Political ORIGINAL PAPERThe Relationship Between Social Media Use and Beliefsin Conspiracy Theories and MisinformationAdam M. Enders1 · Joseph E. Uscinski2 · Michelle I. Seelig3 ·Casey A. Klofstad2 · Stefan Wuchty4 · John R. Funchion5 · Manohar N. Murthi6 ·Kamal Premaratne6 · Justin Stoler7Accepted: 30 June 2021 The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Science Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature2021AbstractNumerous studies find associations between social media use and beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation. While such findings are often interpreted asevidence that social media causally promotes conspiracy beliefs, we theorize thatthis relationship is conditional on other individual-level predispositions. Acrosstwo studies, we examine the relationship between beliefs in conspiracy theories andmedia use, finding that individuals who get their news from social media and usesocial media frequently express more beliefs in some types of conspiracy theoriesand misinformation. However, we also find that these relationships are conditionalon conspiracy thinking––the predisposition to interpret salient events as productsof conspiracies––such that social media use becomes more strongly associated withconspiracy beliefs as conspiracy thinking intensifies. This pattern, which we observeacross many beliefs from two studies, clarifies the relationship between social mediause and beliefs in dubious ideas.Keywords Media effects · Social media · Conspiracy theory · Misinformation ·Selective exposureReplication materials are available on the Harvard Dataverse:* Joseph E. [email protected] author information available on the last page of the article13Vol.:(0123456789)

Political BehaviorIntroductionSocial media is a key player in the dissemination of conspiracy theories and misinformation.1 Dubious ideas about electoral fraud, COVID-19 vaccine safety, andSatanic pedophiles controlling the government, for example, swiftly navigate socialmedia platforms, oftentimes avoiding censors all the while feeding the algorithmsthat further promote them (Marwick & Lewis, 2017; Vosoughi et al., 2018). Theadoption of such ideas can have tangible consequences for political discourse andbehavior (Jolley et al., 2020) and has therefore prompted serious concern about theimpact of social media on individuals’ beliefs in dangerous falsehoods (Lazer et al.,2018). Indeed, approximately 75% of Americans believe that social media and theinternet, more generally, is the primary mechanism by which conspiracy theories arespread.2While a robust literature demonstrates an association between social media useand beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation (e.g., Jamieson & Albarracín,2020, Stempel et al, 2007), parallel literatures on public opinion formation andmedia effects demonstrate that individual-level motivations to seek out and acceptcertain perspectives are critical to understanding these associations (e.g., Iyengar & Hahn, 2009). Just as partisan identities and ideological principles conditionthe acceptance of political information, conspiracy thinking, the predisposition tointerpret salient events and circumstances as the product of malevolent conspiracies(e.g., Cassese et al., 2020; Enders et al., 2020b; Klofstad et al., 2019; Miller, 2020a),has been found to condition the acceptance of conspiratorial information (Uscinskiet al., 2016).In this paper, we extend recent work on the association between social media useand beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation by investigating the moderating role of conspiracy thinking. We hypothesize that while social media is likely tospread conspiracy theories and some misinformation, such information will be mostlikely to translate into beliefs for those already attracted to conspiratorial explanations for salient events. For those who exhibit the lowest levels of conspiracy thinking, we should observe only a very weak relationship, perhaps even an absence ofone altogether, between social media use and beliefs in conspiracy theories andrelated misinformation––either because such individuals are not intentionally seeking out related ideas, or because they reject such ideas when incidentally exposedto them online. While the confluence of several disparate research strands providessuggestive evidence for these patterns, we are aware of no formal investigations inthis vein, despite theoretical support for our expectations in literatures on publicopinion formation and media effects.1While we oftentimes refer to both conspiracy theories and misinformation, we do not treat them assynonymous constructs. A conspiracy theory is “a proposed explanation of events that cites as a maincausal factor a small group of persons (the conspirators) acting in secret for their own benefit, against thecommon good” (Uscinski et al., 2016, p. 58). Misinformation, on the other hand, is simply informationthat is false or misleading (Flynn et al, 2017). Misinformation often surrounds and buttresses conspiracytheories, but this is not a necessary condition.2See nationally representative polls (Institute, 2021; Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, 2021).13

