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Political unrest + social media = conspiracy theories

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Published on 21 January 2020

Conspiracy theories
Conspiracy theories

A conspiracy theory expert from the University of Sunderland features in the new book from the late theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking and his writer daughter Lucy.

Dr Sophie Hodgetts, a Lecturer in Psychology at the University, has contributed a chapter to the duo’s book Unlocking the Universe.

In the book, Dr Hodgetts discusses why people become conspiracy theorists, and how the current political and social climate is adding to spiralling numbers putting their beliefs into controversial theories.

From Flat Earthers to Moon Hoaxers; Anti Vaxxers to UFO visitors, many people reject what scientific information is out there in favour of alternative beliefs.

But why?

In the book, Dr Hodgetts says: “People have believed in conspiracy theories since before we had the internet, and there are many reasons for this.

“Psychology studies show that people who are naturally very paranoid or suspicious of others are more likely to believe in at least one conspiracy theory.

“There is also evidence suggesting that people who are generally very anxious are more likely to believe in a conspiracy theory. This may be because being part of a group of people with similar beliefs can help us to feel less anxious, and more supported by the people around us.

“Conspiracy theory belief can help someone to feel important, as if they have access to special, unique knowledge that not everybody can have. Because of this, it is also thought that conspiracy theory belief leads to an “us-versus-them” attitude, and this can make a group very strong and more likely to stick together and support each other.”

The arrival of the internet, and subsequently social media, according to many psychologists, went on to provide a platform for those conspiracy theorists – as well as an opportunity for more people to get involved.

So does social media help explain the increasing number – and popularity – of many conspiracy theories?

Dr Hodgetts states: “Although more research is needed in this area, there is some evidence to suggest that social media may have a role to play.

“For example, if someone joins a Facebook group for people who believe in a specific conspiracy theory, Facebook algorithms will direct that person to more sources of information on that particular topic.

“Similarly, online groups often become echo chambers for conspiracy theories. An echo chamber is defined as an environment in which someone can only find information that supports their beliefs, as all other information is rejected.”

Dr Hodgetts stresses that it is not just technology which has played a role in the evolution of conspiracy theories.

She said: “Interestingly, there is evidence suggesting that times of social or political unrest are linked to increased belief in conspiracy. It is likely that this is due to the positive effects that being in a group can have on our anxiety levels.

“It also seems likely that part of the reason that conspiracy theories are more popular these days is the current political unrest, and global sense of uncertainty.

“In many cases, conspiracy theorists state that the reason for the fakery are money-related; essentially it is cheaper to fake missions to space than it is to actually do them.”

The views of Dr Hodgetts are included in the new book, Unlocking the Universe.

In their series of novels, George's Secret Key to the Universe, Lucy and Stephen Hawking imagined what great adventures one boy might have if he travelled through space.

But the books were based on real-life facts - and together Lucy and Stephen collected an incredible wealth of information about everything from life on Mars to the secrets of black holes.

Now, for the first time, this non-fiction content has been collected into one volume, with brand new content for 2020, including facts about genetics, climate change, and Dr Hodgett’s views on conspiracy theories.

The book can be ordered here.