A conversation about social media and conspiracy theories

“The structure of these new digital technologies makes it easy to fall into a bottomless pit of conspiracies – and fast too.”

Last weekend 15,000 people gathered in protest at Trafalgar Square in London – without a mask or social distance – against measures to combat the coronavirus. Like other demonstrations in London in recent months, the message brings together several different groups: climate change and anti-vaccination deniers, extreme right-wing groups, and anti-5G conspiracy and QAnon [a conspiracy theory that says Donald Trump is waging a secret war against a satanic sect responsible for an international paedophilia ring].

On the web, there has been an increase in references to conspiracy theories like QAnon. Those who share are pro-Brexit or extreme-right groups, but not only that: there are posts about QAnon associated with essential oil pages and numerology or meditation. What is particular about these conspiracy theories made in digital media? What is the role of these platforms in spreading misinformation, especially in times of crisis?

I spoke with Matthew Feldman, Director of the Centre for Analysis of The Radical Right, about conspiracy theories and extremism in the age of social media.

Can we say that there is a relationship between these conspiracy theories and extreme-right discourses?
Conspiracy theories are not necessarily left or right. They can be religious, psychological, and not distinctive political. They often intersect politics, but not always. When someone says he has been abducted by aliens, for example, he does not necessarily express a left or right position.

That said, it is common for new conspiracy theories to fit into the rules established by previous experiences. This is the case with the anti-Semitic conspiracy, which is probably the most destructive conspiracy theory of all time. Going back to The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion [an anti-Semitic text, first published in 1903 in Russia, describing a plan by the Jews for global domination]: we have an alleged group of people who literally drink the blood of children.

These themes are very much present in history as a reason for persecution of Jews and emerge in various conspiracy theories, such as QAnon, which fit into a number of existing political or ideological moulds. Although it is possible to be anti-Semitic and to be left-wing or right-wing, there is little doubt that the legacy of fascism and Nazism reflects this model in which anti-Semitic organisations fit.

In fact, it seems that it is not possible to really be of the extreme right without adhering to a conspiracy theory on a certain level. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to be extreme right-wing without adhering to anti-Semitic conspiracies or the theory of grand substitution [white supremacist conspiracy which claims that the European population is being progressively replaced by Arab and other African and Middle Eastern peoples through mass migration and population growth], for example.

What are the main differences between these recent phenomena like QAnon and anti-5G movements that we have seen in anti-lockdown protests and other conspiracy theories?

What we see with the anti-lockdown protests is a mixture of people: there are anti-vaxx groups, anti-mask groups, supporters of QAnon, clear presence of extreme right like the New British Union, and others like Piers Corbyn [Jeremy Corbyn’s brother and long-time anti-vaxxer and climate change negator], side by side with their posters. Some of these overlap: if it’s anti-vaccination it’s likely to be anti-mask, and if it’s anti-mask, you might think that the 5G towers will suck your brain out. Maybe you believe in QAnon, or maybe not.

We seem to have a less conspiracy-oriented demographic set than the usual suspects, who are usually from a less common political position, but extremist people with a different ideological motivation. Of course, some people who make up these conspiracies have these motivations, but they do not entirely correspond to that electorate. We are talking about a new face in these kinds of ideas.

However, when demonstrators shout “choose a side”, it seems to me that that side is defined – and it is between the left or the right.

QAnon speaks of an omniscient global conspiracy that Donald Trump fights from the White House, is there any political advantage to his supporters on social networks?

In part. The fact that this is a political phenomenon in which Donald Trump is supposedly fighting deepstate may be significant. The point is that we do not necessarily know who is behind QAnon.

When we talk about The Protocols of the Wise Men of Zion, we know that it was a conspiracy by the Czar and the secret police to try to generate hatred against the Jews, creating a common internal enemy and helping the Czar to solidify his support. We knew who was behind this conspiracy theory, because they proposed it, because they defended it, but because we do not know who is behind QAnon it is difficult to come to those kinds of conclusions.

