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Of Cynics and Conspiracy Theorists

This entry was posted in Conspiracy Theories, Data on 23 February 2015 by

In a conference talk last year Alfred suggested that conspiracy theory should be seen as a spectrum disorder. ‘Disorder’ because the term ‘conspiracy theory’ usually has negative connotations; ‘spectrum’ because conspiracies come in different degrees, from the archetype of the small group hatching a nefarious plot in a smoky room to forms of collusion that need not involve an explicit plan but which nonetheless end up producing similar effects (Alfred wrote more about this distinction in his most recent blog post.) So imagined conspiracies can range from the strict sense of a secret plot to the looser sense of a coordinated network, and here the spectrum shades away from conspiracy altogether into broader claims about systemic bias, groupthink, and elite rule.

The point is that when people use the language of conspiracy it’s not always clear exactly what sort of conspiracy they have in mind. But we now have some new data (courtesy of a poll conducted for us by YouGov – check out the full results here) which help us get a better idea of what’s going on.

We asked two questions that mark out the ends of the conspiracy theory spectrum:

“Even though we live in a democracy, a few people will always run things in this country anyway”

“Regardless of who is officially in charge of governments, media organisations and companies, there is a secret group of powerful people who really control world events like wars and economic crises”

The first question taps into general skepticism of elites, and a cynicism regarding politicians and politics; the second is about conspiracies in the strict sense, asking whether respondents believed a secret group of individuals control the course of history. These questions, then, tap into two different ways of thinking about hidden power.

Figure 1: belief that elites control events versus a secret group

Respondents to our survey were broadly sceptical about elites: the vast majority of respondents accept that ‘a few people will always run things’; only 9% held it to be false.

What does scepticism of elites look like? Consider a contemporary example from the Guardian, hot on the heels of the HSBC tax evasion scandal. Polly Toynbee described the Conservative Party’s annual Black and White ball, where

more than 500 phenomenally rich donors gathered in London’s Grosvenor House hotel – last year’s guests were worth £22bn. Paying £15,000 for dinner was peanuts compared to sums this assembly of plutocrats will donate to the party – no wonder there’s been a news lockdown.

She the asks rhetorically:

Are these the people who really run the country, buying an election to ensure government by their people, for their people? That’s for voters to consider in May: Cameron’s government has certainly been kind to its funders.

If we take conspiracy theorising to be a spectrum disorder, such views of elites should certainly interest us. We read Toynbee’s comment as an extreme form of cynicism, that suggests political elites act in the interests of their financial rather than electoral backers. This, though, is still some way from a fully articulated belief in hidden actors controlling events to their own end.

What distinguishes a distrust from elites from a belief in conspiracy theories?

Well, first it’s worth nothing that while the variables are highly correlated (0.43), they also follow distinct patterns: consider the heatmap below: if the variables were strongly correlated, we’d expect the lighter blue areas to run neatly from the bottom left corner to the top right. To a degree they do this, but there is also a horizontal trend: many respondents who believe elites will always run things, also reject the idea that a secret group controls wars and crises. These respondents are cynics, not conspiracy theorists.

Figure 2: Heatmap showing correlation in responses

In Venn diagram terms, this shows it is rare, though not completely impossible to believe in the secret group but not elites. The opposite, though is unusual:

Figure 3: Venn diagram

Off the diagram above, 342 respondents rejected both statements. Amongst those who accepted at least one, the majority accepted only the statement about elites. Those who believe in the secret group, will also be sceptical of elites. It is worth considering these two categories as distinct, and asking, what, if anything, sets them apart.

Our regression analysis shows that the most significant variable for predicting political cynicism was whether respondents felt Parliament did a good job representing their interests. When predicting responses to the ‘secret group’ question, however, we found this factor to be meaningless. Party allegiance likewise. Instead, people who accept this statement tend to feel the political system is entirely corrupt and to distrust authority. For this reason, we  argue that the strongest explanatory factor for belief in conspiracy theories is complete political exclusion (CPE). For more on this, read Hugo’s excellent post.

Alfred Moore and Hugo Drochon both helped compose this entry

How to cite:
Drochon, Hugo and Fredheim, Rolf: “Complete Losers: Conspiracy Ideation and Suspicion of Elites in Great Britain”, forthcoming 2015