David Aaronovitch is a columnist for The Times. He is the author of several books, including Voodoo Histories*, a baseline essay on the question of conspiracy theories. He agreed to talk to Conspiracy Watch about the attitude of Britain society towards them. Interview.
Conspiracy Watch: Since you wrote your book Voodoo Histories, about conspiracy theories, back in 2009, would you say the phenomenon has grown in size? Why?
David Aaronovitch: Obviously, the Internet has played a key role in the creation and spreading of various conspiracy theories. People discovered websites that had the appearance of scholarliness, with footnotes and so on, and gave references to other sites. Those sites actually were their friends, so it was kind of a circular functioning. But back in 2009, I felt fairly optimistic because I thought that the Internet also acted as a very quick way of debunking conspiracy theories. The big difference between 2009 and now is social medias, which we then understood to be largely a phenomenon of people talking about the minutia of their lives or trying to find partners etc. I don’t think anybody expected this kind of explosion of political communities online, in which conspiracy theories would spread with such rapidity. It is largely because of what is called the “rabbit hole” effect, the way you get sucked in the Internet through algorithms taking you deeper into ever more extreme stuff, as done on YouTube. An other factor, very much of the last year, is that because of the pandemic our relationship with the outside world has been atrophied and the one with our interior world has intensified, which has left many more people in touch with some of these conspiracy theories. So I wouldn’t say that there are necessary more conspiracy theories, we can’t even be sure that more people believe them, though we suspect they do, but what is extraordinary is their level of intensity.
CW: Does 2020 appear to you as a key moment in the spreading of conspiracy theories in the UK?
D. A.: Not really. We had a few counter-lockdown movements, but they’ve remained marginal. For example, we’re just starting to get out of a lockdown that lasted more than four months, and there hasn’t been a single large demonstration in Britain about it. It seems this movement is under decline and I don’t see many signs of it coming back in force. Part of this could have to do with policing on social media done by Twitter or Facebook, where anti-vaccination stuff certainly has been suppressed, which may have helped. On the other hand, we become aware that certain sections of the population are much more resistant to vaccination than others. Some ethnic minority groups for example, who may have their own sources of distribution of information, and sometimes get very misleading material about vaccine etc. Those are possible conspiracy theories that don’t get seen by the mainstream, which doesn’t read these languages. So some people here in the UK now begin to make a move trying to counter that information.
CW: Is there a QAnon movement in the UK? Did it start only in 2020?
D. A.: I’m not an expert on QAnon in the UK, but as far as I can tell, it’s not very big here. QAnon is really remarkable because it has taken on the characteristics of a cult, but a cult in which people don’t actually meet each others. It has a certain following among the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccination people in the UK, that are close to each other. We did see, in fringes of these anti-lockdown demonstrations, people waving banners about “Saving the Children”, this bizarre notion of a worldwide paedophile plot. But actually, compared to other countries, those anti-lockdown movements aren’t so big either: we’ve never seen anything on the scale of what they had in Berlin or in the Netherlands for instance. As for the anti-mask, it has also never been a really big thing here, partly maybe because government hasn’t demanded it so much as in France or parts of America for example, where it is a requirement.
CW: Has the anti-vaccination movement in the UK grown in size with the pandemic?
D. A.: Actually I think it is declining. I believe the vast majority of people here understand that without the vaccine we won’t get out of the restrictions. And they also feel of course personally threatened by the virus. So they want very much the vaccine to be successful. Still people hear rumours from here and there, for example that the Covid vaccine would make you infertile. It’s not unlike of course the MMR scare, which was really quite big here and incredibly damaging. It took us half a decade to clear it, but I think after that, we went to great length to make sure that public health information was better. So nowadays you seem to have a much bigger problem with vaccines hesitancy than we do: polls from France showed that the willingness to take the vaccine was below 50% in December! Even if they have tremendously grown since, those are figures that we would regard as incredibly low here in Britain, where I think we were already close to 80% willingness back in December. By large people here believe public health messages. Now of course, if we were to have one or two adverse effect cases with these new vaccines that could change rapidly… But it is really important to understand that here, the vaccine development and delivery is widely seen as a very big success story, even among people that are very critical of the government. We have already vaccinated over 32 million people with the first dose, 7 million with both doses. As I said, there are pockets of reluctance among specific communities, for instance the Hasidic Jewish community, some South Asian communities, some black communities as well, where connections with health information is less solid than in middle class white areas. But we don’t really have a significant middle class constituency that rejects vaccines, as it exists in France or Germany.
CW: Do you have in the UK, as we do in France with the Gilets Jaunes or in Italy with the 5 Stars Movement, populist political movements that have conspiracy theories as one of their backbones? How important are they in the UK?
