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  • Do Your Own Research:Conspiracy Theories and the Internet
  • Clare Birchall (bio) and Peter Knight (bio)

what difference has the internet made to conspiracy theories? In the wake of recent episodes in the United States—from birtherism to the "big lie," from QAnon to the COVID-19 "infodemic," and from the "great replacement" to the "great reset"—the default assumption is that the internet has created an unprecedented spread of conspiracy theories. It seems commonsense that the internet in general and social media in particular have increased the volume and virality of conspiracy theories, leading to fears that polarized conspiracism threatens to undermine trust in impartial media, objective science, and even democracy itself. But is that actually the case? If some commentators have raised the alarm that the internet has changed everything in the realm of conspiracism, others have adopted the contrarian position that the internet has changed nothing. Neither claim is ultimately convincing. What is clear is the necessity of asking different kinds of research questions to understand how the internet has shaped the form and function, the production and consumption, and the causes and consequences of conspiracy narratives.1


In an influential article from 2007 (admittedly before the full flourishing of Web 2.0 and social media), the philosopher Steve Clarke made [End Page 579] the surprisingly optimistic prediction that, although the internet might temporarily lead to an increase in the volume of conspiracy talk, in the long run it would have the opposite effect. His argument was based in part on the observation that "there are calls to establish conventions regarding the reliability of information on the internet," leading him to conclude that "there seems to be in principle no reason why such conventions could not be established and why these could not achieve general acceptance" (Clarke 2007, 170). Clarke's hope that conspiracist misinformation would fade away in the online marketplace of ideas is bolstered by his conviction that there is a "high level of critical discussion on the internet," which will entail conspiracy theories becoming (in terms adapted from Imre Lakatos) a "degenerating research programme" (170). The hope of Clarke and other early pundits was that the internet would enable robust criticism of conspiracy theories, with real-time fact-checking enabled by instant access to all the world's information. However, the cyberlibertarian rallying cry from the early years of the internet that "information wants to be free" cuts both ways. On one hand, it held out the promise that those peddling conspiracy theories would no longer be able to get away with making plausible-sounding claims, because everyone now has an infinite encyclopedia at their fingertips. On the other hand, the hope of many countercultural hackers and conspiracy theorists was that all the hidden information of states and corporations could now be leaked, exposing conspiracies and crimes for all to see. Neither of these optimistic scenarios has panned out. Shit-posting, trolling, and the monetization of controversy have undermined Clarke's fantasy of a Habermasian digital public sphere. Likewise, the sheer volume of information online means that important revelations can be lost in the "infoglut" (Andrejevic 2013).


With the "perfect storm" of the pandemic and the election in the United States in 2020, there were many headlines about "a golden age of conspiracy theories" (e.g., Stanton 2020). Few would challenge [End Page 580] the idea that the internet has led to a significant rise in the volume of conspiracy theories and the velocity with which they circulate in the online sphere. It is thus not surprising that three-quarters of Americans believe that social media (and the internet more generally) are to blame for the spread of conspiracy theories (Enders et al. 2021). Yet measuring this "qualitative shift in quantity" (de Zeeuw and Gekker n.d.) is easier said than done. First, it is important to recognize that there are several potentially distinct elements within the overarching claim: an increase in the production, the distribution, and/or the consumption of conspiracy theories. In addition, platforms do not always make it easy for researchers to measure certain activity.

Nevertheless, in recent years...