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Which platforms are “best” for spreading conspiracy theories?

October 27, 2021 | By Rande Price, Research VP – DCN

Conspiracy theories have a long history in society, and social platforms offer a fresh new breeding ground for them. Yannis Theocharis, Ana Cardenal, and Soyeon Jin examine which social platforms effectively propagate fake news and conspiracy theories. Their study, Does the platform matter? examines the relationship between social media platforms and the spread of Covid-19 conspiracy theories. The analysis focuses on Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, in a two-wave study across 17 countries.

Symmetrical or asymmetrical followership

The research correlates the spread of conspiracy theories to the construct of a communication environment. In other words, it looks at the structural features of followers within each platform. The authors classify a structural design as either symmetrical or asymmetrical followership.

Symmetrical followership environments imply that information is shared with friends and not with strangers. The primary use of this type of platform, like Facebook, is for socialization and entertainment; people predominantly follow people they already know. People see a symmetrical way of connecting as safe and in a comfortable environment — they know the connection points well. Facebook, Messenger, and WhatsApp connections are socially homogeneous.

An asymmetric follower structure runs on weaker social connections, and it’s a follower-based platform where most exchanges between users occur publicly. Twitter is an example of an asymmetric social platform. It is more heterogeneous, mixing in political views and information knowledge.

Interestingly, YouTube’s follower structure is primarily tied to people’s interests and not based on close social connections. Like Twitter, YouTube has an asymmetrical follower structure. Recommendations, including algorithmic ones, create new connections. YouTube’s design also encourages content generators to build audiences and promote themselves. This asymmetrical follower design makes it easy for YouTubers to share content around fringe ideas with their followers.

Research hypotheses and analysis

The researchers developed four hypotheses to test:

  1. There is a negative relationship between using Twitter for news and holding conspiracy beliefs about Covid-19.
  2. There is a positive relationship between using Facebook for news and holding conspiracy beliefs about Covid-19.
  3. There is a positive relationship between using YouTube for news and holding conspiracy beliefs about Covid-19.
  4. There is a positive relationship between using messenger services (Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp) for news and holding conspiracy beliefs about Covid-19.

The researchers conducted a two-wave panel survey. Both waves measured core independent variables (use of social media platforms and messenger services) and controls. After the outbreak of Covid, wave two measured the dependent variables — six Covid-19 statements, three were related to conspiracy theories about the origin of Covid-19.

Depending on their affordances, platforms influence conspiracy theory beliefs (CTB) differently. More precisely, Twitter will have a negative effect on CTB, while Facebook, YouTube, and messenger services (WhatsApp and Messenger) will all have positive effects on conspiracy theory beliefs.

The analysis shows the relationship between social media platforms and messenger services with conspiracy theories. The platforms’ interactive and networking features supply active environments to spread conspiracy theories, and some social platforms offer more effective settings than others. The findings show that usage on Twitter is less effective and negatively affects conspiracy theory beliefs, reducing it by 3% on the conspiracy scale. In contrast, Facebook, YouTube, Messenger, and WhatsApp positively increase conspiracy theories, between 3% and 5%.

The takeaway

Social platforms offer different architectural features and consumer relationship designs: symmetrical and asymmetrical.  Follower designs affect how consumers interact with conspiracy theories and intensify their beliefs. Understanding the spread of conspiracy theories and how it differs across social media platforms and messenger services offers insight into strategies to combat this situation.

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