Study shows 60% of Britons believe in conspiracy theories

Aliens, UK border controls, Westminster, person holding syringe
Those surveyed were asked about conspiracy theories including whether people were being lied to over alien contact, immigration figures, vaccine safety and parliamentary democracy. Composite: Alamy/Reuters/Linda Nylind/PA

Sixty per cent of British people believe at least one conspiracy theory about how the country is run or the veracity of information they have been given, a major new study has found, part of a pattern of deep distrust of authority that has become widespread across Europe and the US.

In the UK, people who supported Brexit were considerably more likely to give credence to conspiracy theories than those who opposed it, with 71% of leave voters believing at least one theory compared with 49% of remain voters.

Almost half (47%) of leave voters believed the government had deliberately concealed the truth about how many immigrants live in the UK, versus 14% of remain voters. A striking 31% of leave voters believed that Muslim immigration was part of a wider plot to make Muslims the majority in Britain, a conspiracy theory that originated in French far-right circles that was known as the “great replacement”. The comparable figure for remain voters was 6%.

The disparities between those who voted for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the US was even more stark, where 47% of Trump voters believed that man-made global warming was a hoax, compared with 2.3% of Clinton voters.

The figures were the result of a large-scale international project conducted over six years and in nine countries by researchers at the University of Cambridge and YouGov, funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The study was the most comprehensive examination of conspiracy theories ever conducted, and marks the first time academics have explored questions of conspiracy beliefs, social trust and news consumption habits across different countries.

The researchers also found:

• 15% of leave voters and 11% of remain voters in Britain believed that, regardless of who was officially in charge in government, the world was run by a secret global cabal of people who control events together.

• The most widespread conspiracy belief in the UK, shared by 44% of people, was that “even though we live in what’s called a democracy, a few people will always run things in this country anyway”.

• Mistrust of authority was high in the UK, with 77% of people trusting journalists “not much” or “not at all”; 76% distrusting British government ministers; and 74% distrusting company bosses.

• Friends and family, by contrast, were trusted by 87% and 89% of respondents respectively, potentially adding credence to news sources shared by social media contacts.

• Remain voters were more likely (50%) to use social media regularly for news than leave voters (34%), and more likely to read a newspaper website (by 41% to 18%). Of those who got their news from social media, Facebook was used frequently by more leave voters than remainers (74% leave, 65% remain), while the opposite was true of Twitter (39% remain, 28% leave).

• Of the countries surveyed, Sweden was the least credulous of conspiracy theories, with 52% believing one or more of the theories polled by the researchers, as opposed to 85% for Hungary. In the US that figure was 64% and in France 76%.

Prof John Naughton, the director of the press fellowship programme at Wolfson College and one of three University of Cambridge professors who led the research, said the study, which began in 2012, had been born out of an attempt to look at the “natural history” of conspiracy theories.

Conspiracy theories

The researchers had tried to be as broad as possible in their definition of the term as “a theory that some actors have conspired to do something covertly, usually something dysfunctional or evil”. As part of the study, they polled respondents about 10 theories, all of which had emerged from their research, in order to test how widely they were held.

“Conspiracy theories are, and as far as we can tell always have been, a pretty important part of life in many societies, and most of the time that has gone beneath the radar of the established media,” said Naughton. “Insofar as people thought of conspiracy theories at all, we thought of them as crazy things that crazy people believed, [and that] didn’t seem to have much impact on democracy.”

That dismissive attitude changed after the Brexit vote and the election of Trump in 2016, he said. “Whatever else you think of Trump, he is a born conspiracy theorist. Trump was a kind of catalyst, in that somehow his election had the effect of mainstreaming conspiracy theories.”

In fact, the prevalence of conspiracy beliefs in human societies suggests they may have a function, said Naughton. “It’s a way of trying to make sense of a complex and confusing world for an ordinary citizen.”

Fewer people, in the UK at least, believed some of the other theories tested by the researchers, including that the official account of the Holocaust was a lie (2%), that human contact with aliens had been hushed up (8%), that the truth about vaccines was being hidden (10%) and that the Aids virus was created and spread on purpose (believed by 4% of Britons, but 12% of French).

Dr Hugo Leal, one of the project’s researchers, said he and the other academics had been startled by the proportion of Trump and Brexit supporters who said they believed the grand replacement theory.

He said: “This is intertwined with a broader conspiratorial outlook, which seems to link the Trump and Brexit camps. Indeed, both sides share attitudes and sentiments that transcend the mere conservative ideological affiliation. Our study shows that conspiracy theories are a central element to understanding a common political culture, which most scholars find hard to fathom.” Leal described the shared attitudes as a “transatlantic conspiratorial axis”.

More than 11,500 people were surveyed online by YouGov across nine countries: France, Germany, the UK, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Sweden and the US. The British sample size was 2,171 adults, which was weighted to be representative.