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Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.
Your trolling is useless, sir. (Photo: 34585748@N00/Flickr)

Your trolling is useless, sir. (Photo: 34585748@N00/Flickr)

You know who you are. Somebody posts some daft claim about chemtrails, faked moon landings, and a supposed connection between vaccines and autism. You step in, trying valiantly to show them the error of their ways.

Well, your plan won’t work. No, if anything, it’ll make it worse.

That's the conclusion of a new study by a team of Italian computer scientists, physicists, and, yes, social scientists. They scoured data from Italian Facebook—acquired through the publicly available Graph system—that showed how users had interacted with Facebook pages devoted to science news, conspiracy theories, conspiracy debunkers, and satirists and trolls.

Generally speaking, fans of actual science news and fans of conspiracy theories were pretty similar.

Sorting through 1.2 million users in all, the team first identified individuals who had used 95 percent of their likes on either science or conspiracy pages. Then, they turned to how often science and conspiracy aficionados liked, shared, and commented on posts from their favorite pages and how long they stuck around—that is, the time between their first and last posts on a page.

Generally speaking, fans of actual science news and fans of conspiracy theories were pretty similar. Each group posted about as often as the other, and they followed their preferred pages for about as long. In other words, they were about as enthusiastic in their beliefs—it’s just that one group’s ideas were demonstrably false.

So is there anything to be done about it? Basically, no—at least, the researchers found, there’s not much the average person can do on Facebook. Most of the time, beliefs drive consumption, so we tend not to pay much attention to information we don’t already agree with, and much of what we read or watch reinforces what we already believe.

Italian Facebook users who followed conspiracy pages were no exception. When the team looked at how conspiracy theorists reacted to counter-arguments or to trolls openly mocking them, they found it had little to no effect on the least engaged conspiracy theorists. Those who didn’t like, share, and comment very frequently stuck around on conspiracy pages for just as long, whether or not they’d been exposed to intentionally false information from trolls or logical counter-arguments. On the other hand, the most devoted conspiracy theorists reacted to that information by sticking around even longer than they would have otherwise.

In other words, you really are wasting your time trying to change their minds.