From Glasgow stabbings to Pizzagate and the trans debate, conspiracy theories are getting out of hand – Laura Waddell

The growth of conspiracy-theory thinking in recent years is a reminder of philosopher Hannah Arendt’s warning that ‘the ideal subject of totalitarian rule’ is someone who can no longer tell fact from fiction, writes Laura Waddell
Donald Trump has resisted calls to set an example to the American people by wearing a face mask, which experts say helps slow the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus (Picture: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)Donald Trump has resisted calls to set an example to the American people by wearing a face mask, which experts say helps slow the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus (Picture: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)
Donald Trump has resisted calls to set an example to the American people by wearing a face mask, which experts say helps slow the spread of the Covid-19 coronavirus (Picture: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images)

When looking for information online about the stabbing attack in Glasgow last week, it was striking how cluttered the results were with racism, conspiracy theory, and misinformation. The draw of malicious actors to tragedies is nothing new, but what felt different from comparable incidents of unfolding news was the sheer volume of antagonising posts.

As recently as the terrorist attack on London Bridge, or the Manchester Arena bombing, it was possible to scroll social media and find mostly news and traffic updates, bystander comments, and concern from regular citizens. All, of course, to be scrutinised in their veracity, and vulnerable to inaccuracy and lack of tact. But this time, when searching ‘Glasgow’ on Twitter in the immediate aftermath of what happened, genuine news was lost in a sea of misinformation.

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In Hannah Arendt’s 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, she wrote “the ideal subject of totalitarian rule is people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (ie the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (ie the standards of thought) no longer exist”.

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Searching ‘West George Street’ was more useful. Locals were more inclined to refer to the specific area than bad actors going with more general ‘Glasgow’. Verifable figures used the incident as fodder for political ends. Pro-Trump Americans and far-right Brits took advantage of the unconfirmed identity of the attacker to peddle anti-immigration rhetoric.

Figures such as Nigel Farage predictably weighed in. But there were far more anonymous accounts and bots, some made to look like news agencies, spreading conspiracy theories, fanning racist rumours, and flooding the subject with noise.

Exploiting prejudice and fear

In the wake of Black Lives Matter protests, new conversations are being had about Glasgow’s merchant slavers. Racism exists here. But it was particularly unsettling to look at the sheer volume of malicious information coming from around the world about a tragedy unfolding close by. Online misinformation seems to have surged in volume in the last year or two.

The noise is disorienting; official updates are lost among disruptive messages pumped out. Even more concerning are attempts to link such events with far-right talking points, exploiting prejudice and fear, and capitalising on the confusion of internet users who are less able to distinguish between genuine news and accounts posing as authoritative.

It does not help that the depletion of local news has happened during the acceleration of social media, which has been resistant to get a handle on the publication of mistruths, and whose algorithms feed users with increasingly extreme posts complimentary to their existing world view.

Conspiracy has gone mainstream. No longer are unscientific beliefs a fringe element. It has been three years since Michael Gove’s attempt at brushing inconvenient Brexit reports under the rug with his infamous line that “people are tired of experts”. Now, the President of the United States refuses to wear a mask because he refuses to acknowledge how hard coronavirus has hit America, and his most rabid adherents believe the virus is a lie.


Conspiracy theories exploit emotional vulnerabilities. In much the same way a parasite operates, when conspiracy is inside someone, they become an agent for it. Everything they experience becomes part of the theory, which feeds on all grievances, real or imagined, and links them to the issue. Some dedicate their lives to fighting for a conspiracy, seeking out the like-minded and occasionally recruiting others to their cause, but more often alienating friends, family members, and co-workers with increasingly erratic behaviour. Often, they come to see themselves as a proxy for the issue. Any personal disagreement is perceived as persecution as part of the conspiracy.

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Graham Linehan, this week suspended from Twitter under its policy of “repeated violations of our rules against hateful conduct and platform manipulation”, had spent the past couple of years tweeting about trans people at all hours of the day and night. Many ‘gender critical’ accounts claim any support whatsoever for Gender Recognition Act reforms is a misogynist conspiracy against women and girls. But even where women refute this, expressing support for trans people, or when women’s charities and services with years of experience support inclusive policies, such is the fervour of transphobic conspiracy theorists that they too are accused of conspiring to harm women. Anyone who has taken a ‘both sides are as bad as each other’ tack, in politics or in the media, has let them down by failing to recognise that what is happening is not radical but radicalisation.

It is not only anonymous conspiracists who benefit from stoking fires of malcontent, pushing far-right and socially conservative agendas. Some politicians position themselves as champions, cynically harnessing the support of dedicated online warriors for their own ends and directing their considerable vitriol at opponents.

Accused of paedophilia

This week, the SNP’s national women’s convenor, Rhiannon Spear, posted a blog in which she wrote “The conversation around the GRA reform has descended into radical extremism. It has moved on considerably from when I first started to engage in it online...

“Instead of critically engaging with why I and many others support GRA reform, opponents now want you to believe that I am a threat to women and girls. That I am a predator, that I groom children and at worst I am a paedophile.”

This bears striking similarity to Pizzagate, the nonsensical conspiracy that a pizza restaurant in Washington DC was operating a paedophile ring from its non-existent basement, where relentless and crazed online campaigning culminated in a man turning up with a gun. What all of these things have in common is that they weaponise hatred against a vulnerable group, often a racial or sexual minority, and create a wall of noise that makes genuine discussion near impossible.

Misinformation agents attach themselves to any news story which can be twisted to hook more converts. Conspiracy is a slippery slope. Increasing numbers of people are falling down it. Unfortunately, those who recognise its political potential have been quicker to wield it than any serious political attempts to curb it.

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