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Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them$
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Joseph E. Uscinski

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780190844073

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: December 2018

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780190844073.001.0001

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How Conspiracy Theories Spread

How Conspiracy Theories Spread

Chapter:
(p.319) 21 How Conspiracy Theories Spread
Source:
Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them
Author(s):

Darin DeWitt

Matthew D. Atkinson

Drew Wegner

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/oso/9780190844073.003.0021

Why do some ideas of uncertain merit, like conspiracy theories, gain traction and spread through society? To date, conspiracy theory scholarship primarily focuses on thick description, generates case-specific hypotheses, and answers this question on an ad hoc basis. To take the next step in terms of scientific progress, the conspiracy theory literature must develop explanations that generalize across cases. To the extent that scholars have offered a more general explanation, they point to a formal theory called herd behavior, which was designed to explain why people believe ideas in the absence of much evidence. The herd behavior model has been advanced as a matter of convenience rather than as a result of critical assessment about the mechanisms in play. But it’s not the only mechanism by which a dubious ideas might spread and, furthermore, it fails to fit the facts of many cases where conspiracy theories gain traction. We consider how three other major political science explanations of opinion formation can be applied to conspiracy theories and provide a foundation for conspiracy theory researchers interested in moving from the scholarly conversation from description to explanation.

Keywords:   conspiracy theories, Internet, costly signaling, herd behavior, social media

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