The rise of conspiracy theorists

Saturday 2 November, 17:3018:45, Frobisher Auditorium 1Ideology in the 21st century

To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the first Moon landing, the BBC published an article titled: ‘Moon hoax? Five reasons why the landings were real.’ It seemed an odd choice, given those who think that the Apollo 11 mission was faked have long been a source of public ridicule. But what if the corrective were needed? After all, according to a recent survey, a fifth of American millennials think the Moon landings were staged. Meanwhile, international conferences organised by the Flat Earth Society continue to attract thousands. This year, the organisation even announced plans to charter a ship to sail to the ‘edge’ of the world to prove the Earth is flat.

Conspiracy theories also seem to have permeated into political and social discourse. The recent surge in anti-Semitism, particularly on the left, has been fueled by age-old conspiracies about Jewish domination of the banks and media. But the right also seems transfixed by bogeymen, warning about the rise of ‘cultural Marxism’ in universities and the resurgence of Cold War Communism at every turn.

During the 2016 US election, countless online blogs were dedicated to promoting the ‘Pizzagate’ theory, where critics suggested Hilary Clinton was behind a fictitious child sex ring. The conviction of serial liar and child abuser Carl Beech earlier this year highlighted the willingness of senior police officers and at least one high-profile politician, Tom Watson, to take seriously the idea that there was a secret, homicidal child-sex ring around Westminster. And since the election of President Trump and the Brexit vote, concerns about the shadowy tentacles of foreign interference are expressed in increasingly conspiratorial tones.

But while conspiracy theories take new forms, much of their content is centuries old. The anti-vaccination movement, for example, dates back to the nineteenth century, when critics suggested inoculations could turn patients into a cow. Fast forward to 2019, and a Wellcome Global Monitor study revealed one in three French people still don’t think vaccines are safe.

Are today’s conspiracies comparable to those of the past and do they pose a threat to our well-being? If so, what measures should we take to combat them? Why are so many people drawn to conspiracy theories and what does their popularity tell us about society today?