For this report HOPE not hate Charitable Trust conducted three polls between February and April 2020 to assess the British population’s relationship with conspiracy theories, their trust in the media and public institutions and their attitudes to political participation.
The polls included questions on a variety of established conspiracy theories, such as the death of Princess Diana and whether the moon landings were faked, but also more sinister antisemitic conspiracy theories about the Holocaust and the influence of Jewish people in media. Especially important in the midst of a global pandemic, we also examined belief in vaccine conspiracy theories.
Alongside conspiracy theory related questions, we also asked respondents questions on their outlook on life, their background, their trust in the political system and their view of the future. This allowed us to examine what people who believe in conspiracy theories have in common, and provide an understanding that can inform strategies to counter the spread of conspiracy theories.
Based on polling carried out between 5-7 February of 3011 adults from across UK by Focaldata, we develop a five-tiered segmentation, defined by differing views on conspiracy theory. At one extreme is a segment that is prone to believe almost all conspiracy theories we query them on and is likely to look at many aspects of society through a lens of potential conspiracy. At the other end of the spectrum, we find anti-conspiracy theorists who are clearly and decisively against conspiracy theories of all kinds. In between, we find groups that are less sure on their view of conspiracy theories or just support a certain set of ideas but not others.
We find that the tendency to believe in conspiracy theories is not defined by loyalty to either the left or the right side of the political spectrum – our most conspiracy-minded groups are as likely to vote both Labour and Conservative party as our least conspiracy theory minded group. However, amongst the most conspiracy theory minded groups we find that a larger section does not feel represented by any of the parties, mistrusts the political system, is more anxious about immigration and is less hopeful about the future.
THE FIVE SEGMENTS
This group was most likely to say any of the conspiracy theories presented to them were true. Outside of their belief in specific conspiracy theories, people in this group were likely to hold the view that there are shadowy forces at work in many parts of society and express a feeling that they had little say in society. They tended to have a lower level of formal education, a lower income and were relatively young. This group are also the most likely to have voted leave in the 2016 EU referendum.
This group is significantly less likely than the Conspiracy Theorists to strongly believe in conspiracy theories whilst still giving positive, though qualified answers to most of the conspiracy theories polled, often answering “probably true”. Like the Conspiracy Theorists, they are often manual workers, with a lower degree of formal education and earn less. Partially this can be attributed to the group being the youngest of the five.
This group agrees with some conspiracy theorists while decisively rejecting others, separating them from our first two groups who are likely to show some support for all conspiracy theories. The pop-conspiracy theorists generally don’t believe the more esoteric and extreme ideas, such as the moon landings were faked or that the Holocaust has been exaggerated, but support common far-right conspiracy ideas such as people living under Sharia law in some European cities and that the Government are lying about the number of immigrants. They also believed less harmful ones such as the idea that the death of Princess Diana was actually a murder. This group is older than other conspiracy theorists and are more likely to be retired.
This group rarely believed any conspiracy theories and answered “probably false” most. They are more likely to be women than the Anti-conspiracy Theorists. They are, for the most part, educated to at least degree level, skew towards being Conservative voters and are ambivalent about Brexit. Half the group voted leave and half remain in the 2016 EU referendum.
This group is defined by its active stance against conspiracy theories – they are most likely to answer “definitely false” on most conspiracy theory questions. This group has the highest income and education level. They are the least anxious about immigration and believe it has benefited the UK. They are also most likely to say they are content with their lives and are relatively more willing to sacrifice time and money to be environmentally friendly. Two-thirds voted to remain in the EU referendum in 2016 and are more likely to have voted Liberal Democrat in the 2016 General Election.
THE CONSPIRACY THEORIES
We asked our respondents if they believed in a range of different conspiracy theories. These included very specific conspiracy theories, such as whether the 9/11 attack was really committed by Al-Qaeda and whether vaccines are actually harmful to broader ones about a secretive group controlling governments and world events. Some explicitly define “the Government” as the conspirator while others point out a Jewish minority or no-one in particular. Some are more esoteric and less political, such as whether there is a cover-up of UFO visits but we also include clearly politicised conspiracy theories.
