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Conspiracy theories are on the rise, but an uncritical faith in authority is not the answer

2020 saw a notable increase in the popularity of conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, anti-vaxxer, and Covid-19 denial theories, mostly originating from the USA. Many of these theories draw on well-established conspiracy theories, adapting these for relevant contemporary issues like the coronavirus pandemic and the 2020 US presidential election. While conspiracy theories were once seen as the sole preserve of internet oddballs and people who live in nuclear bunkers in Alaska, their more widespread acceptance has made them suddenly an important political force. Take QAnon for example. The QAnon conspiracy theory arose from a series of posts on 4chan in 2017 from an anonymous poster, named ‘Q’, claiming to have inside knowledge of a clandestine paedophile ring being run by liberal political elites. While this may have seemed like a drop in the ocean of internet nonsense, QAnon, and theories like it, have led people to real acts of political violence. Aside from the clear QAnon presence at the recent Capitol Hill riot, in 2016 a man attacked a pizza restaurant in Washington motivated by a similar theory which held than Washington elites were using said restaurant as a base for child human trafficking. 

These conspiracy theories are often seen, along with extreme evangelicalism and aggressive jingoism, as a particularly American form of fanaticism. Yet, in the last year we have seen a rising tide of conspiracy theories here in the UK. A study for the advocacy group Hope not Hate, for example, found that up to a quarter of Britons had some sympathy for QAnon linked conspiracy theories. Facebook has also become a breeding group for various coronavirus conspiracies, targeting older people who do not usually come into contact with the darker side of the internet. 

It is easy to simply be mocking and dismissive of this wave of conspiracy theories. These theorists, however, often pray on the justifiable anxieties and distrust of authority that arises in times of crisis like our own. They are also particularly dangerous, as they can co-opt sensible discourse, leading to legitimate concerns being lumped in with conspiracy theories and dismissed as nonsense. For example, concerns about the restrictions on personal liberties in lockdowns has become automatically associated with coronavirus denialism and other far right conspiracies. 

As such, the response to conspiracy theories cannot be to advocate an uncritical deference to those in positions of power. Firstly, conspiracy theories often draw on actual facts to support their claims. Simply dismissing their arguments instead of giving the alternative, and much more plausible, account of these facts will seem like suppressing dissent instead of sharing the truth. Secondly, conspiracy theories do bring up the serious epistemological problem of testimony. This is the problem that more or less all of our knowledge of the world comes from the testimony of others, and any part of this testimony could be misleading. Obviously, conspiracy theories are not a good response to this problem, as they simply provide a new source of testimony to trust. Neither, however, is believing everything said by those in power. It is, in fact, good to have a healthy sceptical relationship with power, and to think critically about the biases of the sources of information you use. One possible way to help combat conspiracy theories, therefore, would be improved education about science and the running of government. This could provide people with some of the tools they need to engage with the state in a productive and critical manner, without recourse of conspiracy theories. 

Image: Marc Nozell via lex.dk