Synthesis produced by the Fondation Descartes of :
« Crise sanitaire, terrorisme et Donald Trump : un cocktail conspirationniste ». Fondation Jean-Jaurès, 16 novembre 2020, https://jean-jaures.org/nos-productions/crise-sanitaire-terrorisme-et-donald-trump-un-cocktail-conspirationniste.
This report, written by Antoine Bristielle and Tristan Guerra for the Fondation Jean Jaurès, provides new data to understand the success of conspiracy theories in France and internationally.
The authors first and foremost point out that periods of crisis, such as the one we are currently experiencing, combining a global pandemic and terrorist attacks, are particularly conducive to the development of conspiracy theories. Indeed, conspiracy narratives provide a simplistic explanation of the origins and consequences of the crisis, which can provide those who believe in them with the illusion of understanding the current situation. In making a complex reality easy to understand, conspiracy theories can appear reassuring to a section of the population. Moreover, conspiracy theories serve as a lever for political mobilization, insofar as they put a face to the threat: that of those supposedly responsible for the crisis. The recent anti-mask and anti-vaccine movements illustrate this phenomenon all too well.
This report presents three factors that can explain adherence to conspiracy theories: the role of social networks and television, lack of education, and distrust of institutions. Using data from a previous survey conducted by the Fondation Jean Jaurès, the authors show that individuals who preferentially obtain information through television are more prone to believing in conspiracy theories than those who obtain their information primarily through radio and written press. Television, and certain information and entertainment channels in particular, could thus play a role in the adherence to conspiracy theories. According to the survey data, social network users are also more sensitive to conspiracy theories. According to Bristielle and Guerra, social networks are partly responsible for the success of conspiracy theories, particularly because the content featured on these platforms is promoted on the basis of popularity. However, since conspiracy theories can be particularly popular in times of crisis, social networks therefore offer them a remarkable echo chamber.
While more moderation on social networks could help to curb the spread of conspiratorial content, the authors note that such a measure could also prove counterproductive, by encouraging the notion that proponents of conspiracy theories are being silenced and that any dissenting voices are being stifled. Besides, Bristielle and Guerra argue that, in the long run, individuals will always seek new platforms on which to share conspiracy theories. The authors thus conclude that the regulation of social networks cannot be the main response to the spread of conspiracy theories.
The authors further point out that the youth and the least educated seem to be the most vulnerable to conspiratorial ideas. Developing media literacy programs aimed at strengthening students' critical skills could therefore be a response to the spread of conspiracy theories. But once more, this response alone would be insufficient. Indeed, data from the aforementioned survey shows that distrust of institutions plays a major role in the adherence to conspiracy theories. According to the authors, the causes of this mistrust are numerous: “a discontinuity between the scope of electoral promises and the freedom of action of national governments, a feeling of existential insecurity in a world where various welfare programs are weakening, the problem of representation within the institutions of the Fifth Republic, the desacralization of politics in both old and new media.”
Bristielle and Guerra conclude that in order to effectively counteract the spread of conspiracy theories, it is necessary to first address the causes of this institutional distrust, and that such a response can only come from the political sphere. The authors argue that if we do not work to re-legitimize institutions, media literacy and social media regulation will not be able to provide convincing results.