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Master’s students research Jewish conspiracy theories on Reddit

21 October 2021
From the assassination of Julius Caesar to the domination of world politics in the 21st century, Jews have been the scapegoats in numerous conspiracy theories throughout history. During the research master Societal Resilience, students Charlotte Hagenaars and Sarah Sramota investigated Jewish conspiracy theories on the online forum Reddit.

Uncertain social circumstances always lead to an increase in conspiracy theories. We see this during the current COVID-19 crisis as well. Jews are regularly the scapegoat in many of these theories. With the rise of digital communication technologies, these stories spread more easily around the world. But it is also easier to map them out.

Therefore, students of the research master Societal Resilience Sarah Sramota and Charlotte Hagenaars decided to quantitatively and qualitatively investigate a large dataset of comments on the website Reddit. Their research question was: what does the Jewish conspiracy discourse on the r/conspiracy subreddit look like? With this research, the master’s students want to gain insight into the various associations that conspiracy theorists have with Jews, understand where these associations come from and categorise them into interrelated themes.  

This research uses data from the online social platform Reddit. Reddit allows users to join so-called subreddits; pages dedicated to a particular topic. For this study, data were used from the subreddit r/Conspiracy, where users discuss conspiracy theories. 

Five themes
All kinds of conspiracies are discussed there, the students explain. Sarah: "There are several well-known conspiracy theories, for example, that the attacks on September 11, 2001, were an inside job. You might think that's the end of it, but that was only the beginning. We read conspiracies about Satanists sacrificing children. I was concerned to read how far people go when coming up with alternative realities."

For the quantitative analysis, Charlotte and Sarah used a dataset of all 29,777 comments from at least 7,329 users posted on r/Conspiracy in 2019, containing the term Jew (Jew, Jews, Jewish, Jewness etc.). They then conducted a qualitative content analysis on a series of comments in these discussions. These analyses revealed that the discourse around Jews contained a diverse set of themes, Sarah says. "On the one hand, it is about the ethnic background of Jews, on the other hand about religion."

The analyses revealed 19 themes surrounding Jewish conspiracy discourse. These themes can be subdivided into five overarching themes: the identity of Jews, their control of institutions, their alliances with other actors on the world stage, the victimhood of Jews and, finally, doubt and questioning. The latter theme includes, for example, denying the Holocaust, but also questioning conspiracies. 

Furthermore, the students noticed a recurring pattern in the scores (the sum of likes and dislikes displayed directly below a comment): comments supporting a conspiracy claim seem to receive more positive scores than comments questioning or opposing the story. 

Because Reddit's algorithm sorts comments based on their score, visitors to the page get to see conspiratorial comments first; comments with the lowest score disappear to the bottom of the page. As a result, users are mainly confirmed in their own beliefs and not challenged to think differently. "As a result, you only read about people who agree with your conspiracy," explains Sarah. Charlotte: "You mainly end up on this subreddit if you're already interested in conspiracies, otherwise you're not likely to end up on a page like that. And people who attract conspiracies are less likely to downvote comments that confirm these ideas."

What have the master’s students learned from this research, and can something be done about the spreading of these conspiracy theories? Charlotte: "These people are often dismissed as conspiracy lunatics and there is no attention being paid to where these theories come from. We should be more aware of what is going on in these circles and how we can communicate better to prevent these kinds of ideas from spreading."

Sarah: "This is a big platform and all these stories are just a few clicks away from you. You can find a wide variety of ideas and through the mechanisms of social media and upvotes, they are confirmed. Now during the COVID-19 crisis, we are also seeing how easily some conspiracies become mainstream."