Social Motives for Sharing Conspiracy Theories

23 Pages Posted: 10 Sep 2021 Last revised: 28 Sep 2021

See all articles by Zhiying (Bella) Ren

Zhiying (Bella) Ren

University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School, Operations & Information Management Department, Students

Eugen Dimant

University of Pennsylvania; CESifo

Maurice E. Schweitzer

University of Pennsylvania - Operations & Information Management Department

Date Written: September 8, 2021

Abstract

The spread of conspiracy theories has significantly hindered our ability to deal with crises related to the pandemic, climate science, and many other political and social issues. Therefore, it is crucial to understand why people share conspiracy theories. Recent work suggests that people share misinformation because they are inattentive. Across three preregistered studies (total N=1,560 Prolific workers), we show that people also knowingly share misinformation to advance social motives. We find that when making content sharing decisions, people make calculated tradeoffs between sharing accurate information and sharing information that generates more social engagement. Even though people know that factual news are more accurate than conspiracy theories, they expect sharing conspiracy theories to generate more social feedback (i.e. comments and “likes”) than sharing factual news. Lastly, in an interactive multi-round content-sharing paradigm, we find that people are very sensitive to the social feedback they receive in the environment. Giving more positive social feedback for sharing conspiracy theories significantly increases people’s tendency to share these conspiracy theories that they do not believe in. Our findings substantially develop our understanding of why and when individuals are most likely to share conspiracy theories. These findings also make important contributions to understanding and curbing the spread of misinformation.

Keywords: conspiracy theories, social motives, social media, social influence

Suggested Citation

Ren, Zhiying (Bella) and Dimant, Eugen and Schweitzer, Maurice E., Social Motives for Sharing Conspiracy Theories (September 8, 2021). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3919364 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3919364

Zhiying (Bella) Ren (Contact Author)

University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School, Operations & Information Management Department, Students ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

Eugen Dimant

University of Pennsylvania ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States

HOME PAGE: http://sites.google.com/view/eugendimant/

CESifo ( email )

Poschinger Str. 5
Munich
Germany

Maurice E. Schweitzer

University of Pennsylvania - Operations & Information Management Department ( email )

Philadelphia, PA 19104
United States
215-898-4776 (Phone)
215-898-3664 (Fax)

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