Disinformation and conspiracy: tackling the crisis of trust

Battle of Ideas festival 2021, Sunday 10 October, Church House, London


From talk of a ‘great reset’ to the resurgence of conspiracy theories about 9/11 on its 20th anniversary, there seems to be a widespread growth of distrust in officialdom and scepticism towards traditional authorities. Likewise, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a magnet for doubt and disbelief – often labelled denial – about everything from statistics of cases and deaths to the official medical advice about drugs such as ivermectin or hydroxychloroquine. Wider fears and suspicions of big tech and powerful individuals have driven conspiracies about technologies like 5G or billionaires like Bill Gates.

But how do you spot a conspiracy theory when people are labelled conspiracists for asking awkward questions – like the possible escape of the virus from a lab in Wuhan? And how do you make non-conspiratorial sense of government decisions when so many seem irrational or beneficial for powerful interests? As much as conspiracies might represent a flight from reality, do they also reflect sense of powerlessness; an attempt at asserting agency by trying to understand what’s really going on? People often note that it might be a be a relief to imagine that there is a plan – global forces pulling strings – but many commentators also note that politicians today seem to actively distrust the public, preferring openly manipulative techniques such as behavioural psychology and nudges rather than winning arguments. In such a context, is it a surprise that some people think there are manipulative forces at work?

To confuse things, critiques of conspiracies are often themselves riddled with misinformation, often expressed in a fascination with finding evidence of brainwashing or Russian bots. A widespread tactic is to accuse political opponents of being shills in receipt of dark money – as happened to the group behind the Great Barrington Declaration, who were accused of being ‘neoliberals in disguise’ for voicing a criticism of covid policies. Whatever the merit of their position, the speed with which criticisms of the declaration became smears against its authors reflects how widespread conspiratorial thinking has become – both for those on the mainstream and on the margin.

What is to be done about this widespread collapse in trust? Mainstream and social media companies are both awash with fact-checkers. In the UK, Ofcom is called upon to judge the authenticity of the news – a role many want to expand under the Online Harms Bill. But some question whether attempts to regain trust via official attempts to control the news could really work – especially when some fact-checkers seem so nakedly ideological. By narrowing the sphere of public debate to what is officially acceptable, might such measures prove counterproductive?

Why have disinformation and conspiracy theories become such mainstream preoccupations? What is a healthy distrust of officialdom, and when does it start to move away from reality? Have we become afraid of ourselves and our own ability to make judgements, and do we need a new series of official authorities to determine what’s real and what’s not? Or is the collapse in trust – and in each other – a matter for us all to take up?

Dr Tim Black
books and essays editor, spiked

William Clouston
party leader, Social Democratic Party

Dr Sean Lang
senior lecturer in History, Anglia Ruskin University; author, First World War for Dummies; fellow, Historical Association

Mo Lovatt
national coordinator, Debating Matters; programme coordinator, Academy of Ideas

Allison Pearson
columnist, Daily Telegraph; bestselling author, I Don’t Know How She Does It; co-presenter, Planet Normal podcast

Alastair Donald
co-convenor, Battle of Ideas festival; convenor, Living Freedom; author, Letter on Liberty: The Scottish Question