Political BehaviorTo test our proposition, we first use a national survey (n 2023) from March2020 to examine the relationship between the form and frequency of social mediause and beliefs in 15 conspiracy theories, as well as support for QAnon. We findthat social media use and beliefs in conspiracy theories are, indeed, correlated; however, this relationship is conditional on individuals’ levels of conspiracy thinking, ashypothesized. Among those least prone to conspiracy thinking, we observe no relationship between social media use and the number of conspiracy beliefs one holds.We extend our analysis via a second study that employs a national survey (n 1040)fielded in June 2020 that focused on the relationships between respondents’ socialmedia use and beliefs in 7 COVID-19 conspiracy theories, 4 pieces of COVID-19health misinformation, and 5 non-COVID-19 conspiracy theories. Even though weshould not, and do not, treat misinformation and conspiracy theories as synonymous, previous work demonstrates that COVID-19 health misinformation shares adimension of opinion with COVID-19 conspiracy theories (Miller, 2020a)––one frequently entails the other. We find that, even during a pandemic when people spentconsiderable time on social media, the relationship between social media use anddubious beliefs is conditional on conspiracy thinking.The conditional relationship that we uncover suggests that the impact of socialmedia on beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation is likely negligibleunless individuals are attracted to, or otherwise predisposed to accepting, suchideas. These findings comport with a recent, growing body of literature demonstrating that the relationship between social media use and dubious beliefs is morenuanced and limited than previously assumed (e.g., Chen et al., 2021; Guess et al.,2020). Our findings provide additional such nuance to our understanding of theadoption of beliefs in dubious ideas, and can contribute to the development of moretargeted, efficacious approaches to limiting the pernicious impact of online conspiracy theories and misinformation. They also have the potential to inform the development of public policy regarding free speech and social media regulation, especially in a political context in which the U.S. Congress has increased the frequencyand scope of hearings regarding the responsibilities of social media companies andSect. 230 of the Communications Decency Act.The Conditional Effects of Media MessagesThe central media narrative regarding the impact of social media on beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation is structured something like, ‘social media turnspeople into conspiracy theorists and misinformation mongers.’ While some nuanceis occasionally present, the narrative nonetheless tends to assume a powerful, directeffect whereby information exposure causally translates into belief and action (e.g.,Collins, 2020). This narrative rests on two assumptions: first, that beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation are increasing, and second, that social media use isa causal factor in this increase.While not the central focus of our current investigation, the first assumption isnot supported by available evidence. National surveys in the U.S. do not show thatthe proportion of Americans endorsing specific conspiracy theories has increased13

Political Behaviorover time. For example, belief in Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories havedecreased 30 points from their high of nearly 80% in the 1970s (Swift, 2013). Likewise, beliefs in COVID-19 and other conspiracy theories remained stable duringthe pandemic (Enders et al., 2020b; Romer & Jamieson, 2020), despite a delugeof online misinformation.3 Even support for QAnon in the U.S. has not increased(Schaffner, 2020), despite numerous headlines suggesting it has gone “mainstream.”4In short, there currently exists no compelling evidence for an average increase inconspiracy beliefs in the internet era.The second assumption––that social media use causally promotes conspiracybeliefs––does find some empirical support and is often buttressed by observed correlations between social media use and beliefs. Conspiracy theories and misinformation are, indeed, widely available on social media (Allcott & Gentzkow, 2017;Dredze et al., 2016; Wang et al., 2019). Moreover, many studies find that socialmedia use is positively associated with conspiratorial and misinformed beliefs(Allington et al., 2020; Bridgman et al., 2020; Jamieson & Albarracín, 2020; Stempel et al., 2007).We have no reason to question the accuracy of these reported correlational relationships, but their substantive interpretation remains an open question. Robust literatures on media effects and opinion formation demonstrate that individual-levelpredispositions––partisan attachments, ideological principles, personality traits, andgroup identities, to name a few––bear more directly on specific beliefs than newinformation on its own (Finkel, 1993; Klapper, 1960; McGuire, 1986). Althoughthese primary ingredients of opinion are often supplemented by elite communications (Zaller, 1992) and the information environment (Bartels, 1993), individuallevel predispositions are necessary and, sometimes, sufficient for opinion formation(Van Bavel & Pereira, 2018). In short, numerous lines of research (e.g., Stroud et al,2017) suggest that the connection between exposure to information online and subsequent belief adoption is more complicated than sometimes argued.Predisposition-based models of opinion formation hold that individual-leveltraits constitute the “primary ingredients” of mass opinion (Kinder, 1998). Specific beliefs, as this perspective goes, are the products of individual-level motivations, not just information exposure. Processes guided by these predispositions,such as selective exposure (Garrett, 2009; Knobloch-Westerwick & Johnson,2014; Stroud, 2010), motivated reasoning (Kunda, 1990; Lodge & Taber, 2013),and biased assimilation (Corner et al., 2012) disrupt media influence by guidingindividuals to both seek out and accept or ignore and reject information based onits (in)congruence with their previously-established worldviews (e.g., Coe et al.,2008; Druckman & Bolsen, 2011; Kunda, 1990). Considering related social scientific theories of opinion formation, the relationship between social media useand beliefs in specific conspiracy theories and misinformation is likely contingent on psychological predispositions that would lead individuals to seek out and3That said, the number of conspiracy theories permeating political culture could be increasing, even ifthe number of believers or strength of belief is not.4For example, http:// tiny. cc/ byn0tz13

