Words matter: How privacy concerns and conspiracy theories spread on Twitter

Published in Psychology and Marketing

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Have you ever thought about which words on a Twitter post influence its virality?

Marketing interest in understanding why and how different contents achieve virality has steadily increased over the last years.

Social media represent indeed not only relevant platforms for individuals to express themselves, but they have also created the conditions for the propagation of problematic content.

Social media users' privacy concerns have dramatically increased over the last years, and they have also become places where different types of misinformation can thrive. Among them, conspiracy theories have recently proliferated in digital environments, posing potentially serious threats to individuals' health.

This research investigates how social media users express their privacy concerns and conspiracy theories on social media and how much these contents increase the virality of social media posts.

In particular, we analyzed a set of 5615 tweets around the Italian “Immuni” contact‐tracing app that represented a very sensitive issue during the Covid-19 pandemic. The use of contact‐tracing apps to curb the spreading of the COVID‐19 pandemic has stimulated social media debates on consumers' privacy concerns about the use and storage of sensitive data and on conspiracy theories positing that these apps are part of plans against individuals' freedom.

We relied on linguistic theories which suggest that the words and the writing styles we use are indicative of our psychological mechanisms and discover our personality. In fact, not only the content (what we say) but also the linguistic style (how we say) reveals how people construe the world around them and affects the audience.

From a methodological viewpoint, we created and validated two custom dictionaries about privacy and conspiracy concerns (in the Italian language) and conducted the analysis using the LIWC software. We also identified the tweets’ characteristics (i.e., privacy concerns, conspiracy theories, linguistic style, and emotions) that drive tweets' virality in terms of the number of retweets. To account for the linguistic style and emotions, we used the Italian language translation of the dictionaries included in the LIWC software.

Results suggest that conspiracy theories improve the probability of retweeting a text, but contrary to our expectations, privacy concerns inhibit the virality of a tweet. Noteworthy, the complexity of the language used negatively affects retweets suggesting that tweets are more effective when they use simple texts, thus avoiding high cognitive loads for the reader. Data also provides an intriguing picture of the effects of emotions and certainty in language, in comparison with current literature. We found indeed that they may inhibit retweets.

The study has several managerial implications.

First, the adoption of the two custom dictionaries on privacy and conspiracy concerns could be valuable support in identifying the main psychological barriers to the adoption of apps and platforms, including contact‐tracing apps.

Second, by identifying the characteristics that drive a tweet’s virality, we provide indications to marketers about how to engage with social media users and eventually limit the spread of misinformation about social initiatives in the internet realm.

Third, far from suggesting any form of censorship on social media, we find that privacy concerns are clearly identifiable by monitoring a reduced set of keywords. Therefore, we suggest that brand managers can turn a threat originating from brand‐related privacy concerns or conspiracy theories into an opportunity, namely an enrichment of the set of brand associations.

This study helps researchers and managers to infer the psychological mechanisms that lead people to spread tweets about privacy concerns and conspiracy theories as well as how these texts impact the user who receives them.

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Authors at the Department of Management

Marco Visentin – Associate Professor of Marketing

Academic disciplines: Marketing

Teaching areas: service quality, marketing in tourism

Research fields: consumer behavior, management of business relations, and ethics in decision-making in business.

Marco Visentin is an Associate Professor of Management at the Department of Management and School of Economics, Management and Statistics, University of Bologna. His research interests include Consumer Behavior, Management of Business Relations, and Ethics in Decision Making in Business.


Annamaria Tuan – Senior Assistant Professor of Marketing

Academic disciplines: Marketing

Teaching areas: marketing models

Research fields: Digital Marketing, Corporate Social Responsibility Communication

Annamaria Tuan is a Senior Assistant Professor at the Department of Management. Her main research interests are Social Media Marketing and Corporate Social Responsibility communication, focusing on automated text analysis.