Various different world views, experiences and ideological conviction make some groups more or less prone to agree with certain conspiracy theories. For example, might those who are critical of the US government be more prone to answer that it is likely that the US government had prior knowledge of the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, theories regarding immigration and Islam are commonly spread by the far-right and are forms of propaganda aimed at spreading antipathy. Those who consume far-right content are already likely to be critical of immigration and might therefore also be more likely to answer that they believe in these theories.
More broadly defined ideas, such as the perception that a small group of people will always “run things in this country”, are unsurprisingly also those that receive the largest amount of support across all our groups, even in the groups that are generally critical of conspiracy theories. This likely has to do with the possibility of interpreting this question differently. Some might make an antisemitic interpretation and see this as a common conspiracy theory about undue Jewish influence, others might mean that an elite, or people of similar backgrounds, are running this country.
Our different groups’ political outlooks and voting intentions reveal important differences. While Conspiracy Theorists do not differ significantly from Anti-conspiracy Theorists in terms of their propensity to vote Conservative or Labour, there are many other important differences. 40% of Conspiracy Theorists and 50% for Uncertain Believers (the two groups most open to conspiracy theory) identify themselves just left of centre when asked about how they define themselves politically on a scale of 0-10 (0 meaning very left-wing and 10 very right-wing). This is the largest political tendency in both groups. However, although smaller in proportion, those who identify as right-wing in these groups, are significantly more likely than in any other group to put themselves at the very right of the spectrum.
The Conspiracy Theorist segment is less well-off in terms of income, has less formal education and is more likely to be in manual jobs – factors that could lead to greater sensitivity to questions of power, fairness and opportunity. A cynical outlook on politics is, according to previous research described in the first section of this report, could make one more prone to belief in conspiracy theories as such beliefs often include narratives that power is being robbed from the masses. The urge to participate in electoral politics by voting is therefore likely lower, which is borne out in this poll. The two groups most likely to believe in conspiracy theories (Conspiracy Theorists and Uncertain Believers) were three times more (11% and 13% respectively) likely to have not voted in the 2019 General election than the Anti-conspiracy Theorist group (3%). Uncertain Believers were also more likely (5%) to answer that they weren’t registered to vote than any other group.
Further highlighting this cynical outlook on electoral politics is the fact that the Conspiracy Theorist group was also significantly more likely (86%) to answer that the political system is broken compared to all other groups. A lower proportion (66%) answer that they are happy with their life in general, compared to 80% in the two least conspiracy-minded groups. Several questions revealed anxieties about immigration and hope for the future in the most conspiracy-oriented group and the reverse for the anti-conspiracy segment which was more confident about the future and had a stronger belief in the political system. Conspiracy Theorists voted leave to a significantly higher degree and were more critical of immigration.
ISLAMOPHOBIA AND ANTI-IMMIGRATION
While our polling found that the different segments generally had internally similar attitudes to the conspiracy theories we presented, ideas that contained an Islamophobic or anti-migrant element defied this trend. Correlating with previous opinion research by HOPE not hate Charitable Trust where we have observed a hardening of opinions towards Muslims across the political spectrum, with this pattern also bearing out in our conspiracy segmentation.
When asked whether “European cities are under the control of Sharia Law and are ‘no-go’ zones for non-Muslims”, 6% of the Strong Sceptics answered that this is “definitely true” and 24% “probably true”. Similarly, 30% of this group felt it was definitely or probably true that the government lies about how many immigrants are living in the UK. While this is lower than for the conspiracy theorists, of which 31% answer “definitely true” and 45% “probably true” on this question, these ideas garner a notable amount of support from a group that is otherwise critical of conspiracy theories.
Respondents were also asked whether they believed that Islam is “generally compatible with the British way of life”, to which 38% of all respondents answered that Islam is incompatible, reflecting that a relatively large group of the population is concerned about immigration and Islam. In the Conspiracy Theorist segment, 50% thought it was a threat, among the Strong Sceptics 39% think so and 20% of the anti-Conspiracy theorists. This question does not on its own reveals support for Islamophobic conspiracy theory, integration has become a concern around which many have hung broader resentments such as cultural anxieties and a feeling of unfairness, of being left behind.
