The growing prevalence of conspiracy theories is worrying, but is it surprising when so many feel unrepresented by traditional media?
Many would consider Icke’s infamous 1991 interview with Terry Wogan an embarrassment; in it, David Icke claimed to be the son of God, while dressed in an electric blue tracksuit. Yet, Icke discussed the ridicule he received as a result of that interview constantly on his YouTube channel. Indeed, hours after his YouTube channel was deleted for spreading coronavirus misinformation, Icke appeared on the ‘LondonReal’ YouTube account for an interview (which has also now been deleted from the platform) in which he seemingly revelled in his expulsion.
Misinformation revels in its own marginalisation
Obviously, deplatorming is a useful tool against stopping misinformation online. Without YouTube, Icke has been forced to use BitChute, a smaller video sharing platform, where his average audience for a video is just 6,711 – much smaller than the hundreds of thousands he would typically reach on YouTube. However, among those who are already invested in his theories, these efforts to reduce his reach may have further legitimised his claims – possibly radicalising them further. When conspiracy theorists claim to be speaking against the hidden powerful interests of puppet masters (whether it be the illuminati or a race of lizard people), their censorship or ridicule can be used to further their mystique.
It seems clear a long-term strategy to halt misinformation online must focus not only on deplatforming, but also ask why some people are so disillusioned with conventional media they are drawn to conspiracy theories and people like Icke.
In Icke we trust.
While the BBC charter states that the aim of its news branch is “to provide impartial news and information to help people understand and engage with the world around them”, a 2019 YouGov poll showed that less than half of Britons (44%) say that they trust the BBC to “tell the truth”. This is not a problem unique to the BBC; another YouGov poll discovered that the two most trusted British newspapers, The Times and The Guardian, only attract the trust of a third of Britons. And while our trust in traditional media sources has declined, our usage of social media has increased; according to an Ofcom report, 50% of the UK population now uses social media as a news source.
This shift away from traditional, well-funded, fact-checked media sources to the uber-liberality of social media platforms such as Twitter poses major problems. These platforms are intended to be a two-way conversation not a one-way information source. This makes fact checking far more difficult than with a traditional media format. Information is unregulated by journalistic standards or even by the professional practices, and at times, of those who report news for a living. These are places where conspiracy theories thrive.
Giving credence to conspiracy theories.
There are many reasons for the growing distrust in mainstream media but is clear that the inaccessibility of jobs in the traditional media is a major contributing factor. The lack of diversity in the workforce, and the almost ubiquitous ownership of traditional media by billionaire barons makes it too easy for conspiracy theorists, like Icke, to present the mainstream media as the enemy. In Icke’s case, his ‘deplatforming’ is used to strengthen his assertion that the media is controlled by a group of elites – known among conspiracy theorists as the ‘New World Order’.
There is no plausible evidence to suggest such a group exists, but that the media sector is saturated with ‘elites’ is hard to deny. In 2018 a study found that only 9% of Channel 4 employees identified as coming from a working-class background, while a 2019 Sutton Trust study discovered that 44% of newspaper columnists and 43% of the UK’s 100 most influential editors and broadcasters come from private school, compared to around 6% of the total UK population. According to the Sutton Trust, “Trends in the sector, including budget cuts, the closure of many local media organisations, the increasing casualisation of work and high numbers of unpaid internships, contribute to the ongoing under-representation of those from less well-off backgrounds across the media.”
Conspiracy theorists create an attractive narrative for their audience. They are fighting back against evil, a David and Goliath story, the people versus the government, scientists and mainstream media. And the media’s workforce detachment from the rest of society is an enabler of this narrative. Removing posts and accounts is a step forward in the fight against misinformation online; however, to restore trust in traditional media sources, the media workforce must become more diverse and similar to it’s audience. And this new tranche of journalists must be given the freedom to report on the issues that matter to people like them, with all the necessary resources and practices in place to ensure stringent fact checking. This is one way we can break the narrative that the media is just another cog in the corruption.