Conspiracy theories, the Internet and democracy

My OpEd piece from yesterday’s Observer:

Conspiracy theories have generally had a bad press. They conjure up images of eccentrics in tinfoil hats who believe that aliens have landed and the government is hushing up the news. And maybe it’s statistically true that most conspiracy theories belong on the harmless fringe of the credibility spectrum.

On the other hand, the historical record contains some conspiracy theories that have had profound effects. Take the “stab in the back” myth, widely believed in Germany after 1918, which held that the German army did not lose the First World War on the battlefield but was betrayed by civilians on the home front. When the Nazis came to power in 1933 the theory was incorporated in their revisionist narrative of the 1920s: the Weimar Republic was the creation of the “November criminals” who stabbed the nation in the back to seize power while betraying it. So a conspiracy theory became the inspiration for the political changes that led to a second global conflict.

More recent examples relate to the alleged dangers of the MMR jab and other vaccinations and the various conspiracy theories fuelling denial of climate change.

For the last five years, my academic colleagues – historian Richard Evans and politics professor David Runciman – and I have been leading a team of researchers studying the history, nature and significance of conspiracy theories with a particular emphasis on their implications for democracy…

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Conspiracist thinking and social media

This morning’s Observer column:

The prevalence of conspiracy theories online explains why they tend to crop up whenever we track the cognitive path of someone who, like the alleged Pittsburgh killer, commits or attempts to commit an atrocity. A case in point is Dylann Roof, a South Carolina teenager who one day came across the term “black on white crime” on Wikipedia, entered that phrase into Google and wound up at a deeply racist website inviting him to wake up to a “reality” that he had never considered, from which it was but a short step into a vortex of conspiracy theories portraying white people as victims. On 17 June 2015, Roof joined a group of African American churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina, before opening fire on them, killing nine.

We find a similar sequence in the case of Cesar Sayoc, the man accused of sending mail bombs to prominent Democrats. Until 2016, his Facebook postings looked innocuous: decadent meals, gym workouts, scantily clad women and sports games – what the New York Times described as “the stereotypical trappings of middle-age masculinity”.

But then something changed. He opened a Twitter account posting links to fabricated rightwing stories and attacking Hillary Clinton. And his Facebook posts began to overflow with pro-Trump images, news stories about Muslims and Isis, ludicrous conspiracy theories and clips from Fox News…

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