D. A.: No we don’t. I believe populist movements are actually very different country by country, though they tend to deal with similar themes of course. If people try to do in England what the Gilets Jaunes did in France, the population would be really angry with them: we really don’t like people blocking our roads. British populism is often linked to authoritarianism, which is a very different thing. To give you an example, when the British government announced that you could be put in prison for up to ten years for falsely claiming which country you’ve been in, to escape coronavirus restrictions, polls showed that British people thought that wasn’t tough enough! Contempt for authority is not in the British mentality, as it traditionally is in Italy or in France. In the UK, populism was expressed through Brexit, a few years ago. There has been an overlap between influencers of Brexit and anti-lockdown people, who are very often the same ones. But you now have a disconnect between those influencers and the people they use to speak to over Brexit. Nigel Farage for example, who is forming a new party, started off by being in favour of the restrictions, but then moved to being against. Neither positions have got him any kind of strength… Our populist movement was never a youthful movement, unlike France where you have significant numbers of young people voting for the Front national, as they do for the 5 Stars in Italy. Our populist movement has mostly been older, and the people who voted for Brexit were mainly old ones. And those older people are more worried about getting ill, so Brexit voters are actually very pro-restrictions and vaccines. I think it has become pretty obvious that populists don’t have any answer to the pandemic, and that the real ones are largely technocratic answers.
CW: Lots of lies and fake news were told to support Brexit. Do you think they were one of the main reasons of its success?
D. A.: Brexit was mostly a movement for national solidarity, not for ripping up everything, but rather a “let’s move back to the things we had before” thing. The European Union was never allowed to capture the imagination of ordinary British people, who rather saw it as a source of irritation. Almost no political party or leader stoop up for the EU and its benefits. The dominant Conservative Party was always having arguments between people who found the EU absolutely appalling and others that just found it a bit bad, but there was no one to say it was rather good! Then disastrously, we had a leader in the Labour Party who didn’t believe in Europe, exactly at the time when we needed someone to mobilize the supporters of that party in favour of the EU. So I think the reasons were in a much longer term general lack of enthusiasm for the EU.
CW: Donald Trump has opened in the USA what could be called a “post-truth” era, or “post-facts democracy” era. Has it leaked in the UK?
D. A.: We have here certain institutions which up until now have acted against it. The BBC is one of the biggest: half of the journalism in Britain comes from the BBC, so it creates a real centre of gravity in terms of information, a sort of standard that people have to meet. It can’t be partial, so it kind of keeps other people honest if you like. Our tabloid papers on the contrary do not meet this standard, they always put a spin on things that often brings them close to lying. What worries me is that we now see two sets of people wanting to set up new rival televisions to the BBC: one is a Rupert Murdoch operation and the other, called GBTV, is launched by a former BBC presenter called Andrew Neil. Both look to me as if they’re going to be significantly to the right and won’t be so committed to impartiality. That’s going to be a real challenge because that’s how the coloration of political lying in America started, when Ronald Reagan allowed the deregulation of radio stations. Rush Limbaugh, who died recently, was the personification of that process, the first major right wing radio star to broadcast utterly biased news, so skewed that they only occasionally come to touch something that’s true. That model was then taken up by Fox News, later by several other TV Stations, and it has been going on and growing for nearly 40 years.
CW: One of the major branches of the Russia Today network, RT UK, is based in Britain. What is the real influence of Russian propaganda media in the UK?
D. A.: Among people who are looking for conspiracy theories material, RT is a big influence. Its all function is precisely to spread disinformation of any kind. Five years ago, they had managed to get some quite respectable figures on. But after the Skripal poisoning and the obvious lies RT was spreading around it, they became ridiculous. RT UK turned into a pariah, heavily criticized, and is now incredibly fringe, although Alexander Salmond, former prime minister of Scotland, still has a program on it.
CW: The Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s lead was involved many times in anti-Semitic and pro-conspiracy theories stances. How to your opinion did they fall so low? Has the party changed its stance since?
D. A.: Jeremy Corbyn, above all, was one of history’s accidents. Nobody saw it coming, nobody thought he stood a chance of becoming leader of the Labour party. He was elected mainly thanks to new members, new voters, young people who were allowed in and thought he was a new kind of leader, but really had no idea of what his history was and of what it meant. They didn’t even know what an anti-Semitic trope was. But there were also these long-term anti-Zionist people, former Trotskyists etc, who were much older and re-joined the Labour party with Corbyn. Those really were the central problem. There was that residual toleration of anti-Semitism in parts of the left, often linked to questions to do with Israel and Palestine. Lots of people thought Corbyn was John Lennon’ song Imagine incarnated in a person. They then discovered he wasn’t, that he was boring, silly, and vain, and also increasingly unpopular. Lots of them for instance were anti-Brexit and were incredibly disappointed to discover that Corbyn was not so much in favour of the UK staying in the EU… Corbyn and the Labour were then historically smashed in the elections in December 2019, putting an end to the appetite among Labour Party members for him and his supporters. The first thing his successor Keir Starmer did was to distance himself from Corbyn’s stances, especially regarding anti-Semitism. That’s why Jeremy Corbyn is now suspended from the Labour whip in the House of Commons: you can’t get a much bigger renunciation than that really.
CW: Did you have in the UK a conspiracy theories media phenomenon such as we had in France with Hold Up? For instance, the film Plandemic in the English speaking world?
