What are conspiracy theories? Why do we need to worry about them?

In the second of a series of blogs around the theme of safeguarding, ETF Associate Selina Stewart asks what conspiracy theories are and why they are of concern.

Conspiracy theories have existed since ancient times. Some of the most famous or infamous are:

  • Nero burning down Rome in 64 AD
  • The Blood Libel against the Jews in the middle ages
  • Zinoviev Letter of 1924 claiming the Labour Party was controlled by the Soviet Union.

The blood libel, that Jews kill gentiles, is one which was revived again and again as in Poland after the end of World War II when Jews tried to return to their homes and reclaim their property. Even today, conspiracy theories that Jews created the Covid-19 virus are again a variation on this.

Clearly conspiracy theories are not new; however, social media and the internet have made it much easier to spread them.

What is a conspiracy theory?

The Cambridge Dictionary definition is:

“A belief that an event or situation is the result of a secret plan made by powerful people”.

Key ways to identify a conspiracy theory, as opposed to a rational explanation for events, are:

  • A secret plot
  • A group of conspirators
  • ‘Evidence’ that seems to support the conspiracy theory
  • The false suggestion that nothing happens by accident and that there are no coincidences, nothing is as it appears and everything is connected
  • The division of the world into good or bad
  • They scapegoating of people and groups.

Let’s see how this works by thinking about a well-known conspiracy theory about Bill Gates, Covid-19 and vaccination.

Criteria to judge whether an explanation is actually a conspiracy theoryClaims from conspiracy theorists
An alleged, secret plotIt is claimed that he has a secret plot to depopulate the world by using vaccinations to reduce fertility, to change our DNA, or to control everyone through microchips in vaccines. There is no evidence for any of these.
A group of conspiratorsHe is claimed to be leading a global elite to achieve these ends. The elite supposedly includes people like Bill Gates, George Soros and Hilary Clinton. There is no evidence for this.
‘Evidence’ that seems to support the conspiracy theory

In 2015, Bill Gates came on stage at the TED conference in Vancouver to issue a dire warning:
“If anything kills over 10 million people over the next few decades, it is likely to be a highly infectious virus rather than war,” he told the audience.

The New America Magazine claims, without evidence, that Bill Gates said that vaccines would kill 700,000 people, and that the tetanus vaccine funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation includes abortion drugs.

Unsubstantiated claims that the Gates Foundation vaccinations in Africa have led to 1000s of deaths.

The false suggestion that nothing happens by accident and that there are no coincidences; nothing is as it appears and everything is connectedThis argues that the appearance of the virus, the use of vaccines in general, and abortion, are linked.
Bill Gates is claimed to have linked to the Chinese Communist Party. Again there is no evidence.
The division of the world into good or badIn this case this is those who argue that abortion should be allowed and those who don’t; those who support vaccination or those who oppose vaccination.
The scapegoating of people and groupsThis is often blamed on Jews, including George Soros. Bill Gates is not Jewish but is often said to be ‘in league’ with Jews. Again there is no evidence of a conspiracy.

The video ‘Plandemic’ (May 2020) claimed that Covid-19 deaths were being exaggerated to force through a mass vaccination programme, while ‘Plandemic: indoctrination’ (August 2020) claimed that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation planned and engineered the coronavirus pandemic. Both were promoted by the extreme right. ‘Plandemic’ was viewed approximately eight million times before being removed by Facebook and YouTube.

In the past, anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories around MMR were often supported by people on the left of politics as well as the right, but the recent Covid-19 anti-vaxxer campaigns have been seen by the extreme right and religious extremists as a route into mainstream communities. It should be noted there are still people on the left who back the anti-vaccination campaigns.

Psychological research has found that people turn to conspiracy theories when “they are anxious”, “…feel unable to control outcomes…”, and do not feel safe. Of course the current covid-19 situation provides a perfect environment for the promotion of conspiracy theories.

There is currently distrust of government and institutions. The more people distrust their environment, the more likely they are to be drawn in. However, these conspiracy theories do not reassure them, but instead make them even more angry and anxious.

Q Anon

One of the most active conspiracy theories at the moment is Q Anon. This claims that an elite group of Satan worshipping paedophiles, who are also cannibals, control the world. This has strong extreme right wing links. This may seem laughable to most of us, but it does appeal to a significant number of people.

In the US, where the movement started in 2017, possibly as a joke, it is strongly supportive of Donald Trump and claims that the Democrat Party is at the heart of the conspiracy. In the UK, Q Anon currently focuses on claims around child trafficking and paedophile rings. However, there are other elements including distrust of authority, claiming Covid-19 is a hoax, rejection of mask wearing and of vaccination. Some on the extreme right are beginning to link to the conspiracy theory as a way to recruit new followers.

So why should we worry about conspiracy theories?

It is often difficult to identify a specific extremist motivation for conspiracy theories; however if trust in authority can be destroyed, then extremists hope society will collapse into chaos, violence will be ignited and both political and religious extremists believe they can rebuild Britain with their beliefs and in their image.

This might be a far-fetched fantasy, but what is clear is that extremism does lead to hate speech and violence which impacts on us all.

The Education and Training Foundation is running a series of forums and webinars for staff across FE and Training who lead on safeguarding, including a webinar on 16 March 2021 examining what grooming and extremism mean for the sector. For details of these events, please visit the Prevent Forums and Webinars page on the ETF website.