites as well as on Facebook tend to be uncivil. Second, comment sections may become engines for conspiracy theories: they are often very critical of mainstream journalism, and present their own explanations for the events reported. (In Germany, the most critical commenters on the extreme right have rediscovered the Nazi term Lügenpresse – lying press – for this.)

Such conspiracy theorists may be using comment sections to broadcast their arguments. But they see the media as part of an elite whom they inherently mistrust; this may also mean that they use the mainstream media Websites less, in which case we should not expect to see their comments there particularly frequently. Instead, they may be more likely to find like-minded users in fringe news sites run by their own communities. At the same time, however, even conspiracy theorists might depend on the mainstream media to get specific information about the world; if so, they might experience cognitive dissonance given their own diverging views, and this could motivate them to express their own views in response to mainstream news articles.

The present study conducted a survey of some 525 participants, weighted by demographics, in Germany, and explored their levels of belief in various conspiracy theories; it also asked how often these participants commented on news sites when they believed journalists withheld the whole truth. Some 20% believed in chemtrails, for instance, while 14% believed that the U.S. never landed on the moon.

This found that males engaged more frequently in news-demanding commenting practices, while age and education played no role; strength of belief did not correlate with such behaviour, but use of alternative news sites correlated both with conspiracy theory beliefs and truth-demanding news commenting. Conspiracy beliefs also correlated with media scepticism, and such scepticism in turn also correlated with the use of alternative news sites. Conspiracy theorism didn't correlate with blog, fora, and social media use, but such use in turn correlated with truth-demanding commenting.

So, there is no direct link between believing in conspiracy theories and truth-demanding commenting, but these users have less trust in the mainstream media, use more non-mainstream news sources, selectively and broadcast such non-mainstream information on mainstream news sites. This is problematic because studies have found that even a small number of such comments could in turn influence other readers of news sites.