Twitter is the most resistant to conspiracy theories among all social media platforms in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study shows.
During the coronavirus pandemic, social media has become a key channel for misinformation, fake news, propaganda, irrational theories, and, eventually, the polarization of users.
A new European study, led by a Greek researcher, has concluded that among social media, the medium which shows the greatest resistance to conspiracy theories and irrationality is Twitter.
Researchers from 19 European universities, led by Professor of Digital Governance Yannis Theocharis of the Technical University of Munich, analyzed data from 16 European countries and Israel, both before and during the pandemic.
The study examined the role of Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other platforms and applications such as WhatsApp in terms of spreading conspiracy theories. The results were published in the journal New Media & Society.
Greece above the European average in the “conspiracy index”
The study has an index called the “conspiracy index” that shows the level of belief in conspiracy theories among populations.
The study ranks Greece — along with Romania, Poland, Hungary and Israel — as countries in which the “conspiracy index” is above the European average.
Countries below the average in that metric were Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
The other four European countries — Belgium, France, Italy and Spain — were on the average according to the index. In general, people in Eastern European countries are the most prone to embrace conspiracy theories.
On the other end of the spectrum are the Scandinavian countries, with the least, while Mediterranean countries are somewhere in the middle, with Greece being the most prone to such theories.
Three conspiracy theories about COVID-19
The 17 countries were surveyed on the basis of three conspiracy theories about COVID-19, in order to assess the extent to which these beliefs are prevalent in each country.
Romania had the dubious honor of being the champion of conspiracy theories, by far, with Poland coming second, Hungary third and Greece fourth, along with Israel.
The research found that Twitter is a social medium with special characteristics, such as being more focused on news, so it faces increased social pressure regarding the content of its posts.
This reduces the frequency of dissemination of untrue, inaccurate, unconfirmed and ‘alternative’ information (which often is fake news) through that particular platform.
Some platforms encourage conspiracy theories
The researchers pointed out that not all platforms encourage conspiracy theories to the same degree.
On Twitter the content of such theories can be quickly demystified or possibly silenced by better-quality information or by large numbers of people willing to intervene to quickly correct misinformation.
In addition, according to the study, Twitter users show an above-average educational level and a greater tendency to search for real news, compared to other platforms.
On the other hand, on Facebook or WhatsApp, where there are closer ties between users, such as family or friends, users do not control the circulation of information of dubious content to the same extent.
That fact was magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although fake news has been circulating on the internet since its inception, the pandemic triggered an explosion of misinformation and conspiracy theories, the study shows.
This is why the World Health Organization has coined the term “infodemic” to describe this parallel “epidemic of misinformation.”
Who is Yannis Theocharis?
Yannis Theocharis is Professor and Chair of Digital Governance at the School of Governance/Department of Political Science of the Technical University of Munich.
His research and teaching interests are in the areas of digital media and political participation, political communication and computational social science.
His current work focuses on two interconnected topics: participatory inequality and the normalization of incivility in online spaces.
The first stream of his research focuses on the investigation of the longitudinal impact of social media use on political participation — and democracy more broadly — using panel data and experimental methods.
The second stream of his research utilizes social media data and investigates uncivil interactions between citizens and politicians on social media.
Theocharis’ most recent research was the above, on the spread of conspiracy theories through social media.
His latest book, “Political Participation in a Changing World,” investigates conceptual and empirical topics in the study of political participation, with emphasis on how digital media have affected political participation.