CONSPIRACY THEORIES HAVE EXISTED for as long as humans have struggled to understand the world around them. Today, social media is giving such theories a platform to spread more quickly — and to greater effect. But UCLA researchers are developing technology in order to understand conspiracy theories and how they develop.

Last June, UCLA Professor Vwani Roychowdhury, a specialist in electrical and computer engineering, joined with students and colleagues to publish a study about an artificial intelligence tool that can deconstruct conspiracy theories. The tool analyzes narratives that the media have determined to be conspiracy theories, from 5G cellphone towers causing COVID-19 to voter fraud in the 2020 election.

First, Roychowdhury and his team use a web crawler to collect articles and social media posts related to a conspiracy theory. The as-yet-unnamed AI tool then sorts through the data, uncovering the sources to establish a narrative pattern.

Rather than debunking conspiracy theories, this tool acts as a mirror for introspection, Roychowdhury says, highlighting how the conspiracy theory was formed and developed. Users then judge for themselves whether the theory is true or false.

“Our mirror is the first step,” Roychowdhury says. “The second step is putting up an intervention process that everybody will have to participate in, so we’ll have something that society can live with.”

Roychowdhury and his team are working on improving the technology and finding ways to collaborate with state and national governments. Such partnerships add another layer of complexity — and raise issues of government infringement on speech and privacy rights.

But the broad appeal of this technology is clear: Dissecting the narratives of conspiracy theories may save us from their most dangerous consequences.

Read more from UCLA Magazine’s April 2021 issue.