… in much the same way as mainstream readers consume ordinary news, say computer scientists.
Do you believe that the contrails left by high-flying aircraft contain sildenafil citratum, the active ingredient in Viagra? Or that light bulbs made from uranium and plutonium are more energy-efficient and environmentally friendly? Or that lemons have anti-hypnotic benefits?
If you do, then you are probably a regular consumer of conspiracy theories, particularly those that appear on the Italian language version of Facebook (where all these were sourced). It is easy to dismiss conspiracy theories as background noise with little if any consequences in the real world.
But that may be taking them too lightly. In 2013, a report from the World Economic Forum suggested that online misinformation represents a significant risk to modern society. The report pointed to a number of incidents in which information had spread virally with consequences that could hardly have been imagined by its creators.
In one case, somebody impersonating the Russian Interior Minister tweeted that Syria’s President Basher al-Assad had been killed or injured. The tweet caused the price of crude oil to rise by over one dollar before traders discovered that the news was false. In another case in 2012, 30,000 people fled from the Indian city of Bangalore after receiving text messages that they would be attacked.
Clearly, the rapid spread of information can often have little to do with whether it is true or not.
And that raises an interesting question. How do conspiracy theories spread through the Internet and do people treat these ideas in a way that is fundamentally different to conventional stories from established news organizations?