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The Critic Essay

The conspiracy illusion

Marianna Spring is looking at the finger, not the moon

Across the West, the last 15 years have come to be defined by a great upheaval. The old institutions of trust, from the media to the universities, have haemorrhaged confidence. Public participation in the old rites of democracy and civic society is increasingly defined by cynicism in the face of global threats.

Amid this pessimism, the popular memory of a decade once heralded by a global financial crisis, lowered living standards and the catastrophic follies of governments at home and abroad, has increasingly been substituted in favour of hyper technological determinism regarding the influence of social media. Almost daily, streams of articles appeared announcing how algorithms have radicalised us and fake news, disinformation and outright lies have flooded the system. Truth is the greatest casualty of all. 

In its place, the reign of conspiracism — the dangerous will to believe what we want to believe — lurks, always threatening to upend democratic systems, rearing its ugly head in bursts of digitally ordained violence. As such, the prelapsarian idyll that existed before the digital world has become all the more enticing. A new myth, built on a time before social media and accelerated by the daily doom scrolls of the digital news cycle, has come to fruition. 

Among the Trolls, Marianna Spring, Atlantic Books, £15.64

Marianna Spring, the BBC’s Disinformation Correspondent has written the latest polemic that rests precariously upon this ever influential narrative.  Among The Trolls is a memoir that carries the hagiographic zeal of a saint’s life. Someone who has descended into the worst excesses of this terrifying new world ushered in by social media. 

This is a hellscape of aggression and madness that borders on the sort of sadistic absurdity that once attracted Louis Theroux and post watershed television producers. Failed comedians mock dead children blown up in terrorist atrocities. Once genteel members of society now see NHS nurses as murderers, complicit in a scheme to depopulate the planet through vaccines and  measures to mitigate the impact of climate change. 

The name she gives to this hell is “ConspiracyLand” — a place that has “infected’ towns,” up and down the country. “Anywhere with an internet connection,” she writes, “you’ll be able to venture into it.” 9/11 was its birth, the ground zero of mistrust that popularised the belief amongst a growing set of conspiracists that secretive forces are behind every wrong turn. This reductiveness provides Spring with the confidence to join the dots between seemingly unconnected events: from an attempted coup by a fringe far right group who wants to return Germany to the 2nd Reich, to radical boomer hippies living in Totnes who think Bill Gates is trying to murder them. 

Adjacent to the rise of this potentially dangerous conspiracism, according to Spring, is the danger of “disinformation and misinformation”. To propel this threat she comes up with her own definition of trolls beyond the bored internet user. “Trolling has become a weapon for those who disseminate disinformation or promote conspiracy theories,” she declares. In case of doubt, she neatly gives us a definition derived from the old French troller which means to “wander around looking for something to kill.”

All these forces, she argues, “pose a threat to the fabric of our society.” This is a sentence she repeats twice in the opening third of Among the Trolls, and she spends the rest of the book justifying it in a potted saga that runs from a narcissistic obsession with people who hate her to the murder of a teenager in Reading. In the paltry 39 notes that accompany the book, the only piece of research that really matches her alarmist rhetoric is a study the BBC Verify team did in partnership with King’s College London — a piece of research that has since inspired ridicule after it projected that a quarter of the UK population believed that Covid was a “hoax”. Science writer Stuart Ritchie described it as 100% false, with King’s College London since quietly distancing themselves from the findings. 

Has social media really brought about a great upheaval of our times? Behind all the trite prose, appropriated horror stories and cliches about “rabbit holes”, there is one simple distinction that Spring never engages with in sufficient depth. Are there mad people that thanks to social media now have a bigger reach? Undoubtedly yes. Do they, and their mad ideas, have a disproportionate influence on the beliefs of the population at large, more so than at any other point in the long history of irrational belief and its real world consequences? This is something Spring never seriously attempts to answer. And in the interest of avoiding increasingly politicised or overly emotive narratives regarding its influence, we should defer to an increasing body of research that suggests the answer is in fact no. 

Despite an abundance of hysterical headlines that have muscled their way into national media, there is actually little evidence that conspiratorial thinking is on the rise. One 2022 study which studied 46 different “conspiracy theories” in the US found no overall rise in the magnitude of belief relating to these ideas. In some instances, the opposite had happened. On the subject of climate change for example, 37 per cent agreed in 2013 that “global warming was a hoax”, but in 2021 this had dropped to 19 per cent in agreement. Other UK specific surveys have revealed that post-pandemic Britain has in fact some of the lowest beliefs in “conspiracy theories” in the world. 

But what about the population’s susceptibility to deliberately false information, the likes of which have been spread by malign actors intended to deceive? Disinformation research since 2016 has become mired in accusations of politically motivated bias and inconsistencies that has given way to the idea no one can quite define what it actually means.  One fact however that has emerged: of the demonstrably false information that has been defined, there is really only a minority that does engage with and actively promote demonstrably false information. Unsurprisingly their reach is limited and negligible in terms of what restoring trust in established sources of information can achieve.

