Methods in the Madness: From QAnon to COVID-19, Conspiracy Theories’ Relationship with Misinformation Outlets, the News Media, and the Wider Internet

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In this work, we study the relationships between five prominent conspiracy theories (QAnon, COVID, UFO/Aliens, 9/11, and Flat-Earth) and the role that misinformation and political polarization play in spreading these conspiracies. We show, in particular, that since 2012, misinformation websites have dramatically increased the number of hyperlinks on their websites to conspiratorial material. Using Granger-causality, we uncover a bidirectional relationship between links from misinformation websites to conspiracy theory websites and the popularity of conspiracies, suggesting the deep role that misinformation plays in bringing many conspiracies to the global spotlight. We finally examine the role that political polarization plays in explaining levels of conspiracy online, and find that partisanship levels alone explain 27.1% of a website’s shared domain connections with conspiracy theory websites, regardless of exact partisanship (e.g., liberal vs. conservative). We conclude by proposing a metric, which scores websites based on their predilection to conspiracy theories and partisanship levels, and showcasing how this metric can differentiate between misinformation and authentic news with an accuracy of 92.0%.