Beyond Belief: How Social Engagement Motives Influence the Spread of Conspiracy Theories
46 Pages Posted: 10 Sep 2021 Last revised: 26 Aug 2022
Date Written: September 8, 2021
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: Suggested Citation