How Conspiracy Theories Emerge – And How Their Storylines Fall Apart

UCLA research uses artificial intelligence to analyze differences between a true story and a completely fabricated one

Jul 2, 2020

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

A new study by UCLA professors offers a new way to understand how unfounded conspiracy theories emerge online. The research, which combines sophisticated artificial intelligence and a deep knowledge of how folklore is structured, explains how unrelated facts and false information can connect into a narrative framework that would quickly fall apart if some of those elements are taken out of the mix.

The authors, from the UCLA College and the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, illustrated the difference in the storytelling elements of a debunked conspiracy theory and those that emerged when journalists covered an actual event in the news media. Their approach could help shed light on how and why other conspiracy theories, including those around COVID-19, spread — even in the absence of facts.

“Finding narratives hidden in social media forums is like solving a huge jigsaw puzzle, with the added complication of noise, where many of the pieces are just irrelevant,” said author Vwani Roychowdhury, a UCLA professor of electrical and computer engineering and an expert in machine learning.

Timothy Tangherlini, a professor in the UCLA Scandinavian section whose scholarship focuses on folklore, legend and popular culture, is one of the other authors of the paper.

The study, published in the journal PLOS One, analyzed the spread of news about the 2013 “Bridgegate” scandal in New Jersey — an actual conspiracy — and the spread of misinformation about the 2016 “Pizzagate” myth, the completely fabricated conspiracy theory that a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant was the center of a child sex-trafficking ring that involved prominent Democratic Party officials, including Hillary Clinton.

The researchers used machine learning, a form of artificial intelligence, to analyze the information that spread online about the Pizzagate story. The AI automatically can tease out all of the people, places, things and organizations in a story spreading online — whether the story is true or fabricated — and identify how they are related to each other.

The full story, by Jessica Wolf, is available at the UCLA Newsroom.

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