The reason why it is difficult to draw conclusions is because of the nature of these conspiracy theories?

Yes, part of their own nature. These conspiracy theories exist on the fringes, they are not organised and generally have no ideological basis. Looking at some of the anti-Muslim conspiracy theories, for example, especially in the United States, they are quite grounded and complex.

Again, who is behind them is quite clear: they are people who consider Islam incompatible with the West and who are openly Islamophobic or white supremacists. We know what their agenda is, but I am not sure that we know what the QAnon agenda is yet. Let us remember: none of this existed three years ago.

It seems that there is a tendency throughout history to become more susceptible to conspiracy theories in times of uncertainty and greater economic inequality – is the current pandemic situation the explanation for the greater spread of these stories online?

Yes, but mostly because people are isolated. Especially those who, due to the structure of their days, spend a lot of time in front of a screen and end up not communicating in the same way about their learning at home or at work: this creates a fertile ground for these kinds of theories. For the youngest there is less supervision, and for the oldest perhaps less verified information. The structure of these new digital technologies makes falling into a bottomless pit of conspiracies easy – and quick too.

Although conspiracy theories exist even before social networks, five years ago they would have been in hard-to-find places, marginal magazines, we were unlikely to find them. What we see now, again and again, is that people are stumbling across these theories on mainstream websites. And this is definitely new.

Now, whether there are more people stumbling on conspiracy theories (and it seems so) or whether they are simply more visible by being on Facebook, Twitter or Youtube, whether they are just more visible or more prevalent, is not yet entirely clear.

To what extent should internet giants like Facebook or Twitter be held responsible for the distribution of disinformation?

This is a particularly difficult question because these are private companies, with the aim of generating profit. It is difficult to say what responsibility they should have in the public sphere for defending freedom of expression.

Let’s think of it this way: if one of the people who spreads misinformation is by chance the president of a particular country. Is it wise for Twitter or Facebook to condemn or expel this person? Or are they acting instead of the government by prohibiting senators or presidents from using their platforms to spread misinformation?

How responsible should these platforms be and what should the consequences be? Fines? Closure? I think most people would consider this a rather extreme reaction: Facebook is not saying it believes in the QAnon conspiracy theory, what Facebook is doing is offering a platform for individuals and groups to do so.

The question is very complex: to what extent should there be penalties for an offensive post or fake news being online for a certain period of time? If you are online one day, should there be a penalty? Two days? One week?

I’ll give you an interesting statistic: after the terrible shooting in Christchurch last year, a video of the attack, or parts of it, circulated on Facebook 2.7 million times in the 24 hours following the attack. In the same 24 hours, Facebook removed 2.4 million of those posts. Do we consider this a success or a failure? Should Facebook be praised or punished?

Is there something inherently flawed about the very model of social networks, condemning us to fail by default?

Is there perhaps something inherently flawed in human nature? Why are we attracted by the sensationalist and by what has up to 280 characters? I think the problem is bigger than social networks, but that social networks definitely work as an amplifier. This remains one of the main questions about how responsibility in social networks and the digital sphere is managed.

I think a lot of people and many voices have been talking about this for a long time: the problem keeps getting worse. It is crucial to me that there is at least a sense of urgency about how important this is.

These issues carry weight now and will continue to do so. The internet is unlikely to be a part of our lives anymore. It’s even more likely to become more important in our routine over the next five or ten years – it’s important that we get this right.

Is it possible to solve the problem of disinformation on the internet?

If our goal is never to have any extremist content on any platform again, we will invariably fail. If, on the other hand, what we want is a solution where this content is outside of mainstream platforms that represent 95% of the internet like Google, Youtube or Facebook, then yes, we can achieve it.

And if we’re asking ourselves what success it would mean, no extremism on these platforms is not realistic, but maybe we can have robust and independent fact-checking processes, and people who understand that this is a serious and complex issue and want to do something about it.