Unveiling the formation of conspiracy theory on social media: A discourse analysis

Boying Li, David Ji, Mengyao Fu, Chee Wee Tan, Alain Chong, Eric T.K. Lim

Research output: Journal PublicationArticlepeer-review


Social media technology not only affords opportunities for digital activism and global liberation, but it also poses threats to the freewheeling of democracy. The emergence and prevalence of conspiracy theories on social media stem from communal processes of online political debate or social movements that degenerate into conspiracy beliefs. This study views the online formation of conspiracy theories as a socially emergent process. Subscribing to a social constructionist lens and synthesizing extant literature on social movements and social media affordances, we conducted discourse analysis on discursive data collected from Twitter for the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election Fraud Conspiracy Theory. Through the analysis, we delineate the formation of conspiracy theory into four stages and characterize each stage according to its mobilizing structure, participants, mode of interaction, content created, and discernible collective action. We also identify social media affordances facilitating the formation of conspiracy theories within and across stages. Findings of this study advance contemporary knowledge on conspiracy theories by not only extending our understanding of the role of social media in conspiracy theory formation, but they also aid practitioners in comprehending the formation process of conspiracy theory formation, the latter of which constitutes the foundation for devising appropriate prevention and mitigation strategies.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Information Technology
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2023


  • Conspiracy theory
  • Twitter
  • discourse analysis
  • social media affordance
  • social movement
  • stages of formation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Information Systems
  • Strategy and Management
  • Library and Information Sciences


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