Political Behavioraccept such content. Thus, we focus on one predisposition that is critical to theadoption of conspiracy theories: conspiracy thinking.Conspiracy thinking is a latent predisposition to interpret events and circumstances as the product of malevolent conspiracies, a tendency to impose a conspiratorial narrative on salient affairs (e.g., Enders et al., 2020a; Miller, 2020b).Researchers across disciplines have simultaneously theorized that such a predisposition underwrites beliefs in specific conspiracy theories and misinformation(Klofstad et al., 2019; Brotherton et al., 2013; Imhoff & Bruder, 2014; Atari et al,2019; Lewandowsky et al, 2013a). Indeed, numerous observational studies findcorrelations between conspiracy thinking and the endorsement of specific conspiracy theories and misinformation (Cassese et al., 2020; Klofstad et al., 2019;Miller 2020b). Particularly germane to the question at hand, several studies findthat people who tend to employ conspiratorial explanations for salient events tendalso to actively seek out such content online (Bessi et al., 2015; Del Vicario et al.,2016).We also have good reason to believe that conspiracy thinking might condition therelationship between social media use and specific conspiracy beliefs. For example,Uscinski et al. (2016) find, using an experimental design with a conspiratorial information treatment, that only individuals exhibiting relatively high levels of conspiracy thinking are influenced by conspiratorial information. Similarly, Mancosu andVegetti (2020), who manipulate online news stories in their study, find that thoseexhibiting high levels of conspiracy thinking are more likely than those exhibitinglow levels to believe conspiracy theories promoted in online news. Thus, online conspiracy theories and misinformation may have little influence over individuals whoare not predisposed to seek out or be attracted to such ideas. This is analogous tohow liberal-conservative ideology and partisanship are thought to affect individuals’choices of information sources and how they interpret that information (e.g., Arceneaux & Johnson, 2013; Iyengar & Hahn, 2009). Regardless, none of these previousfindings demonstrate that the connection between social media use and conspiracybeliefs is moderated by conspiracy thinking. We believe it is critically important totheorize about and demonstrate the moderating effect of conspiracy thinking, especially given the tangible societal and public policy consequences of our understanding of the relationship between social media use and conspiracy beliefs.HypothesesCombining the predictions of theories regarding media exposure and opinion formation, we argue that the strength of observed correlations between social media users’opinions and conspiracy beliefs should be moderated by conspiracy thinking. Ourargument builds upon previously identified associations between social media useand beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation (e.g., Jamieson & Albarracín,2020; Stempel, et al., 2007) in hopes of clarifying the substantive interpretation ofthose previously identified empirical relationships. Our first hypothesis is, therefore,designed to be confirmatory of past work:13

