The effects of conspiracy theories

“We wanted to counter the standard academic narrative that conspiracy theories are beneath contempt. We were anxious to undertake a natural history of theorizing, to study it seriously from a 21st-century context.”

Despite the onset of the digital age, Naughton and his colleagues do not believe that the Internet has necessarily increased the influence of conspiracy theories on society as a whole. Indeed, research suggests that although the spread of conspiracy theories is often instantaneous in the digital world, so too is the evidence to debunk them.

Likewise, the team’s work so far suggests that online, as in life, we largely surround ourselves with people of like-minded views and opinions, effectively partitioning ourselves from a diversity of world views.

“The Internet doesn’t make conspiracy theories more persuasive, it actually seems to compartmentalize people,” adds Naughton. “We more efficiently come into contact with those who hold similar views, but we also mostly end up working in echo chambers. That’s the way the Internet works at the moment – especially in social media: you end up somewhere where everyone has the same views.

“The effect is a more concentrated grouping of opinions, and that’s the same for everything else, not just conspiracy theories. I follow 800 people on Twitter. Not one of them celebrated Brexit. I was in an echo chamber.”

Dr. Alfred Moore, a postdoctoral researcher on the project, adds: “The question of the effect of the Internet is a really interesting one. How far can the emergence and success of today’s populist movements be explained in terms of technological changes and especially social media? My first instinct is to say a little bit, but probably not much.

“Technologies have made it less costly to communicate, which means it’s easier to find, talk to and organize supporters without the financial and organizational resources of political parties. Both Corbyn and Trump make heavy use of social media as an alternative to a supposedly biased ‘mainstream’ media and the influence of their parties. It also demonstrates how the Internet can promote polarization by making it easy for people to find information they agree with and to filter out everything else.”

For those reasons, Naughton and Moore believe that some of the most famous conspiracy theories – such as David Icke’s theories about shapeshifting reptiles or feverish claims about the death of Princess Diana – are not particularly dangerous as they don’t appear to generate tangible actions or outcomes in the real world. In fact, the Conspiracy and Democracy team question whether these silos effectively disable the capacity for many conspiracy theories to take a firm hold in the public consciousness or threaten our democratic processes.

“A lot remains to be done in researching the history, structure, and dynamics of conspiracy theories, their relationships with real conspiracies, and the changes they have undergone through time,” adds Evans. “You might think that conspiracy theories cause anxiety and depression among ordinary people, and undermine trust in our political institutions and the people who run them, but there are plenty of other reasons for this lack of trust apart from conspiracy theories.

“The debate goes on, but it’s not a case of conspiracy theories threatening democracies. By themselves, such theories may reinforce political suspicion and prejudice but they’re not the origin of it. On the whole, I think it’s fair to conclude that the scale of the threat is pretty limited.

“Some varieties, like antisemitism, can cause huge damage, but others are pretty harmless. Does it really matter that some people think the moon landings were faked? In the end, few people believe we are ruled by alien lizards.”