Topic Modeling Reveals Distinct Interests within an Online Conspiracy Forum

Abstract

Conspiracy theories play a troubling role in political discourse. Online forums provide a valuable window into everyday conspiracy theorizing, and can give a clue to the motivations and interests of those who post in such forums. Yet this online activity can be difficult to quantify and study. We describe a unique approach to studying online conspiracy theorists which used non-negative matrix factorization to create a topic model of authors’ contributions to the main conspiracy forum on Reddit.com. This subreddit provides a large corpus of comments which spans many years and numerous authors. We show that within the forum, there are multiple sub-populations distinguishable by their loadings on different topics in the model. Further, we argue, these differences are interpretable as differences in background beliefs and motivations. The diversity of the distinct subgroups places constraints on theories of what generates conspiracy theorizing. We argue that traditional `monological’ believers are only the tip of an iceberg of commenters. Neither simple irrationality nor common preoccupations can account for the observed diversity. Instead, we suggest, those who endorse conspiracies seem to be primarily brought together by epistemological concerns, and that these central concerns link an otherwise heterogenous group of individuals.

Publication
Frontiers in Psychology, (9), pp. 189, https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00189