Political BehaviorH1: Those who use social media as their primary source for news and spend moretime on social media will, all else equal, believe in more conspiracy theories andsome misinformation than those who obtain news elsewhere and spend less time onsocial media platforms.How these patterns should be interpreted remains unclear. Theories of minimaleffects (Finkel, 1993), selective exposure (Stroud, 2010), and mass opinion formation (Zaller, 1992) lead us to suspect that a conditional relationship exists. Specifically, we expect to observe that the strength of the association between social mediause and conspiracy beliefs is conditional on conspiracy thinking (Uscinski et al.,2016). Among those who exhibit low levels of conspiracy thinking, social media usewill not be associated with beliefs in conspiracy theories and misinformation:H2: The impact of social media use is conditional on conspiracy thinking, such thatthe association between social media use and conspiracy beliefs is weaker for thoseexhibiting low levels of conspiracy thinking compared to those exhibiting higherlevels.Study 1: Social Media and Conspiracy BeliefsIn Study 1, we investigate the relationship between the types and frequency of socialmedia use and beliefs in a host of conspiracy theories.5 Data was collected fromMarch 17–19, 2020 by Qualtrics. In total, 2023 responses were collected from individuals who matched 2010 U.S. Census records on sex, age, race, and income.6 Seethe Appendix for details about the sociodemographic composition of the sample.MeasuresRespondents were presented with 15 conspiracy theories spanning various domains(e.g., science, government, individuals, health). Question wording and levels ofsupport appear in Table 1. Respondents who “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with aconspiracy theory were counted as exhibiting a “conspiracy belief.” We use thesebeliefs to generate a count of the number of beliefs that each respondent holds––thisis our dependent variable. The distribution (depicted in the left panel of Fig. 1) isskewed such that many more individuals hold few beliefs than hold many. The meanis 5 beliefs, and the median 4. Approximately 12% of respondents hold 1 conspiracybelief, with 11% holding 2 beliefs and 10% holding 3. About half of our respondentshold more than 4 conspiracy beliefs.5We also replicated findings from Study 1 and 2 in two additional studies: a representative survey ofU.S. adults, and a representative survey of Floridians, both from 2020. Details of these analyses appear inthe Appendix.6Although the data is representative, the sample is non-probability; the same is true for the dataemployed in Study 2.13

Political BehaviorTable 1  Conspiracy belief questions and the percentage of respondents who “agree” or “strongly agree”with themConspiracy belief question (label)% Agree1.) The one percent (1%) of the richest people in the U.S. control the government and theeconomy for their own benefit542.) Jeffrey Epstein, the billionaire accused of running an elite sex trafficking ring, was murdered to cover-up the activities of his criminal network503.) The dangers of genetically-modified foods are being hidden from the public454.) President Kennedy was killed by a conspiracy rather than by a lone gunman445.) There is a “deep state” embedded in the government that operates in secret and withoutoversight436.) Regardless of who is officially in charge of governments and other organizations, there is asingle group of people who secretly control events and rule the world together357.) Humans have made contact with aliens and this fact has been deliberately hidden from thepublic338.) Coronavirus was purposely created and released by powerful people as part of a conspiracy 319.) The dangers of vaccines are being hidden by the medical establishment3010.) A powerful family, the Rothschilds, through their wealth, controls governments, wars, and 29many countries’ economies11.) Businesses and corporations are purposely allowing foreigners into the country to replaceAmerican workers and culture2912.) The dangers of 5G cellphone technology are being covered up2613.) The AIDS virus was created and spread around the world on purpose by a secret organization2214.) School shootings, like those at Sandy Hook, CT and Parkland, FL are false flag attacksperpetrated by the government1715.) The number of Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II has been exaggerated onpurpose15We also include a second dependent variable that specifically regards QAnon, aconspiracy theory about a “deep state” of political elites who traffic children that hasfrequently been touted as an example of how social media can encourage conspiracybeliefs (Roose, 2020). Respondents reported their feelings about the “QAnon movement” vis-à-vis a 101-point feeling thermometer. The thermometer ranges from 0,representing very negative feelings, to 100, which signifies very positive feelings.The distribution of responses, pictured in the right panel of Fig. 1, reveals an evensharper skew than the 15-belief scale. The mean score is 25, and the median is 12.Approximately 21% of respondents rated the QAnon movement greater than 50.Although the proportion of Americans possessing enough knowledge of QAnon toprovide it a rating (70% in our sample) has fluctuated over time, the general structureof QAnon beliefs has remained stable between 2018 and 2020 (Enders, et al. Forthcoming), suggesting that our analysis of this conspiracy belief is robust to dynamicsregarding salience and mainstream political and media attention to QAnon.We have three central independent variables. The first captures which mediumserves as respondents’ “primary source for finding news.” Respondents were able to13

