According to recent polling by YouGov, 28% of Jeremy Corbyn supporters strongly agree with the classically paranoid conspiracy theory formulation “the world is controlled by a secretive elite”. That’s more than one in four, compared to just 13% of the population at large.
The average Jeremy Corbyn supporter, in other words, is more than twice as likely than the rest of the population to view the world through a conspiratorial lens.
Such numbers, if they show us anything, show the extent to which the paranoid style has become the dominant mode of discourse among the political fringes.
Worryingly, they also suggest the close proximity of such discourse to the political mainstream. Corbyn, after all, is on the verge of becoming the leader of Britain’s second largest party, and he will bring the cranks with him.
You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to support Jeremy Corbyn, obviously, but if you are on the Left and prone to thinking like a conspiracy theorist, he’s probably your man. If that sounds unfair, consider the fact that grumpy lizard-botherer David Icke has made a video defending Corbyn. He hasn’t made one defending Liz Kendall.
As if to prove the point, the same day I read about this poll I had a surreal exchange with a Facebook friend, one who, until recently, had shown no signs of conspiratorial thinking. No prizes for guessing which prospective Labour leader gets this man’s vote.
My friend was incensed by the news that over 2000 people had died after being declared fit to work by government capability assessments. He wasn’t the only one: the story had appeared on my Facebook feed and Twitter timeline multiple times that day, and most of those posts were heavily critical of the government’s welfare reforms.
It was only when I saw a status comparing Ian Duncan Smith and the Department for Work and Pensions to the Nazis that my eyebrow raised:
Perhaps I’m peculiar, but glib comparisons to Hitler and the Nazis bloody annoy me, firstly because I take history quite seriously, and secondly because it’s never anything that warrants the comparison, like ISIS or Assad, it’s always something that plainly doesn’t, like Angela Merkel or David Cameron. I’ve seen my friend rant and rave about “Tory scum” with the best of them, but I’ve never seen him say anything quite so nutty.
I assumed, initially, that he was comparing the deaths of those benefits claimants with the Nazi’s euthanising of the mentally and physically disabled; a spurious comparison for all kinds of obvious reasons, but one that at least has the benefit of some kind of internal logic. Turns out, when pressed, he had something else in mind:
Contrary to my friend’s assertion, I don’t in fact know how the government “can control what is fed to the public via certain mediums”, because there seems to me to be no plausible sense in which that’s possible. I don’t think that because I’m naive, but because this government “blockdown” [sic] has had no detectable effect whatsoever on my own ability to source information.
Here, for example, are just a few of the times the IDS story appeared on my Facebook feed that day, including one from the pro-Tory Telegraph, and, at the bottom, my friend’s own post about it, just below a status where he suggests those same posts are being “taken down”:
And here is the same story, right there at number five in Facebook’s list of trending topics:
For a government that is taking its cues from Hitler and Goebbels in its attempts to suppress information, leaving the IDS story as one of the top trending topics on Facebook strikes me as a rather amateurish oversight indeed. Some cover up.
My friend makes a rather ostentatious and expletive-flecked display of his hatred for the Tories, as you can see, but he clearly rates them far more highly than I do, as they don’t seem to me to be nearly clever enough or competent enough to pull off the sort of dastardly conspiracy he’s describing. It is all but impossible to square the same DWP that only recently made such an embarrassing bungle of its motivational posters of happy and reformed benefits claimants, with the image of sinister algorithm-fiddling and information suppressing Machiavellians invented by my friend. Ian Duncan Smith may be bald, but that doesn’t make him a Bond villain.
It is telling, I think, that my friend was unwilling, or more likely unable, to describe exactly how the government controls the flow of information, he was simply “certain” that they do.
I’ve seen this kind of thing a lot on social media over the years, and it only seems to be becoming more prevalent. During last year’s Scottish referendum, I repeatedly saw nationalists scream that Facebook was deliberately removing pro-independence posts, and they, too, believed the BBC was colluding with the government against them. I’ve also seen people on the hard Right argue the same thing but from the other direction; for them the BBC is all lies because it’s run by far Left loons pushing some kind of politically correct ‘cultural Marxist’ agenda. Evidence supporting these various, and competing, conspiracies is seldom asked for or given; as with my friend, the strength of their own convictions is enough.
Obviously it is impossible for Facebook and the BBC to be both organs of right-wing propaganda and left-wing propaganda at the same time. One swipe of Occam’s Razor is enough to cleave imagination from reality: What is more probable, that there remains a vast, undetectable conspiracy to prevent the flow of certain types of information (one that, as we have seen, doesn’t actually work), or that certain people on Facebook, ever ready to see the hand of their political enemies at play, have overactive imaginations?
What is especially strange about such notions is that they seem to be increasing in frequency at a time when information has never been freer. It has never been more difficult for governments in an open society to keep secrets, as Wikileaks and Edward Snowden have shown. Similarly, the power of the traditional media to influence what we can and can’t see has never been weaker.
Paranoia is a contagion, and the internet its perfect host. Social media, with its tendency to create self-reinforcing feedback loops of like-minded individuals, encourages group polarisation, cutting people off from challenges to their beliefs. Those at the political margins are more susceptible to paranoid thinking and conspiratorial ideas. Unless guarded against, those ideas can quickly spread to the center. There is no firewall between the crank and the ordinary man; the latter easily tips into the former.