Itai Himelboim, Borah, P., Ka Lai Lee, D., *Lee, J., Su, Y., Vishnevskaya, A., and Xiao, X. (Accepted). “What do 5G networks, Bill Gates, Agenda 21, and QAnon have in common? Sources, engagement, and characteristics of COVID-19 Conspiracy Theories,” New Media and Society.
Abstract: Mounting uncertainties regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the popularity of social media created fertile grounds for conspiracy theories to flourish, leading to a global “infodemic.” We examine information sources used to support five popular COVID-19-related conspiracy theories on Twitter to identify 1) their primary building blocks, 2) similarities and dissimilarities across COVID-19 conspiracy theories, and 3) the relationship between conspiracy rhetorical strategies and content distribution. Findings show that statements of belief and of malicious purpose were most popular, followed by conspirators, authentication, and secretive actions. However, only malicious purposes and secretive actions rhetorical strategies successfully predicted higher distribution of content, while, for instance, content authentication showed a negative relation. Furthermore, type of conspiracy theories matters. Mega theories such as, Agenda 21 and QAnon, incorporated less statements of Belief. COVID-19 vaccine theory focused more on authentication, while QAnon highlighted the conspirators behind the pandemic. Conceptual and practical implications are discussed.