However, in a follow-up question, the respondents who found Islam to be a threat were asked to articulate why they thought so. Some of these answers reveal fears related to terrorism which is not directly conspiracy theory related. But the answers also reveal viewpoints built on conspiracy theories. 23% (11% of the total population) answer that the Muslim population will “replace white British people” due to higher growth rates. This echoes the conspiracy theory commonly espoused by far-right anti-Muslim activists under the label of “The Great Replacement”. Support for this statement was higher among conspiracy theorists.
Furthermore, 24% (9% of the total population) responded that “Islam seeks to replace British law with Sharia law”, another myth often expressed by far-right activists. That 51% of those who find Islam a threat and 19% of the total population, argue that Sharia law will be introduced in the UK or that the white British population is going to be “replaced” is worrying and shows that far-right conspiracy theories have become relatively mainstream anti-muslim views in the UK.
This result should be seen as an indication of how already existing fear and racism can both incubate and mainstream conspiracy theories on related topics. Conversely, a positive outlook towards immigration is found to be related with belonging to the Anti-conspiracy Theorists, which are also generally speaking more well off and more content with their lives. This group was markedly more likely to believe that a sharp reduction in immigration after the UK leaves the EU will have an adverse effect on the economy.
While conspiracy theories do not inherently have to be antisemitic, it is remarkable how often Jewish people are explicitly or implicitly identified as the conspirators. As academic Jovan Byford observed: “for a substantial portion of its history, the conspiracy tradition was dominated by the idea of a Jewish plot to take over the world”. This is still the case today – our observations on Islamophobia and immigration notwithstanding, it is antisemitic ideas, more so than any other form of racism, that form the basis of modern conspiracy theories. The idea of Jews having undue control over the media and banking systems are some of the most well-known conspiracy theories. These also provide some of the most poignant examples of the harm that conspiracy theories can cause, having been used to justify mass murder.
We asked two questions to measure the spread of antisemitic conspiracy theories for this report: whether the ‘official’ narrative of the Holocaust was exaggerated and whether Jews have an “unhealthy control of the banking system”. However, other statements that we tested, such as “Even though we live in what’s called a democracy, a few people will always run things in this country anyway” can be interpreted by some as referring to the antisemitic idea of undue control or specifically to the “Zionist Occupation Government” conspiracy theory which claims that Jews secretly control most governments.
In our sample overall a small but not insignificant minority of our respondents (13%), agreed that Jewish people have an unhealthy amount of control over the world’s banking system. 51% answered that this was not true. The remaining 38% couldn’t say that this was either true or false or answered that they didn’t know. Within our segmentation, the two most conspiracy-minded groups (Conspiracy Theorists and Uncertain Believers) only 7% and 8% respectively answered that it is “definitely false”. The differences in support between groups however was clear. The most conspiracy theory minded segment contained the vast majority of the outright support for this theory, with 11% answering “definitely true”, versus 0-2% in the remaining segments. The Pop-conspiracy Theorists are unlikely to support antisemitic conspiracy theories, clearly separating these ideas from other theories despite being among the most likely groups to support Islamophobic and anti-immigrant conspiracy theories.
When queried on whether “the official account of the Nazi Holocaust is a lie and the number of Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II has been exaggerated on purpose”, a similar picture emerges. The two most conspiracy theory minded groups contain almost all support for this idea, though it is only a minority of even these segments that actually give the theory any credibility. 6% of the Conspiracy theorists answer “definitely true” and 3% of the Uncertain Believers. However, 13% of both segments answer “probably true”.
