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For 'Game of Thrones' superfans and devoted conspiracy theorists: Similar psychology, different outcomes.

The psychology of groups and the internet’s propensity to amplify outlandish content has created the kind of feedback loops in which bizarre theories flourish.
Robin Muccari / NBC News

On Reddit, some “Game of Thrones” fans subscribe to a tortuous theory that a group of old, scholarly men — the maesters — are part of a sprawling and hidden conspiracy to exert control over the show’s mythical kingdom. They write thousands of words to each other proving that every obscure clue adds up to a big picture that only they can see.

Just a few clicks away, other Reddit users are sure that a secretive group — the Illuminati — is part of a sprawling and hidden conspiracy to control the real world. They do exactly the same thing.

There are some clear parallels between fan conspiracy theories and political conspiracy theories. They were once confined to the far corners of American culture, but in recent years have flourished thanks in part to internet message boards and social media, which offer anyone the opportunity to publish, debunk, rebunk and remix their own imaginary concepts and share them with like-minded theorists.

The theories, however, share more than just message boards. The psychology of groups and the internet’s propensity to amplify outlandish content and reward the people who create it has created the kind of feedback loops in which bizarre theories — from both fantasy fans and the politically paranoid — flourish.

Russell Zimmerman, 41, a writer, game developer and military historian, loves to theorize about “Game of Thrones,” particularly the books on which it is based, George R.R. Martin’s series, “A Song of Ice and Fire.” But some theories are even too much for him, such as one that argues one character (Varys, the spymaster) is secretly a sea creature.

Zimmerman compared the fan theory to a real-life conspiracy theory.

“To me, that's about the level of ‘out there’ crazy-talk as assuming there's a kiddie porn ring in the basement of a pizza shop without a basement,” he said, referring to the “pizzagate” conspiracy theory that remains popular on the fringes of the far right.

“Thrones” is not the only show with a strong internet following and crackpot theories.

The popular Adult Swim show “Rick and Morty” has various fan guesses at the show’s secrets. BBC’s “Doctor Who,” which follows a time-traveling human-looking alien exploring the universe, has its own theories. And in the early days of the consumer internet, “The X-Files,” a show that often touched on real-life conspiracy theories, gave birth to some of the first online fan theories.

Meanwhile, any number of real-world conspiracy theories have taken hold among various political and social groups on the internet.

Joseph Uscinski, associate professor of political science at the University of Miami and author of “Conspiracy Theories and the People Who Believe Them,” said diehard fans and conspiracy theorists share a love of extrapolating from the facts in their possession.

“Conspiracy theories are similar to fan fiction in that they both allow people to make up whatever they want,” he said.

Uscinski said that whether it’s “Game of Thrones,” “Star Wars” or the JFK assassination, people can take a plot or an event and “go to wherever they want with it.”

As an example, Uscinski cited Qanon, a remarkably popular genre of conspiracy theories that generally center on a mysterious figure who claims that President Donald Trump is working to uncover a powerful group of pedophiles.

“You have this anonymous poster, Q, who puts out nonsensical clues and people try to make sense of it and try to figure out what happens next,” he said. “They are enjoying this. They like piecing these things together. It’s a fan thing for them.”

Brendon Boutin, 32, who runs a popular “Game of Thrones” recap channel, “Man of Recaps,” said the excitement generated by both kinds of theories drove their popularity.

“I think the biggest similarity is the feeling you get, the rush of hunting for the truth and discovering secret knowledge,” Boutin said by email. “I watched some 9/11 ‘Truth’ videos back in the day, and those brought about the same thrill as discovering Jon Snow's parentage.”

“Game of Thrones” is far from the only show to have a fervent fanbase that has created its own theories, but few have created a community as rich and active, both online and off. Laurel Steinberg, a New York-based relationship therapist, said the behavior shown by conspiracy theorists and superfans is “absolutely analogous.”

“People like to feel part of a group, part of a movement, part of a team,” Steinberg said. “It feels good to have something that gives them a identity. It feels good to have something to be excited about, and watch develop in real time.”

But “Thrones” fandom is also susceptible to the same internet dynamics that have spurred ever-more outlandish conspiracy theories, rewarding people who can draw the most attention.

“You're able to create community, and then become an expert. You’ve ridden the tailcoats of the star and then you become a breakout star in that community,” Steinberg said.”You become an influencer.”

Chloe Ketchum, 27, who co-hosts a podcast about the series, “Girls Gone Canon,” said that while she enjoys the feeling of community around “Game of Thrones,” she’s also seen the lengths some fans will go to attract a following.

“There are creators that push shock value to get views,” Ketchum said. “People will do anything for attention.”

While there are similarities in the psychology behind intense fandoms and political conspiracists, Uscinski stressed that they result in divergent behaviors. He said fans will generally abandon theories that don’t hold up, whereas conspiracy theorists ignore evidence that proves them wrong.

There’s also the real-world consequences. Conspiracy theories around politics and current events have inspired some people to commit acts of violence, which has led to efforts by politicians and activist groups to force internet platforms to reign in the spread of the disinformation that can fuel the theories.

“When the show comes out, people will disregard their theories that didn’t turn out to be true,” he said. “But with flat earthers, when they do an experiment and it doesn’t show them what they want, they still hold that belief anyway. They’re much more invested”