Political BehaviorFig. 1  Distribution of A the number of conspiracy beliefs people hold (0–15) and B feelings toward the“QAnon movement” (0–100). Study 1select only one of the following options: national TV (22%), local TV (22%), radio(3%), newspaper (4%), (non-social media) internet news websites (24%), and socialmedia websites (21%). The second independent variable asks respondents “howoften in a typical week” they “visit or use”––on a five-point scale ranging from “notat all” (1) to “every day” (5)––each of the following social media websites: Facebook (M 3.95, SD 1.52), Twitter (M 2.57, SD 1.69), Instagram (M 3.15,SD 1.76), Reddit (M 2.00, SD 1.44), YouTube (M 3.99, SD 1.29), and4chan/8chan (M 1.33, SD 0.93).Our final independent variable captures conspiracy thinking, the psychologicalpredisposition to interpret major events as the product of conspiracy theories. Weemploy a four-item measure developed by Uscinski and Parent (2014) and validated by others (Miller, 2020b). Respondents react––using five-point scales ranging from “strongly disagree” (1) to “strongly agree” (5)––to four statements, suchas “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places.” Theitems are then averaged into an index (Range 1–5, M 3.17, SD 1.00, α 0.84).The correlation between this measure of conspiracy thinking and the count of conspiracy beliefs detailed above is 0.71 (p 0.001); 0.26 (p 0.001) with the QAnonthermometer.7In each of the multivariate models presented below, we control for partisanship, ideological self-identification, interest in politics, educational attainment, age,household income, gender, and race and ethnicity. Details about how these variablesare coded appear in the Appendix.7See the Appendix for full item wordings.13

Political BehaviorResultsWe begin by examining the average number of conspiracy beliefs individuals hold(panel A) and average feelings toward the QAnon movement (panel B) by preferrednews medium in Fig. 2. Those who use social media as their primary source of newshold significantly more conspiracy beliefs, on average, than those who use any othermedium (p 0.01 in each case, two-tailed test), with one exception. While there isnot a significant difference in conspiracy beliefs between social media users andnewspaper consumers (p 0.717), the error bars are considerably larger for newspaper consumers because of the low proportion of such consumers (4%). We observeno significant difference in mean QAnon feelings between social media users andeither newspaper (p 0.417) or radio (p 0.305) consumers, presumably for thesame reason. This analysis provides evidence that social media use is connected toconspiracy belief, though we reiterate that these patterns shed no light on directionof the causal relationship in question.Next, we conduct a more granular examination of the relationship between conspiracy beliefs and social media, specifically. Rather than consider mere usage, weinvestigate the relationship between self-reported frequency of usage of severalsocial media platforms and both conspiracy beliefs and feelings toward QAnon inFig. 3. We observe statistically significant correlations in every instance, supportingthe notion that frequency of social media usage––in general, across platforms––ispositively related to conspiracy beliefs. However, we also find that the strength ofthis relationship varies across platforms. Despite the frequent blame the platformendures, Facebook usage exhibits the weakest correlation with conspiracy beliefs.This makes good sense given the prevalence of Facebook usage across all political,psychological, and sociodemographic factors. Twitter, YouTube, and Reddit usageare each significantly more strongly correlated with the number of conspiracy beliefsone holds than Facebook usage (p 0.05 in each case), and 4chan/8chan (now 8kun)usage stands considerably above the pack with a correlation more than double thatassociated with Facebook usage (p 0.001). This pattern is essentially the same forfeelings toward QAnon, except we do not observe a statistically significant difference in the correlations with Facebook and YouTube use (p 0.237).Thus far, our analyses suggest that those who primarily look to social media fornews hold more conspiracy beliefs than those who consume traditional news media.Moreover, the more frequently one engages social media platforms––for news orotherwise––the more conspiracy beliefs they tend to hold. In our final analysis, wemodel these relationships, regressing conspiracy beliefs on social media consumption for news, frequency of social media consumption, conspiracy thinking, and ahost of controls. Rather than incorporate each platform into the model, we generatea summated index of social media usage across platforms (Range 1–5, M 2.83,SD 0.92, α 0.70). Even though we lose some information about the variability ofrelationships between platforms and conspiracy beliefs, this approach is useful for13

