Fake news, conspiracy theories and the UK general election

Popular conspiracy theories propose that members of UK government murdered Diana, Princess of Wales; climate change is a hoax orchestrated by the world’s scientists to secure research funding and pharmaceutical companies and governments cover up evidence of harmful side effects of vaccines for financial gain.  Conspiracy theories like these accompany almost every significant social and political event and can typically be defined as attempts to explain the ultimate causes of events as the secret actions of malevolent powerful groups, who cover up information to suit their own interests.

Fake news, which involves the publication of fictitious information on social media, appear to be a fertile ground for conspiracy theories to flourish.  Indeed, millions of people subscribe to conspiracy theories.  Conspiracy theories are, therefore not reserved for only people who are paranoid, but rather, they are a normal everyday process that we are all susceptible to.   With the popularity of social media, conspiracy theories are at our fingertips more than ever before.

What’s the harm with conspiracy theories, anyway? In research conducted with my co-author, Prof Karen Douglas at the University of Kent, we have shown that being exposed to the idea that governments are involved in plots and schemes reduces people’s likelihood of wanting to engage in the political system.  People were less likely to want to vote.

We found that being exposed to conspiracy theories can make people feel politically powerless and feel that their vote will not count; if the government is conspiring against us, how can I make a difference?

In our most recent research, we have also uncovered that conspiracy theories are potentially resistant to correction.  Once a person subscribes to a conspiracy theory, they can be increasingly difficult to debunk.

It is, therefore, important that at the point of exposure to information, people are thinking critically.  If the headline sounds too good to be true, it very well may be!  Here are some practical suggestions to help with this:

  • Think about the source; who has written the article?
  • Evaluate the evidence contained within the article; is the piece based on fact?
  • Read multiple articles from a variety of outlets on the same topic. Do not just trust one article; try and get a full picture of the story that takes into account all sides of the argument.

We know that conspiracy theories can be potentially damaging and difficult to debunk.  So, think critically before clicking “share” on Facebook or “retweeting” on Twitter.  Be sure you feel confident that the piece is accurate before sharing!

Reposted from Staffordshire University’s Election Experts.

This entry was posted in Social psychology, What's the harm. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Fake news, conspiracy theories and the UK general election

  1. Mr Psychologist says:

    As a fellow psychologist and someone who subscribes to (some) conspiracy theories, I’d like to hear why you think it’s valid to dismiss all conspiracies out of hand by grouping them together as a phenomenon that requires some sort of explanation? I ask this because, for example, the idea that intelligence agencies could listen in on conversations through phones, TVs and other devices used to be derided as a conspiracy theory that only tinfoil-hat-wearing morons would believe, until documents leaked through WikiLeaks showed that the intelligence agencies were doing exactly that. Surely if we view ourselves as scientists on a mission to find truth, we cannot start from the position that every conspiracy theory is definitely false?

  2. Pingback: Prevention may be better than cure: Addressing anti-vaccine conspiracy theories | The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories

  3. Keith Chadwick says:

    As a very active user in social-media I run into conspiracists in various large groups on a regular basis. Interestingly I run into them most often in an Atheist group. I have noticed a couple of things. Many at some point believed in God but for one reason or another turned away from that belief system and then it seems inserted conspiracy. There does appear to be significant similarities between beliefs. Both believe in an unprovable entity that has power over them. Both blame issues in there life on the actions of the ‘entity’.

    I am curious if you have done any research in this correlation.

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