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Trust and conspiracy theories

In May, Counterpoint published a report on the French public’s interest in conspiracy theories. The findings were striking – 1 in 2 people believed that the government was not running the country and that they did not know who was pulling the strings. Moreover, 20 per cent believed that “some religious groups” and 27 per cent believed that secret groups such as the Free Masons were controlling France from behind the scenes. While it is expected that the public are sceptical of the exact nature of political power – particularly given growing globalisation, the impact of the financial crisis, and recent revelations such as the Wikileaks scandals – it is still surprising that this scepticism is so widespread and runs so deep.

These beliefs can be easily manipulated and harvested by those who want to undermine democratic institutions or target minority groups. A belief that certain religious groups are pulling the strings, for instance, can be latched on to by people who aim to stigmatise and vilify those groups.

But what are the root causes of these beliefs? The report found little evidence of a correlation between them and socio-demographic variables. Neither gender, age nor education appeared to have an impact on the likelihood of believing conspiracy-like statements. The report did, however, find a strong correlation with low levels of trust in political institutions.

The following results from Hungarian thinktank Political Capital are therefore of direct relevance for conspiracy theories. They form part of DEREX, the Demand for Right-Wing Extremism Index created by Political Capital. The DEREX data suggests that, while the measures for ‘Prejudice and welfare chauvinism’, ‘Right-wing value orientation’ and ‘Fear, distrust, pessimism’ are all fairly stable – or in some cases have fallen slightly since 2002-2003 – ‘Anti-establishment attitudes’ were shown to have increased in the last DEREX study (‘Prejudice and welfare chauvinism’ increased too but is still lower when compared to the years 2002-2007.)

DEREX

Source: DEREX, Political Capital

According to DEREX’s methodology, the ‘Anti-establishment attitudes’ measure is composed of:

1)     ‘Dissatisfaction with the political system’

2)     ‘Distrust towards international organisations’

3)     ‘Distrust towards the legal system and law enforcement’

4)     ‘Distrust towards the political elite’.

Breaking down the results, political trust may have fallen less than it first seems: the larger long-term increase, as shown in the following chart, is with respect to the ‘dissatisfaction with the government’ variable. This suggests that low levels of trust in political elites are a long-term trend not specific to who is in power, while dissatisfaction with government depends to a greater extent on how well the current government is managing the issues of the day.

DATA TABLE

2003

2005

2007

2009

2011

anti-immigration attitudes

10%

10%

10%

6%

9%

distrust toward the political elite

9%

10%

9%

8%

11%

distrust toward the European Parliament

13%

13%

12%

11%

13%

dissatisfaction with the government

13%

11%

13%

17%

21%

Source: DEREX, Political Capital

Even if it has remained stable over the years, the low level of trust towards politicians is clearly a major social issue in France, and it is arguably one of the major political challenges across the whole of Europe. With the recent tax scandals in France and the unpopularity of the Hollande government, a further decline in the next DEREX study would not be surprising. This does not bode well for the prevalence of conspiracy theories.

At first glance, the connection between conspiracy theories and distrust is obvious, almost tautological. But the finding – based on empirical evidence rather than a mere hunch – points to two useful tools for dealing with conspiracy theories. First, it suggests that political distrust provides a proxy for attitudes to conspiracy theories when data on the latter is unavailable. In the case of Norway, for instance – another country in our study – research has shown that it is one of the most trusting countries in Europe. The DEREX analysis puts Norway as one of the countries that has the least anti-establishment attitudes. This suggests that conspiracy theories will tend to have less purchase in Norway than elsewhere, despite the 2011 attacks in Utøya, where before he committed the atrocity right-wing extremist Anders Breivik distributed a 1500-page manifesto containing a number of disturbing Islamophobic conspiracy theories.

Second, thinking about conspiracy theories in terms of trust opens up important new avenues when trying to determine responses. Our report argues that the link between conspiracy theories and low political trust is likely to depend on a circular process: low levels of trust in politicians can cause people to resort to conspiracy theories for their answers and in turn conspiracy theories construct alternative narratives that make politicians even less likely to be believed. Trust in politics and conspiracy theories are therefore two sides of the same coin – address one and you address the other. Relying on ‘myth-busting’ exercises should be seen as only part of a solution, because it doesn’t deal with distrust in politicians. What good is debunking a conspiracy theory if deeper concerns about politicians are left unresolved, ultimately creating the right conditions for an alternative conspiracy theory to emerge?

If people who want to challenge conspiracy theories that target minority groups try to take into account political trust, this points to alternative solutions to complement strategies such as ‘myth-busting’. These include: renewing efforts to make government more transparent, open and accountable; encouraging politicians to engage more directly with voters at a local level; and developing and implementing a political communications strategy that is honest, up-front, rooted in values, and devoid of technocratic language. Following this approach is, we think, more likely to lead to positive results than one that only relies on debunking conspiracy theories. A good strategy is rehabilitative and not just destructive.

 

Marley Morris

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