CONSPIRACY THEORISTS AND ALTERNATIVE NEWS SITES
Conspiracy theories can spread in multiple ways, through word-of-mouth, mass media and, importantly nowadays, via conspiracy-oriented social media groups on mainstream platforms and websites. HOPE not hate Charitable Trust has in a previous report released in February 2020 also focused on the conspiracy theory group Keep Talking that meet regularly offline in London. However, social media is vital for modern conspiracy theory. On social media platforms and alternative news sites, conspiracy theorists who are unlikely to gain entry to traditional media outlets can get a platform. In our poll conducted between April 7-9th, we asked whether respondents had read any common alternative news sites and if they knew about, and had consumed, material produced by important far-right and conspiracy theory figures. Whilst the general knowledge of alternative news sites was low, some elements stood out including knowledge of conspiracy theorist activists.
David Icke, who spreads a variety of conspiracy theories including several that contain clearly antisemitic tropes, stood out as the most wellknown conspiracy theorist in the UK. 51% of the respondents answered that they have heard about him and 12% of those had read a text by Icke or watched one of his videos in the last six months. This is significantly ahead of notorious American conspiracy outlet InfoWars which was known by 14% of the respondents. Only a small minority of those who knew about Icke, argued that they actually agreed with him, a majority (59%) strongly disagreed with his views, whilst 23% neither agreed nor disagreed.
Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson, far-right activists who are not solely focused on conspiracy theories but do regularly spread misinformation, particularly about Muslims, are somewhat more recognisable than Icke with 68% and 53% of all respondents answering that they recognised them.
Alternative news sites have a small readership in the UK, no single site had more than 3% of our respondents visiting it in the last six months. This is partially explained by there being a very large number of alternative news sites and therefore having to limit our poll to a smaller subset of the most high profile sites. However, when we examine the respondents who agreed with the currently popular conspiracy theory that 5G is the cause of the Covid 19 pandemic, these numbers change significantly. In this group, almost a third (30%) had read one of the listed alternative news sites in the last six months, compared with just 8% amongst those who didn’t subscribe to the 5G theory. The alternative news site most popular amongst 5G conspiracists was the personal site of David Icke, ahead of well known far-right site Breitbart News and left-wing sites such as The Canary. As David Icke has been vocal on the current pandemic and has stated multiple times that it is greatly exaggerated, his prominence in our findings is a matter of concern.
CORONA AND 5G
The ongoing corona pandemic has provided ample material for the growth of conspiracy theories. So many different conspiracy theories and cases of pandemic related misinformation have circulated that there are too many to investigate individually so for this report, we focused our polling on the most prominent ideas.
Overall, almost a third of our sample didn’t rule out a link between coronavirus and 5G: 8% believed that 5G technology was contributing to the spread of Coronavirus, and 19% neither agreed nor disagreed. This idea has attracted a significant amount of attention in the last few weeks as multiple 5G transmitters have been sabotaged. Even more concerning was that 45% of people believed that the coronavirus is a manmade creation, showing a potential openness to conspiracy thinking.
Asking whether respondents had seen videos or read articles containing conspiracy theories related to Corona over the last four weeks revealed that a large part of the population has been exposed to esoteric explanations for the current pandemic. Material arguing that 5G caused the Covid-19 disease had been consumed by 37% and similarly 35% had engaged with material arguing that Coronavirus is a bio-weapon spread intentionally by the Chinese state.
Revealing similar patterns to previously discussed in this report, people who agreed with the 5G conspiracy theory were also significantly more likely to agree with any other conspiracy theories we presented. A higher proportion (28%) believed in antisemitic ideas, such as that the extent of the Holocaust has been exaggerated, compared with only 3% of those who disagreed with the 5G theory. They were also more likely to believe vaccines are harmful and twice as likely to believe in the existence of Sharia law controlled “no-go zones”. This highlights the risk that engaging with relatively ‘benign’ conspiracy theories, i.e. that do not rest on scapegoating minority groups, can end up leading people with conspiratorial propensities towards more esoteric and hateful ideas.
Having conducted two polls, two weeks apart, one between March 20-23rd 2020 and one between April 7-9th 2020 we did however, observe some positive developments. Whereas 19% said that “coronavirus is not as serious as the government and media makes it out to be” in our March poll, two weeks later the number had fallen to 11%, indicating that a larger part of the population took the coronavirus seriously and accepted the mainstream narrative.