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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00189

Topic Modeling Reveals Distinct Interests Within an Online Conspiracy Forum

  • 1Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University, Australia
  • 2ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders, Macquarie University, Australia
  • 3Department of Cognitive Science, Macquarie University, Australia

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.

Keywords: conspiracies, conspiracy theorists, topic models, Social Media, Reddit, non-negative matrix factorization (NMF)

Received: 07 Oct 2017; Accepted: 05 Feb 2018.

Edited by:

Mark Hallahan, College of the Holy Cross, United States

Reviewed by:

Eric Mayor, University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland
Dominik Mischkowski, National Institutes of Health (NIH), United States  

Copyright: © 2018 Klein, Clutton and Polito. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Dr. Colin Klein, Macquarie University, Department of Philosophy, Sydney, Australia, cvklein@gmail.com