D. A.: There clearly hasn’t been anything of that kind so far. Of course, as a journalist, I’m familiar myself with Plandemic, but if I was an ordinary British citizen, I would most probably never have heard it. I can’t help wondering whether the problem for Hold-up isn’t that it was in French, because had it been in English, I suspect the platform providers would have banned it much more quickly.
CW: Did the hydroxychloroquine prompt the same heated debates in the UK than it did in France?
D. A.: No it didn’t. Again, the thing to remember here is that people generally trust our scientists and our medics, and we don’t have any Didier Raoult equivalent in our medical establishments. I wrote about hydroxychloroquine, all the way back in April 2020, saying it was a typical example of a probably false miracle treatment. We didn’t know that it would definitely not work, as we do now, but we certainly didn’t have any evidence it did. At that point, there were 9 or 10 medicines that were being recommended as possibly helping… But the Raoult study was so obviously flawed right from the beginning that we were already able to tell the people it was non-sense.
CW: Were there any other claims in the UK of other supposedly miracle treatments?
D. A.: Not really, that never really took off. Some people were offering alternative medicines, of course, but the public here doesn’t go around looking for alternative medicines in a big way. That actually links us back to the fact that Britain wants to be vaccinated. We did have people though, mostly in the South Asian community, claiming there was a clinic in India that proved that inhaling steam was efficient against Covid… There’s all kind of theories. But they never really got any significant level of attraction here.
CW: You saw the incidents in Washington DC Capitol back in January. Does the same risk of a violent drift from conspiracy theories supporters exist in the UK?
D. A.: No, I don’t see it happening in Britain. There were several attacks against 5G antennas, nearly a year ago, probably done by the same marginal group of a 10-15 people, but then they just stopped. We have all sorts of problems of stupidity in this country, but the kind of violent action we saw in the Capitol doesn’t seem to be one of them. At least not in the context of the pandemic, where people react in a slightly different way, partly because of how our folk memory imagine we acted during WWII. We go back to our national mythology, this notion that you pull together in a crisis and you do what you told is very strong here. Instead of falling apart in a crisis, we tend to kind of solidify.
CW: What do you think of the work of Bellingcat?
D. A.: Bellingcat is extraordinary, to my opinion they’re little heroes. We more and more hear about “alternative journalism”, which in fact often amounts to rubbish journalism. Bellingcat on the contrary is everything you hoped the Internet would be, essentially a site set up by people who have developed over a period both an expertise, a commitment to truth and a capacity to deliver which really supplements conventional journalism. You can start with the incredible work they did with geolocation, by tracking the rocket launchers who shot down the MH17 of the Malaysian Airlines in Ukraine, or later who was responsible for the gazing in Syria. They use the capacities of the Internet and the infos it provides in a way that us conventional journalists would certainly never do. And conspiracy theorists hate Bellingcat, even more than they hate us, because Bellingcat knocks everything they say on their head and destroys it.
CW: Back in 2013, you were invited on a BBC TV show alongside Alex Jones, where he proved to be completely hectic. This became viral. Could you tell us what memory do you keep of this moment?
D. A.: The show was about Bilderberg, this conference of actually not so really great significance, which sparks so many fantasies. Only at the very last moment was I told that Alex Jones was going to be on the show. I knew very well about him and that he had no restriction whatsoever, so I knew it was not going to be normal conversation. Before the show, I found myself waiting in the hospitality room alone with him and three of his disciples for 25 minutes, where we discussed on a friendly but odd tone. He was straight away filming me when talking, while his friends were all kind of sneering, it was uncomfortable. We then get on the program and I ask him “if there are all these incredibly powerful evil people who want to run the world and people like you, who can see the truth, are the only thing standing between them and the realization of that power, why haven’t they killed you yet? Does it mean that you’re actually in on it?” He gives his vague answer, and I knew that probably was as much as I was going to get to say really. Then it becomes a shout. Andrew Neil, the presenter, wants to bring it to a close, while Jones continues shouting, and Neil turns to the camera and puts his finger to his head as if to say “he’s crazy”. Theoretically, that was supposed to have been a bad moment on TV. But this is the modern era: the BBC clips that section and immediately puts it out online where it went viral. It says a lot about the way in which discussions are privileged now, even with the BBC: it was thought to be sensational enough to want to get it out there, where something valuable would be unlikely to do so.
CW: Does that Alex Jones example proves that no discussion is possible with conspiracy theorists?
D. A.: A large number of them are completely unchangeable, so discussion is kind of worthless. It’s useless to waste your time shouting at people who are shouting at you. But on the other hand, when you’re having a dialogue with conspiracy theorists, you are also engaging all those people convinced by them, who can be convinced back. I have met people who told me that reading my book Voodoo History, or hearing me talk about it, changed theirs minds: they were believers in conspiracy theories, it sought the seeds of doubt and they did change their minds. It’s worth persisting with a dialogue, because there are people who just are generally searching for something and aren’t so committed necessarily, who need to hear the argument that you have to make.
* Voodoo Histories: How Conspiracy Theory Has Shaped Modern History, Jonathan Cape, 2009.