The official inquiry into the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing has reminded us of the devastating impact of this terrorist attack which killed 22 people, injured many more and left families bereft.
But to add to their difficulties, a study my team and I conducted for the BBC’s Panorama coverage of the attack reveals that a worrying number of people think the attack never even happened. The show exposed how victims’ families have been harassed by conspiracy theorists who appear to believe the incident was a hoax.
As our study highlights, frightening proportions of the public believe in conspiracy theories that doubt the truth of reported events, even terrorist attacks. In our findings, one in seven respondents believed victims of the Manchester Arena bombing were not really victims at all, but “crisis actors” – essentially, that they were brought in to pretend to be victims of an attack to manipulate public opinion. We also found that one in 20 were convinced the attack in Manchester and the 7/7 bombings in London in 2005 were “hoaxes”.
People using newer social media platforms were more likely to believe conspiracies relating to the attack, with over four in ten Telegram users thinking crisis actors were involved. Among the wider public, the figure was just 14%.
The COVID pandemic may also have fuelled unfounded suspicions. We were forced to stay at home and rely on online information more than usual. Conflicting narratives around the pandemic created confusion, leading many to question if they were being told the truth. A third of people in our study said this experience has made them more suspicious of official explanations of events – even unrelated ones like terrorist attacks.
Amplifying the problem
Conspiracy theories are not necessarily more powerful today than in the past, but our new information environment can make us feel otherwise. We hear more about these theories now that we live in a world in which extreme or unusual views are amplified to drive traffic.
And the recent trial of Alex Jones in the US reminds us that even if only a few people subscribe to a conspiracy theory, the consequences can be devastating. People who believed the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012 was a “hoax” caused untold damage by harassing the families of victims, all the while encouraged by Jones’ broadcasts on the subject.
In fact, the Global Terrorism Database has revealed that attacks by conspiracy theorists are undermining an otherwise welcome trend in declining terrorist attacks. In 2019 there were six recorded attacks carried out by conspiracy theorists worldwide – but that tally rose to at least 116 in 2020. Many of these attacks targeted communications infrastructure, driven by a conspiracy theory linking 5G to COVID.
Challenging the flow of conspiracies is complicated by the fuzziness between “prudent paranoia” – the justifiable questioning of accepted explanations – and dangerous radicalisation.
Many of us have suspicions about the information we receive: four in ten think there are alternative accounts for terrorists attacks, and three in ten believe the whole truth is not being told about these attacks. It is difficult to predict who will end up turning such suspicions into radical ideas, but several key psychological indicators provide a guide.
For those who feel anxious about developments in the news they may not understand, conspiracy theories can provide certainty as the believer may think they’ve found the “real” truth behind a complex story. People who feel powerless or have high levels of anxiety believe conspiracies as a way of regaining some sense of control. Those feeling isolated and insecure may also gain a sense of belonging to a group that shares the same belief in a conspiracy.
Tackling the problem
The blurred lines between reasonable scepticism and conspiracy, and the difficulty in predicting who will act on conspiracy theories, makes it hard to know what to do about the problem of misinformation.
Asking tech companies and platforms to identify conspiracy theories would result in millions of subjective calls on what constitutes a truthful statement. Such blunt instruments are unworkable.
Some argue a more rounded mix is needed – promoting good information, not just restricting bad information, to build resilience amongst the public and increase transparency.
That’s why the trial of Jones, particularly the eye-catching judgment that he should pay US$1 billion (£85 billion) in damages, and the exposure of terror attack conspiracies on Panorama are vital. New technologies may not have made the prevalence of conspiracy belief worse, but they have made spreading and encouraging them a more lucrative enterprise. Shifting that calculation is a vital part of fighting back.
Bobby Duffy receives funding from ESRC, British Academy, Unbound Philanthropy, Barrow Cadbury, the Cabinet Office, Horizon 2020 and NIHR.