The internet and social media have provided a global platform for disinformation and conspiracy theories to proliferate, but it is the failure of government and democratic institutions which has truly precipitated their rise in significance. Worryingly a recent University of Cambridge and YouGov poll found that 60 per cent of British people believe in at least one conspiracy theory. Whilst disinformation and conspiracy theories are primarily disseminated via the internet, they would not have the impact or resonance they currently have unless the public already lacked trust in government institutions, the media and politicians.
The rise of conspiracy theories and disinformation poses a distinct threat to democracy, by distorting public discourse and reinforcing distrust and polarisation. This is also a matter of national security as increasingly conspiracy theories and fake news stories are strategically targeted and weaponised by adversarial states online. However, the solution cannot be purely technological and intelligence based. There must also be serious reform to the UK’s democracy and government institutions to rebuild trust with the public and build long-term social resilience to disinformation and conspiracy theories.
Politicians are consistently voted the least trustworthy profession in polling. Voter turnout has been falling and people are increasingly disillusioned with the political system. The Brexit vote most clearly embodied the public’s anger and dissatisfaction with the status quo. Major scandals have hit some of Britain’s most trusted institutions, from the police and the BBC to banks and even charities. The decision to invade Iraq on evidence that turned out to be false is an often-cited reason for people’s lack of trust in what they are told by the government. Similarly, when Theresa May said that ‘nothing has changed’ to sum up the 2017 general election, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary, it only further erodes trust in the system.
This atmosphere of mistrust creates the conditions whereby people are more inclined to believe conspiracy theories. The belief in these theories and disinformation distorts public discourse and makes governing in a democracy much more difficult. Climate change deniers and ‘anti-vaxxers’ may seem like fringe groups, but at the heart of their beliefs is mistrust in what the scientific and political establishment is telling them. Without public support, passing climate change policy is more difficult and the anti-vaccination movement could potentially cause serious public health problems.
Conspiracy theories have the potential to disrupt the business of government and further intensify polarisation. That is exactly why adversarial regimes such as Russia are so keen to promote conspiracy theories and fake news in democratic societies. During the chemical attack in Salisbury, Russian bots actively promoted conspiracy theories that discredited the government position and obfuscated Russia’s responsibility. The threat was so severe, the government and intelligence services were forced to run a counter-disinformation campaign in response. The fact that many people were unwilling to accept assessments from MI6 and Porton Down is in part due to the enduring legacy of the Iraq War ‘dodgy dossier’, which severely damaged the credibility of the intelligence community in the UK. The public’s mistrust of institutions can be weaponised by adversarial states, it must therefore be a priority to restore trust in these vital security institutions.
Opposition parties must also be careful not to fuel conspiracy theories simply because they are politically convenient at the time. A number of people on the left disappointingly jumped on many of the Salisbury conspiracy theories to attack the Conservatives and the security apparatus. The next Labour government will need those very institutions to govern with and to ensure national security. In the cyber age, intelligence assessments from the security services may be the only evidence a government can use to convince the public of a course of action. Enhancing public mistrust of security intelligence is consequently highly damaging to the state’s ability to make policy and defend citizens. Some cynicism and questioning of authority is important to democracy, but Labour and all opposition parties must think carefully before potentially fueling further public mistrust in the vital organs of the state.
Countries with higher trust in the government and public institutions are more resilient to the threat of malicious conspiracy theories and disinformation. The UK is particularly vulnerable due to the historically low levels of trust in government. Addressing the UK’s vulnerability by restoring trust must therefore be a central aim of any UK government. The process of democratic reform must make considerable changes to institutions, increasing transparency and accountability, in addition to removing the toxicity in political debate and encouraging mass participation in democratic processes.
Recent Fabian Society report Politics by People makes a number of useful policy recommendations including removing the influence of big money, improving citizenship education, increasing access to information and building a more representative and participative democracy. Reforms such as these must come at all levels and across all institutions to ensure that a culture of trust is rebuilt and, in turn, resilience to the threat of disinformation.