Would you believe that a fifth of the adult population of Britain have either taken part in anti-vax protests, or are prepared to do so? Or that about 4 million people have attended protests against the introduction of central bank digital currencies (CBDCs)? What about the idea that The Light, an anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown newspaper, has about 3 million subscribers, and has at some point been distributed by nearly 4 million people?
You’d be right to be sceptical. It’s unlikely that there are 4 million people with in-depth knowledge about CBDCs. The Light only has 13,000 followers on Facebook. And it seems obvious that millions of people have not taken part in Covid-denial demonstrations, especially as only 6.4% of the population have not received any vaccines. But new polling research released by King’s College London for a BBC series on conspiracy theories suggests otherwise. The findings are based on an online survey of more than 2,000 British adults, conducted by Savanta, a reputable polling company – although a full breakdown of the polling methods hasn’t been published.
Polling can offer useful snapshots of public opinion, but its results can vary wildly depending on the methods used – for example, on the questions asked. The King’s College London study asked whether people believed the World Economic Forum was using Covid recovery as a chance to establish a totalitarian world government. About a third of people indicated that was probably or definitely true. But, when asked further, only 55% of those people reported having seen or heard any information that made them believe the theory was true. Should a study making bold claims about widespread belief in an extreme conspiracy theory not be confident that respondents know what they’re talking about?
Indeed, the report underlines many of the weaknesses of what could be described as anti-misinformation research. It may be that those most fascinated by misinformation are particularly invested in believing it is a significant problem, and therefore are prone to believe that false narratives peddled by “alternative media outlets” are particularly widespread.
The finding that’s received most attention from this report is that almost a quarter of Britons think Covid is a hoax, with 9% saying that was “definitely true” and 14% opting for “probably true”. But according to YouGov’s work last year, only 3% said Covid was a hoax. The difference is YouGov precisely defined what they meant by hoax, asking if respondents agreed that: “Coronavirus is a myth created by some powerful forces, and the virus does not really exist.”
With less precise wording, hoax could mean designed in a Chinese lab, or accidentally leaked and covered up – a range of theories I’m personally sceptical about, but which are believed to be plausible by the Biden administration and officially discussed by the FBI. I asked Prof Bobby Duffy, one of the academics behind the King’s study, about this, and he said that asking more generally if Covid is a hoax will include many different motivations, but that it nonetheless reveals a general sense of distrust, of being hoodwinked in some way, and that’s useful on its own terms. But with so many different interpretations, is that really good enough?
The danger, then, is that if it isn’t done carefully, anti-misinformation work can sometimes appear to inflate the scale of the problem. But even more importantly, it asks us to focus our scrutiny on fringe ideas and publications, rather than the poison widely circulating in the respectable mainstream. It is, after all, these outlets that exert the most influence in our society.
Take the “great replacement theory”, which the poll defines as “the idea that white Americans and Europeans are being replaced by non-white immigrants”. The study suggests nearly a third of the adult population believes it is definitely or probably happening. It focuses on what it calls the “alternative media” associated with this theory, including outlets such as 21st Century Wire, Truth Social and Breitbart. Yet that list is missing the mainstream, UK-based Spectator, which has published articles supporting this theory, and whose star writer Douglas Murray’s “most striking achievement” was correctly described by the journalist Peter Oborne as having “domesticated” the theory, which originated on the French far-right.
Here’s another one: the study says about a third of the adult population believe that 15-minute cities “are an attempt to restrict people’s personal freedom and keep them under surveillance”. It is a theory that has been fuelled by the likes of Mail Online, the most-read online newspaper in Britain. Why the focus on fringe publications, when the respectability conferred by mainstream publications and journalists gives such poisonous ideas far more social acceptability?
Prof Duffy says that examining the role of mainstream publications is “worth doing”. But he also said it would prove more challenging, because conventional outlets are more varied than those with specifically conspiratorial ends, and the biggest predictor of false conspiratorial beliefs is the shunning of supposedly reputable newspapers and broadcasters. He said the research catered for the BBC’s focus on these alternative outlets. Well, quite: the BBC has no interest in scrutinising the conspiratorial output of supposedly respectable outlets. Its former flagship political interviewer, Andrew Neil, is the chair of the Spectator. In any case, Auntie Beeb has a vested interest in shoring up its own reputation by contrasting its trustworthiness with outlets outside the mainstream.
Anti-misinformation coverage – intentionally or otherwise – often whitewashes the role of mainstream outlets by claiming that it is the proliferation of new, internet-based media that is at the heart of the problem. But by virtue of wider circulation and respectability, the false theories promoted by mainstream publications do the most damage. This is clear to see, from deceitful claims about the Hillsborough disaster promoted by the Sun, to the way mainstream publications have helped radicalise the population against Muslims. Taking on misinformation in a real way would require scrutinising our biggest media institutions – but it would mean picking a fight with sharks, rather than minnows, even if it would take us far closer to the actual truth.