Rise of conspiracy theorists: do online conspiracies turn into real-life violence?

The internet is home to a host of platforms where people can share their theories and find like-minded people - but does it come at a cost?

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Just over three years ago, a wireless 5G mast was set alight in Birmingham. The incident was fueled by an internet conspiracy believing the spread of Covid-19 was driven by 5G technology that caused small changes to people's bodies making them vulnerable to the virus

Of course, conspiracy theories aren't just an internet creation. They have been circulating for a long time - think 'fake moon landing', 'lizard people', or 'flat earthers'. But how often do these beliefs turn to real-life violence? Online forums and platforms are a haven for like-minded people to come together and discuss their thoughts, beliefs and ideas in a safe, anonymous environment - but can this cause actual harm? 

'A clear link' between conspiracy theories and violence

The Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) has outlined a few case studies where conspiracy theories have inspired real-world violence, with events stretching back almost 10 years. These include: 

The Great Replacement theory: where it is believed that Muslims, Jewish people and/or other groups are actively working to ‘replace’ white people in Western countries.

It is believed to have inspired several terrorist attacks in recent years:

  • 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • 2019 Christchurch mosque shooting
  • 2022 supermarket attack in Buffalo, NY

The internet is home to a host of platforms where people can share their theories and find like-minded people - but does it come at a cost?The internet is home to a host of platforms where people can share their theories and find like-minded people - but does it come at a cost?
The internet is home to a host of platforms where people can share their theories and find like-minded people - but does it come at a cost?

Incel / blackpill conspiracy theories: where people believe the ability of an individual to establish romantic relationships is wholly determined by appearance and therefore genetics, has inspired a number of real-world attacks, including:

  • In 2014 Elliot Rodger, a 22 year old man, murdered six people and injured fourteen more in Isla Vista, California, before killing himself.
  • In August 2021, Jake Davison, a British man, shot and killed five people and injured two others before fatally shooting himself in Plymouth.

Keir Starmer / Jimmy Savile prosecution conspiracy theory: in February 2022, Labour leader Keir Starmer and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy were ambushed by far-right protesters. The attackers were heard to be shouting “traitor” and “Jimmy Savile” – suggesting that they had been motivated by the conspiracy theory that Starmer had suppressed the prosecution of Jimmy Savile during his tenure as Director of Public Prosecutions.

Anti-vaccine conspiracy theories: further examples extending beyond the burnet masts include August 2021 where anti-vaccine protesters stormed a television studio in west London (formerly a BBC studio) and the ITN headquarters. Later that year (in December), during an anti-vaccine demonstration, protesters stormed a test-and-trace centre in Milton Keynes where they were filmed shouting abuse at staff and appearing to steal equipment.

Callum Hood, Head of Research at CDC said: “There is a very clear link between online conspiracy theories and real-world violence. From incels to anti-vaxxers, bad actors have cited these baseless theories as justification for acts of violence and vandalism.” Hood admits that while the Big Tech firms have rules in place which prohibit users from spreading harmful misinformation, “they choose to turn a blind eye”.

Is there a proven link? 

A paper by Dr Federico Vegetti and Levente Littvay titled Belief in conspiracy theories and attitudes toward political violence, showed that people who scored higher on a scale of generic conspiracy belief were also more likely to endorse violent political actions. 

On the paper, Dr Vegetti’s participants came from Amazon MTurk, a crowdsourcing website, between the end of 2013 and the beginning of 2014. Although the sample is limited, the same correlation has also been shown by other studies. He said: "Although the study does not provide any evidence of a connection between belief in conspiracy theories and actual violent behaviour, […] we provide some anecdotal evidence there might be an association between the two. Furthermore, the theory describes a possible role that conspiracy theories play in the political radicalisation of some individuals." 

In his own opinion, he holds the belief that some people are more likely to engage in violent acts because of individual predisposing factors but that "conspiracy theories could channel some people who are predisposed to commit some politically violent acts towards specific political targets (either political actors or the "system" as a whole)". 

But what can be done about preventing online conspiracy theorists from spiralling towards real-life violence? Dr Vegetti said: "We live in a time where several phenomena co-occur: disengagement and disaffection from traditional representative institutions (parties, governments), the multiplication of information sources (especially on social network sites), and a rise in contentious politics. The latter phenomenon might be related to the first two, however, it is a very complex matter to study empirically."

A National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) spokesperson said: “We are aware of conspiracy theories that feature online and online communities which can form as a result of these. The reports of criminal damage to 5G masts in 2020 were concerning due to the fact these masts are important infrastructure that facilitate communications, including the ability to call emergency services. Criminal damage of any nature is a crime and will be dealt with as such.”

Hood said that if conspiracy theories are left unchecked, they can gain legitimacy and spread beyond small online echo chambers. “Whenever they fail to act, Big Tech firms embolden extremists and put lives at risk.”

Unesco has released their #ThinkBeforeSharing campaign which looks into how people can learn to identify, debunk, react to and report on conspiracy theories to help prevent their spread - and possibly reduce the probability it could turn into real life violence. Their pack comes in a range of different languages, such as English, French, Arabic and Russian, and provides a comprehensive checklist on how to spot a conspiracy theory.

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