Political BehaviorFig. 2  A Number of conspiracy beliefs people hold (0–15) by news medium. B Mean of “QAnon movement” thermometer (0–100) by news medium. Horizontal bars reflect 95% confidence intervals. Study 1reducing measurement error in self-reports (Ansolabehere et al, 2008) and not giving too much weight to any one platform.8We consider the relationships outlined above in three steps. In the first model, weinclude only the dummy variable denoting whether one uses social media as theirprimary source of news and conspiracy thinking (Model 1). In the second model,we add the frequency of social media usage index (Model 2). We build the modelin this way with an expectation that frequency of usage may wash away the effect ofmerely choosing social media over other platforms, even though the latter effect isimportant to establish in a multivariate framework with controls (for example, socialmedia news consumption could be confounded by age, whereby older people aresystematically less likely to consume news on social media than younger people).Finally, we add interactions between both types of social media use and conspiracythinking in the third model (Model 3). Recall that we hypothesize that the relationship between social media use and specific conspiracy beliefs is contingent on conspiracy thinking.We use OLS to estimate each of the models presented in Table 2. Because thedistributions of the number of conspiracy beliefs and QAnon thermometer variables are skewed, we might also consider estimating these models using an estimatordesigned for count variables (e.g., Poisson, negative binomial) or censored variables8This is especially important in the case of 4chan/8chan because very few respondents (7%) reportedusing the platform “everyday” or “several times a week” (for comparison, it is 72% for Facebook). Reestimating the model for each platform separately, we find substantively identical results to those presented below, including significant interaction effects for each platform (p 0.001 in each case).13

Political BehaviorFig. 3  Correlation betweenfrequency of social mediause and number of beliefs inconspiracy theories (0–15) and“QAnon movement” thermometer (0–100) by platform. Barsreflect 95% confidence intervals.Study 1(e.g., tobit). In all cases throughout this manuscript the dependent variables are overdispersed (i.e., the conditional variance is statistically greater than the mean); thus,standard Poisson models are not appropriate. Moreover, three other concerns persist.First, as the QAnon variable is not a count, some assumptions of count models donot hold. Second, each of our count dependent variables are right-censored: no individual can express more than 15 conspiracy beliefs, in the case of Study 1 for example, even though they may believe in many more such ideas. Finally, count modelsassume that the probability of adding an additional number to the count is (roughly)equal across the distribution of the variable. Unfortunately, we have no reason toexpect this is true. For example, someone who believes that coronavirus is beingused to install tracking devices in our bodies is very likely to also believe that thecoronavirus was released as part of a conspiracy by elites (both of these questionsare employed in Study 2); in other words, conspiracy beliefs are dependent in manycases. Since OLS is remarkably robust to violations of assumptions, and becausethis model is most familiar to readers, we present OLS results below. We also estimated all models throughout the paper using a tobit regression model for censoreddependent variables. Substantive results are identical across estimation strategies.Tobit replications of all models appear in the Appendix.99As an additional robustness check, we re-estimated all models for which the dependent variable isa count, instead using a summated scale of beliefs in conspiracy theories or misinformation (i.e., we13


2 See nationally representative polls (Institute, 2021; Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, 2021). 1 While we oftentimes refer to both conspiracy theories and misinformation, we do not treat them as synonymous constructs. A conspiracy theory is "a proposed explanation of events that cites as a main causal factor a small group of persons (the conspirators) acting in secret for their own .