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Psychologists investigate online communication of conspiracy theories

Research by psychologists at the University of Kent has found that people who argue in favour of conspiracy theories use different persuasive strategies from those who argue against them.

The research, conducted by Dr Michael Wood and Dr Karen Douglas analysed online comment sections of over 2000 news articles from the latter half of 2011 that relate to the collapse of the World Trade Center. A well-known conspiracy theory proposes that this event was an “inside job”, perpetrated by the United States government.

Results of the analysis showed that anti-conspiracy comments most often argued in favour of their own explanation of the incident. On the other hand, pro-conspiracy comments were more likely to argue against the opposing explanation. The researchers argue that this reflects a psychological difference between people who support conspiracy theories and people who support official accounts.

Dr Wood from the University’s School of Psychology said: ‘Conspiracy theories are more about disbelieving the official story than believing in some alternative story, and that is reflected in how a lot of these online arguments unfold.

‘For people who think 9/11 was a government conspiracy, the focus is not on promoting a specific rival theory, but in trying to debunk the official account.’

The research also showed that people who favoured the official account of 9/11 were generally more hostile when trying to persuade their rivals, and that comments promoting 9/11 conspiracy theories were also more likely to promote unrelated conspiracy theories, such as those about the deaths of John F. Kennedy and Princess Diana.

The study, titled, “What about Building 7?” A social psychological study of online discussion of 9/11 conspiracy theories, by Dr Michael Wood and Dr Karen Douglas, is published in the journal, Frontiers in Psychology. Available online at:


Story published at 4:11pm 10 July 2013

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Last Updated: 09/05/2013