Are conspiracy theories for (political) losers?

Dr Joel Rogers de WaalAcademic Director, YouGov
February 13, 2015, 5:11 PM GMT+0

The YouGov-Cambridge Programme is currently working with researchers on the “Conspiracy and Democracy” project at Cambridge University to examine the public appeal of conspiracy theories in Britain and Europe.

This includes exploring a range of questions about the prevalence and proponents of conspiracy theories: do they appeal across the political spectrum; are certain groups more likely to embrace them; and do they negatively track power – meaning are voters more prone to believe if their preferred political party is out of government?

For the pilot stage of research, a representative sample of the British public was recently shown a list of statements that might constitute conspiracy, deception or subterfuge, and asked if each was [definitely/probably] true or untrue. Some of these were based on ‘classical’ types of conspiracy theory while others focussed on more typical issues of voter concern:

  • “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 Government is deliberately hiding the truth about how many immigrants really live in this country”

  • “Humans have made contact with aliens but this fact has been deliberately hidden from the public”

  • “Officials of the European Union are gradually seeking to take over all law-making powers in this country”

  • “The US Government played a deliberate role in making the 9/11 terrorist attacks happen in America on 11th September, 2001”

  • “Some courts in the UK legal system are choosing to adopt Islamic 'Sharia' law”

  • “The AIDS virus was created and spread around the world on purpose by a secret group or organisation”

  • “The idea of man-made global warming is a hoax that was deliberately invented to deceive people”

As the table shows below, small majorities are tempted by suggestions of cover-up or subterfuge in immigration (55%) and European influence (52%), which can be seen in part as proxy measures for other prominent trends in current public opinion – namely Euro-scepticism, immigration concerns and distrust in government. By comparison, results show less belief in theories about climate change hoax (18%), Sharia (18%), alien cover-ups (14%), 9/11 involvement by the US Government (11%), and the ‘invention’ of AIDS (8%).

Def/probtrueDef/probNOT true

UK Government is hiding the truth about the number of immigrants living here



EU officials are seeking to take over all law-making powers in the UK



A secret group of powerful people really controls world events



Some UK courts are choosing to adopt 'Sharia'



The idea of man-made global warming is a hoax



Contact with aliens has been deliberately hidden from the public



US Government played deliberate role in making 9/11 attacks happen



AIDS was created/spread around the world on purpose



Results further suggest another distinction. When the proposed deception relates to typical issues of voter concern – e.g. immigration, Europe, cultural integration, climate change – responses tend to reflect predictable political differences: Conservative/UKIP voters are more likely to believe in power-grabbing plots from Brussels; Labour/Lib Dem voters are less prone to believe in climate change hoax.

But a different pattern emerges around theories of less immediate, political context – e.g. about secret global elites, aliens, 9/11 and AIDS – where results tend to reinforce some of the conclusions from wider literature on conspiracy theorising, such as last year’s publication of American Conspiracy Theories by Joe Parent and Joe Uscinski.

In their research on the American context, Parent and Uscinski contended that ‘out-of-power’ voters were more likely to engage with conspiracy theories, while gender made little difference but social grade was a significant factor.

Accordingly in these results, when it comes to the suggestion of a secret cabal controlling world events, Labour and UKIP voters are consistently more likely to speculate than Conservatives or Lib Dems, along with C2DE respondents, while male/female results are broadly similar.

  • 43% of Labour and 46% of UKIP supporters say it is definitely/probably true about “a secret group of powerful people who really control world events like wars and economic crises”, compared with 27% of Conservative and 17% of Lib Dem supporters.

  • A roughly similar 33% of men and 35% of women say the same, but notably more C2DE respondents do (41%) than ABC1s (29%).

Similar patterns are reflected in responses to theories on 9/11, aliens and AIDS, albeit with smaller differences and less impact on the overall direction of opinion, as the level of perceived credibility is so low. In fact, C2DE respondents are consistently more likely to believe than ABC1s throughout the survey as a whole.

Hence in the British context, at least, it seems those with lower income/education levels or stronger feelings of political exclusion show a greater tendency to speculate on conspiracy, unless it touches on familiar policy issues.

These hypotheses are currently being explored by Doctors Hugo Drochon and Rolf Fredheim - lead researchers on the “Conspiracy and Democracy” project, who helped to design this survey.

Watch this column for updates, as we develop the research and take it to Europe – and beyond.

See results

Fieldwork was conducted online between 3-4 February, 2015, with a total sample of 1749 British adults. The data have been weighted and results are representative of all British adults aged 18 or over.