Research Proposal

The Life Cycle of Conspiracy Theories


Provide information on the life cycle of conspiracy theories, including how they arise, when they reach peak popularity, and what factors bring on their demise.

Early Findings

Data Availability

The initial round of research suggests that data availability is adequate on how conspiracy theories arise but limited on when conspiracy theories reach their peak and what contributes to their demise.

How Conspiracy Theories Arise

  • There are several groups of factors that contribute to the rise of conspiracy theories. The most commonly named ones are epistemic, existential, social, and political motives.
  • Epistemic motives include "slaking curiosity when information is unavailable, reducing uncertainty and bewilderment when available information is conflicting, finding meaning when events seem random, and defending beliefs from disconfirmation."
  • Existential motives revolve around people trying to compensate for their existential needs that aren't fulfilled. For example, if they feel out of control, they may turn to conspiracy theories to regain some of that control.
  • Social factors include strongly identifying with social groups, especially low-status ones, and lower levels of education. Some researchers also point toward low income.
  • Additionally, conspiracy theories frequently arise around political events that elicit certain psychological states, such as "low political trust, feelings of powerlessness, uncertainty, and unpredictability."
  • While some people believe that the Internet and social media have increased the prevalence of conspiracy theories, researchers argue that there is not enough proof to demonstrate that. Beyond those channels, music, film, art, and other media are other ways through which conspiracy theories spread.
  • Regardless of the channels used, non-conspiracy communication tends to be less hierarchical and more interactive compared to non-conspiracy communication.

When Conspiracy Theories Reach Their Peak

  • Compared to information on how conspiracy theories arise, there is little information on when such theories reach their peak.
  • According to research by UCLA, narratives around conspiracy theories tend to build quickly and remain relatively unchanged later on. Conversely, those around real conspiracies take years to build.
  • A different research found that the vast majority of conspiracy theories posted on social media have a very short lifecycle, with a probability peak in the first two hours. The same applies to science news.

Factors that Contribute to Conspiracy Theories' Demise

  • Similarly, there isn't much information on what contributes to the fall of specific conspiracy theories.
  • However, based on a recent far-right conspiracy theory, QAnon, it can be said that a shift in the political situation can make conspiracy theories less relevant. After Trump lost the election and many of the theory's supporters were arrested for storming the White House, the media claimed that the conspiracy had died.
  • As of June 2021, Q, an online persona who fueled the conspiracy, didn't post updates for seven months. Furthermore, the remaining supporters of QAnon seemed to change their focus. Most of them stopped talking about Trump and focused on antisemitism or started encouraging others "to take on debt because somehow the future belongs to cryptocurrency and the Iraqi dinar."


  • Within the first hour, we were able to provide information on how conspiracy theories arise, as well as preliminary insights on when conspiracy theories reach their peak and what contributes to their demise.
  • As noted, information on the later stages of the life cycle is limited in academic papers and media articles. For conspiracy theories spread online, it is likely to be included in "Networked Disinformation and the Lifecycle of Online Conspiracy Theories" by Hugo Leaf. However, the paper is only available as a chapter in "The Handbook of Conspiracy Theories."
  • Still, we can provide insights on the complete life cycle by digging deeper into the available academic sources and analyzing the timelines of several popular conspiracy theories (such as those related to COVID-19 vaccines).
Prepared By
Anna G.
2414 assignments | 5.0