Social media, rather than being seen as an epistemic no man’s land capable of swaying people to extreme positions, is largely a place where people go to have their pre-existing beliefs confirmed. As the cognitive scientist Hugo Mercier has argued, most people still have a good intuition for the truth, and the digital age has not upended historical norms regarding the effects of propaganda and information intended to mislead. Indeed, research has shown that alarmism regarding the potential of fake news to sway people’s views is largely based on subjective views regarding the gullibility of the population. 

At this point, advocates of the conspiracist turn may throw up their arms and point to the likes of QAnon supporters running riot on Capitol Hill, or people protesting outside hospitals during the pandemic. Or they may defer to the increasingly popular genre of documentaries and podcasts that go in search of some of society’s most insane members. These are undoubtedly problems that social media influences, but there is a causational confusion here. Are these people driven purely by their experiences online? Or is it part of a complex interaction between inherent traits, real world experiences and psychological dispositions? One study has found that exposure to “online misinformation” does not in fact drive an increase of “misbehaviours” lamenting the flawed logic regarding correlation and causation. As the philosopher Dan Williams has argued, online disinformation and misinformation should be viewed not as the disease, but rather symptoms of longer term institutional distrust, political sectarianism and anti-establishment worldviews that have been inherited from a pre-internet world. 

The much maligned modern “digital media ecosystem” is therefore far more complicated and indeed sophisticated than Spring and her acolytes let on. Such alarmism often overlooks the fact that the sizable majority still get their news via social media from mainstream news outlets. This is often ignored by journalists, most of whom spend an inordinate amount on social media, unlike the population at large, going down these very “rabbit holes” in search of stories. The irony is that this hyper technological determinism is also often shared by the very people their increasingly politically oriented reporting seeks to counter. Observe for instance the recent moral panic by Republican politicians over the spread of propaganda by the CPP on TikTok, who appear, like many journalists, to have fallen for another flawed “opt in” survey regarding the exponential rise of holocaust denial on the platform in the US since October 7th.

Yet despite the deep flaws presented in Springs’ alarmism, it’s one we should take seriously. For recently this very paranoia has worked its way up to institutions such as the World Economic Forum. Perhaps in an effort to troll the conspiracists, they recently declared that “Disinformation and Misinformation” is now more of a threat to mankind than nuclear war. Apologists for this alarmism, have described it as a “multifaceted threat”. But such an emphasis strangely shifts the responsibility for an increasingly fraught world away from those who govern it onto the population at large. 

This repositioning of the epistemological burden of truth in the digital world onto the consumers of news has amounted to a significant shift in priorities of traditional journalism. Observe the increasingly strange phenomenon whereby those who seem most keen to amplify apparent impacts of conspiracy theories are journalists and other commentators. Spring’s debacle with the King’s College survey demonstrated this folly, given that they appeared to be polling members of the public on conspiracy theories — such as “the great replacement” and “the great reset” — that they had never actually heard of. This has not stopped headlines in the Forbes’ and Guardians, suggesting that politicians who oppose mundane local council efforts to reduce traffic are in fact aligning themselves with conspiracy theorists. 

There’s an old Chinese proverb that comes to mind: when a wise man points at the moon, an idiot looks at his finger

Regardless of what you think of these specific issues, such a means of debate, not least in the hands of those in society still regarded as trusted sources of information, is toxic. The paranoia it invokes is divisive. It encourages us to buy into a flawed and reductive understanding of how social media influences beliefs that foregoes historical complexities in place of simple truths ripe for political appropriation. If a sizable majority of the British public continue to express opposition to mass immigration, to what extent will online disinformation around a hitherto unknown conspiracy theory come to be blamed? If Trump is returned as president in the upcoming election can we really continue to rely on simplistic “post truth” analyses for his enduring success? If waning Western support for Ukraine forces Kyiv to the negotiation table, will this mean Russian disinformation has triumphed?

There’s an old Chinese proverb that comes to mind: when a wise man points at the moon, an idiot looks at his finger. In the last decade, it increasingly seems that the finger we are staring at as we try to come to terms with the ongoing upheaval across the West is social media. We have come to ignore that ever luminous shadow regarding the ongoing discontent of our time. A populism rooted in long term structural economic and political deficiencies. A mistrust of institutions and governments rooted in their own flaws. It is in the interest of all those responsible for the course of Western society, from politicians to journalists to reposition themselves away from this wrong turn. If not, we seem to be forever trapped in that other overlooked flaw of social media: a digital presentism rooted in the endless cycles of ill informed narratives and division, an inability to see back into our past to understand our mistakes, nor into the future to anticipate their consequence.

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