To combat the spread of conspiracy theories, we need to look at ‘alternative’ media
One of the unexpected challenges to come out of the Covid-19 pandemic has been the growing prominence of conspiracy theories in political discourse.
For researchers working in the field, conspiracy theories are distinct forms of misinformation that suggest major events can be best explained by the deliberate, secret actions of malign actors. While these ideas are by no means mainstream, for a relatively small but committed number of people, they provide the primary means of political engagement.
In the UK, conspiracy theories have recently come to public attention through a series of protests against the pandemic response, including ideas ranging from the suggestion that vaccines are unsafe and have been manufactured as part of a global depopulation programme, to promotion of the idea that lockdowns and social distancing measures were part of a secret plan to exert control over the population. More recently, they have also begun to gain traction in other areas such as climate change, foreign affairs and economic policy. The negative effects of these ideas are well documented, ranging from individual level harms, such as risky health behaviours and social isolation, to wider problems including declining confidence in conventional forms of expertise and a growing mistrust of public institutions. At its most extreme, belief in conspiracy theories can also form a pathway to violent and extremist action.
So far, work on mitigating the spread of conspiracy theories has generally focused on social media, with numerous studies tracing its importance in promoting and disseminating these ideas. However, in recent years a range of ‘alternative’ media sources which promote conspiracy theories, such as newspapers, fake news broadcasts and websites, have developed, which are also important in understanding how conspiracy beliefs can take hold. Research by King’s College London, based on a representative survey of 2,274 adults in the UK, sheds new light on the importance of ‘alternative’ media to conspiracy beliefs and subsequent direct action.
The results indicate that, while these alternative news sources are not widely known, they are important in reinforcing and disseminating conspiracy beliefs. For instance, the findings suggest that people who get much of their information from alternative media are more likely to believe the pandemic was part of a forced vaccination effort. Equally, greater news consumption from these sources is also associated with believing the cost of living crisis is a plot to control the public (54% of respondents who rely on alternative media sources believe this theory, compared to 43% of those who primarily use social media and 34% of those who prefer mainstream media).
There was a strong association between use of alternative media and likelihood of taking part in direct action over conspiracist causes. For instance, 47% of those who primarily used alternative media sources to get their news were prepared to take part in a protest or rally against so-called 15 minute cities, in contrast to 31% of those who rely on social media and 24% of those who use mainstream media. Of those who had taken part in some form of direct action, such as a protest or rally, or would be willing to do so, the majority believe that violence could be justified. This included 65% of those willing to take part in a protest or rally against the introduction of central bank digital currencies, and 65% of those willing to take part in a protest or rally against vaccines.
Of course, there are many ways in which people who believe in conspiracy theories get their information. However, this data indicates, for the first time, the extent to which for some people, sources like these play a part in reinforcing harmful conspiracy beliefs. If effective responses are to be developed, they need to be taken seriously and their effects properly understood.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.