Pathways through Conspiracy: The Evolution of Conspiracy Radicalization through Engagement in Online Conspiracy Discussions

by   Shruti Phadke, et al.

The disruptive offline mobilization of participants in online conspiracy theory (CT) discussions has highlighted the importance of understanding how online users may form radicalized conspiracy beliefs. While prior work researched the factors leading up to joining online CT discussions and provided theories of how conspiracy beliefs form, we have little understanding of how conspiracy radicalization evolves after users join CT discussion communities. In this paper, we provide the empirical modeling of various radicalization phases in online CT discussion participants. To unpack how conspiracy engagement is related to radicalization, we first characterize the users' journey through CT discussions via conspiracy engagement pathways. Specifically, by studying 36K Reddit users through their 169M contributions, we uncover four distinct pathways of conspiracy engagement: steady high, increasing, decreasing, and steady low. We further model three successive stages of radicalization guided by prior theoretical works. Specific sub-populations of users, namely those on steady high and increasing conspiracy engagement pathways, progress successively through various radicalization stages. In contrast, users on the decreasing engagement pathway show distinct behavior: they limit their CT discussions to specialized topics, participate in diverse discussion groups, and show reduced conformity with conspiracy subreddits. By examining users who disengage from online CT discussions, this paper provides promising insights about conspiracy recovery process.


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