Just a quick post to let everyone know that this Blog will be on a break from now, over the silly season and should return early in the New Year. This isn’t so much because of Christmas and the New Year directly, but because my work schedule is so great and I won’t have the time to put in on the Blog during this period. I would have liked to keep up the posts, but it has become clear I just can’t keep it up at the moment – it is far too busy at work and with increasing staff shortages over the next couple of weeks, it will not get any easier.
Let me also take the opportunity to wish you all a happy and safe Christmas, and New Year period. Enjoy this time with family and friends.
I was posting a few Blogs and getting a few more ready when some bad news came through. Sadly I will be needing to take some more time away from the Blogs (immediately) – which is something completely unplanned and unexpected. This may be a lengthy break of two to three weeks. I’m afraid this is unavoidable and apologise for the time away from the Blog.
I am beginning a slow, measured return to Blogging. My health has improved somewhat, though I came close to destroying an eye (that has also recovered well) due to an injury I sustained. So I have started bringing Blogs back into ‘operation’ again.
I’ll be taking a week off from the Blog (at this stage – may be longer) due to a resurgent CFS (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome). I have been battling this ‘outbreak’ for about 6 weeks and there has been very little improvement, so I need to take some ‘health time.’ Back when I can be.
I am very thankful. Having battled away for the past 48 hours trying to salvage files, I have now also been able to get into the system restore feature on my computer, attempt to restore the system and… it worked. Very thankful. It is working again.
I now need to bring the various Blogs back online and to start posting again.
The latest Windows 10 update has basically trashed my computer. The update was installed automatically, so I wasn’t expecting it to happen. I had just turned the computer on and when I returned to it after allowing it to boot, there it was ‘installing.’ Anyhow, it failed and the computer is now unusable.
So what this means is that I will not be able to post in the ‘usual’ way for some time – very disappointing.
Conspiracy theories are known for connecting apparently unrelated events. Consider the X-Files’ Fox Mulder holed up in his office, frantically joining seemingly random dots. Or the American radio host Alex Jones connecting leaked Clinton emails and fuzzy rover pictures to conclude that NASA is running a child slave colony on Mars.
Cognitive psychologists have often claimed that conspiracy theorists possess a “monological” belief system, in which belief in one conspiracy leads to belief in others. Eventually, they explain every significant event, however unrelated, through the same conspiratorial “logic”.
On such a view, conspiracy theorists are fundamentally irrational, perhaps even pathologically so. But is this an oversimplification?
So-called “big data” approaches to psychology can give a unique perspective on these questions. By using large datasets gathered from social media websites, one can look at people interacting in everyday settings. Importantly, these approaches can capture everybody, not just the most vocal members of a community.
In a recent paper we used online comments to examine individuals who are interested in these types of ideas. We examined a complete set of comments over eight years from the conspiracy forum of reddit.com.
Our dataset included 2.2 million comments from roughly 130,000 distinct user names. Our analyses used topic modelling, a type of linguistic analysis that tries to find common themes across a large collection of documents.
We were able to identify 12 distinct subgroups of individuals who used language in different ways and who varied widely in their interests and their posting habits. What they talked about strongly suggested that they held different beliefs and attitudes about a range of conspiracies.
Eleven of these had consistent enough interests to be readily interpretable. We assigned each of them a name and created aggregate sample comments, as shown in this diagram.
We found that there were posters who fit the “monological” pattern (we dubbed them True Believers), writing at length on a wide variety of different topics. However, they were only the tip of the iceberg. Most posters had more specific interests.
Indeed, many seemed to be attracted as much to the social aspects of discussing conspiracies as the content of specific conspiracies. The group we called the Meta-redditors, for example, was most notable for their discussion of other forums on Reddit and complaints about moderation policies.
Similarly, there were subgroups (the Downtrodden) who appeared to be communicating about conspiracy theories as a way of expressing general frustration with authority.
Some were suspicious of US foreign policy (Anti-imperalists). Others may be using conspiracy topics as a way to express racist or otherwise socially unacceptable ideas (Anti-semites). There was even a distinct subgroup who appeared to be posting primarily in order to debunk conspiracy beliefs (Sceptics).
This suggests that individuals involved with conspiracy theories may have quite different motivations, beliefs and attitudes. It may not be useful to consider them as a homogeneous group.
What does all this mean for the study of conspiracy theories? It’s complicated.
On the one hand, it has long been known that online conspiracy theorising can have a variety of negative social effects, from political disengagement to actual violence. These are effects we should aim to mitigate.
On the other hand, our study also reveals something more surprising. The vast majority of posters were no more active in the conspiracy forum than they were on other reddit forums. This suggests that, for most individuals, conspiracy theories are not an all-encompassing obsession that overrides other interests, but just one interest among many. Even the most obsessed posters also spend a lot of time discussing Star Wars and trading cute cat photos on other parts of the site.
Hence, we think that conspiracy theorising may be best understood as a symptom of a breakdown of trust in institutions like government and the media. Rebuilding that trust is, alas, a difficult proposal. However, our work suggests that recognising the varied and complex motivations and attitudes of conspiracy believers is an important step forward.
I have been battling an ongoing illness for the last week or so, with it showing very few signs of any imminent departure. So it is time once again to have a break and to have a rest while I wait for a restoration of my health and well-being. How long will the break be? That is a difficult question to answer as I don’t know how long it will take to get well again, but I will certainly not be posting here until next weekend at the earliest. I really feel I need a complete break and to just rest (I will, after all, be still working at my day job which makes recovery more difficult). I am hopeful that it won’t be much more than a week. I have been trying to press on, but have often-times failed in posting and turned in to bed instead.
This is just a short post by way of an announcement – that I am going to take some time off from my Blogs for the next week or so. I expect to be back posting in the usual manner from about the 16th November. There may be the occasional post before that, but nothing too regular. Why? I just need to get a few things done around the house and in my personal life that I can’t put off any longer, and a short break is also good for my well being. So back in a little bit.
I am currently being assailed by a variety of ailments and illnesses, and it is therefore necessary for me to take some time off to recuperate. I’m hoping this will only be about a week or so, and then be back at it again. There may be the odd post, but nothing much and nothing is certain. Anyhow, have a break from me and we can get back together in just over a week perhaps. Thanks.