The potential of conspiracy theories to spready virally means that they can reach large audiences in the UK, the US and across the globe.

From Birtherism to the Big Lie, from QAnon to the Covid-19 pandemic, and from the Great Replacement to the Great Reset, conspiracy theories are increasingly prominent on the internet.

In their relentless drive to connect the dots into one over-arching explanation, conspiracy theories seem to be made for the hyperlinked world of the internet. Ideas that were once marginal now readily find an online community of believers, not least because the recommendation algorithms of social media platforms seem to promote conspiracy theories, misinformation and disinformation.

Although the conspiracy theories encountered online are at times merely harmless entertainment or a sign of healthy scepticism, they can also lead to a loss of faith in medical and scientific authorities, to political disengagement, and even to violence. This research project addresses the question of how and why the internet has changed conspiracy theories.

Research methods

Throughout this project we are combining the ‘close reading’ techniques of cultural studies and ethnography with the ‘distant reading’ possibilities offered by big data methods. This allows us to focus on the difference that the internet has made to the production, the aesthetics and the consumption of conspiracy theories.

The team brings together cultural studies researchers and specialists in digital methods for the analysis and data visualisation of online conspiracy culture.

Research strands

Strand one

Using digital methods, we will first map out the scale and scope of contemporary conspiracy theory culture in both the mainstream and the ‘deep’ web. This will shed light on:

  • the forms of conspiracy theory that generate the most engagement;
  • how they spread on particular platforms;
  • the role of recommendation algorithms;
  • the identity, connectedness and political stance of the main creators of conspiracy content.

Strand two

The second strand of research will place the production and transmission of conspiracy theories on the internet in a historical perspective. We will compare earlier moments of ‘new media’ transformation (such as radio), and trace how conspiracy theories have changed as the internet itself has evolved over the last half century.

By examining the recommendation algorithms and content moderation policies, this strand will also consider how various digital platforms encourage the exchange of conspiracy theories online.

Strand three

The third research strand will focus on the form and function of online conspiracism by focusing on its dominant images, metaphors and narratives. In particular, we will consider whether the ease of creating links on websites tends to push conspiracy theories to more elaborate, hyper-connected forms.

Strand four

The final research strand will look at how conspiracy theories are consumed and appropriated on the internet. Where psychology has tried to identify the personality traits that attract people to conspiracy theories, our research will use an ethnographic approach to analyse online discussion spaces and conduct interviews with conspiracy theorists.

This will help to determine how their encounter(s) with conspiracy theories helps forge individual and group identities, for better or worse. In this strand we will also assess when online conspiracism turns harmful, and what, if anything, can be done about it.