Do conspiracy theories undermine democracy?

10 March 2016


Reported by Adele Julier, NERC-Funded CSaP Policy Intern (January 2016 - April 2016)

Last month we hosted a roundtable discussion in Cambridge for our Policy Leaders Fellows which explored the relationship between conspiracy, democracy and trust.

Alfred Moore, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Cambridge, presented his work on the relationship between transparency and suspicion of democracy.

He noted that scepticism and distrust were necessary in a democracy and compared the nature of conspiracy theories in relatively transparent democracies with those in other governance systems. It was thought that one factor driving conspiracy theories in a democracy might be a feeling of powerlessness within the population, potentially driven by a lack of transparency in government. One suggestion was that if people had a more direct experience of democracy, their trust in government might increase.

A further discussion challenged the assumption that public trust in government was the only ‘important’ trust. What about government trust in the public – to pay taxes, obey laws etc – wasn’t this important too?

The idea of conspiracy theories as irrational and something to be mocked was considered, and it was observed that much media coverage of conspiracy theories was based on debunking them. It was also noted that the occurrence of 'conspiracy talk' in the media over the past 150 years had peaked in times of national uncertainty and perceived threats from abroad.

(Photograph by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr)

Dr Alfred Moore

Centre for Research in the Arts Social Sciences and Humanities (CRASSH), University of Cambridge