Patterns of thought: conspiracy theory and politics  

In 2017, thousands of people in Memphis joined the Women’s Marches taking place across the world. Among the placards bearing slogans such as ‘Our bodies, our minds, our power’ one seemed distinctly out of place. ‘Birds aren’t real’ was carried by an American psychology student, Peter McIndoe, so creating an elaborate conspiracy theory.

He claimed that between 1959 and 2001 the US government had, using a virus, committed ‘the merciless
genocide’ of more than 12 billion birds, replacing them with robot spy birds. The prank now has more than 100,000 followers on Twitter (and see and a merchandising arm selling T-shirts with the slogans ‘If it flies it spies’ and ‘They are always watching’. Granted the deluge of misinformation and conspiracy theories, the idea behind it is to ‘fight lunacy with lunacy’. 

Professor Sander van der Linden, a social psychologist specialising in misinformation and conspiracy theories,  says ‘Birds aren’t real plays into all the important conspiracy narratives – people’s anxieties about surveillance, privacy, government intervention. And I love some of the details – why do birds sit on power lines? Because they have to recharge’.

He considers though that it was a mistake to claim that all birds are drones. The smarter theory would be that only some birds are drones; then you could have a whole subset of conspiracies about what type of bird, how they act, are the sounds real? And you could record their calls – do they sound like a bird or a machine? Then it could get real traction.

Van der Linden, 36, is professor of social psychology at the University of Cambridge. An expert in understanding and combating misinformation, he has been described as Cambridge’s professor of ‘defence against the dark arts’. He points out though that conspiracy theories as we understand them are nothing new. The term ‘conspiracy theory’ was appearing in books from the late 19th century, although its use rose steeply from the time of JFK’s assassination in 1963 to its present peak.

With the arrival of the internet, conspiracy theories multiplied – those surrounding 9/11 and many other disasters have become widespread. Now, with Covid, climate change and globalisation, the plethora of conspiracy theories, and the underlying misinformation and fake news, has grown incrementally, mirroring the widespread distrust in institutions, government and the media.

‘It’s a theme throughout history that whenever there are nasty things happening in the world – political, social, economic turbulence and uncertainty – conspiracy theories thrive,’ he says. ‘The difference now is that we have a massive amplifier, social media, that can expose hundreds of millions of people to these things in a matter of minutes.’

In the US, half of adults now get their news at least some of the time from social media, where one-sided reports are carefully curated and filtered by algorithms to be presented to millions of like-minded individuals. ‘As the landscape becomes more fragmented and segregated, people are more selectively exposed to certain types of content,’ he says. The algorithms ensure that, unknown to them, people’s use of social media reinforces their beliefs.

In 2018, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were given access to the full historical archive of tweets to track the diffusion of true and false news stories on Twitter between 2006 and 2017. The study found that falsehoods spread ‘significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly’ than true claims in all categories of information. False news stories were 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than true ones.

And they also showed the truth of the old saying that a lie can spread halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on. Researchers calculated that, on average, it took the truth six times as long as false stories to reach 1,500 people.

Led by David Lazer, professor of political science at Northeastern University, Boston, another study involved 16,442 Twitter accounts in the period around the 2016 US election. It suggests that the proportion of people actually spreading fake news is quite small. Just 0.1 per cent of those users – known as ‘superspreaders’ – accounted for almost 80 per cent of fake-news sharing.

Lazer found that a disproportionate amount of the content came from the right, and that sharers of fake news were more likely to be conservative and older. Fake news and misinformation can be driven based on a variety of motives, van der Linden says: to gain political currency, personal status or, of course, profit. Bogus ‘experts’ exploit public anxiety to build follower numbers and merchandise sales – merchandise which publicises the theory and/or which supposedly protects from the ‘harm’ the theory warns against.

The description of conspiracy theorists as ‘disappearing down a rabbit hole’ is an apt metaphor for a conspiratorial mindset. What actually happens is that, what starts out as thinking that a theory is perhaps plausible, is then upgraded to a higher degree of certainty simply by seeing another theory which sort of fits with the first one and so on. It becomes a belief system, a self-sustaining world view, where all conspiracy theories are taken as evidence of the others even though there is no evidence for any of them.

So the belief that Covid is a plot invented by Bill Gates and the World Health Organization ‘fits’ with the long-standing conspiracy theory about ‘chemtrails’ – that condensation trails from aircraft actually consist of chemical agents sprayed for a variety of sinister purposes - and the belief that there is a cabal of ‘vampire’ paedophiles in the ‘deep state’ and Hollywood.

So deeply entrenched does conspiratorial thinking become, he says, that even contradictory assertions can be reconciled - for example, that Covid is both a biological weapon developed in Wuhan and caused by 5G mobile masts. This can be accepted because the believer can find ‘some higher-order global coherence that explains those inconsistencies away. So when you attack some of these specific beliefs, people will just jump to higher-order meta explanations that make it all work out.’  it’s ‘the Illuminati’, or the ‘deep state’.

A YouGov-Cambridge poll conducted in 2021 found that 31 per cent of Americans thought that regardless of who is in charge of governments, a single group of people secretly control world events. Seventeen per cent thought that Satan-worshipping paedophiles have taken control of parts of the US government and mainstream US media.

Van der Linden believes that conspiracy theories thrive because they offer simple, certain explanations of what otherwise seem to be quite random and unrelated events. ‘What we know is that people who are high on conspiracy theories are lower on the need for complexity – they like simpler narratives. And they tend to be more politically extreme – the Left or the Right. They are typically people who are low on trust in officialdom and government and high on paranoia.’

And of course we have seen just that this weekend with the 4,000 word article written by Liz Truss for the Sunday Telegraph. Truss is at the extreme right of her party and likes simple narratives: ‘lower taxes and higher growth’ were her watchwords.

She tells us in her article that her opponents were the left-wing Establishment, blaming officialdom in the form of the Civil Service, the OBR and the Bank of England, left wingers all, for not having warned her that her policies would reek havoc. She neglects to note that her Chancellor sacked the top Civil Servant at the Treasury on taking office and that they did not consult the OBR prior to the budget.

And she seems to have forgotten that Rishi Sunak, another left-winger, had said from the outset of her leadership campaign that her policies ‘would bankrupt the country’. Not far out.

What I would like to suggest, however, is that thinking similar to that employed by conspiracy theorists underpins the entire system of political groups and certainly political parties. Their existence depends on most of their adherents regarding other groups and parties as monolithic organisations determined to do ‘the wrong thing’.

It is highlighted at Labour party conferences by the T-shirts being sold there with the slogan “I’ve never kissed a Tory”. Other more vicious slogans are available. But it somehow seems to sum up the great divide which is apparently a necessary part of rival groups, whether the Montagues and Capulets or our present political parties.

It is for this reason that I could never belong to any political party. Having to condemn everything which others stand for shows a naivety and lack of critical thinking which is, itself, one of the reasons for the present poor quality of our political system.

Mind you I have been tempted by membership of the ‘Let’s have a party’ Party.

6 February 2023

Paul Buckingham


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