October 2022. I was in a ruck by the gates of Downing Street during the final moments of the Liz Truss premiership. A member of the public behind me was screaming about the corrupt media and “the global conspiracy”. “Tell the truth!” he bellowed. What did he mean, I asked? Jews? “The globalists, yes – the Jews.”
Today, amid seething anti-Semitism, increasing Islamophobia and rising political tempers, politics takes place within a miasma of fake news and popular conspiracy theories. The fakery, misinformation and the bullshit go together: if you cannot be sure whether footage of somebody speaking to camera, or of a car burning, shows a real event or is an AI-generated fake, then it’s easier to turn your back on “facts” and embrace paranoid fantasy. If nothing is true, anything might be.
The subject of veracity, of no longer being able to tell fact from fiction, has taken on new urgency as Israel bombs Gaza in retaliation for Hamas’s barbaric act of terrorism on 7 October. The detailed arguments about blast patterns and missile sound signatures, over who was responsible for the explosion at al-Ahli hospital on 17 October, are only the most recent examples of how contested – even fraudulent – evidence connects to momentous political reaction. Most of those marching in London in support of Palestine on 21 October were no doubt there for humanitarian reasons or to express their outrage at the bombing of Gaza, and demand the end of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. But some of those present believe there genuinely is a global conspiracy and that Israel is at the heart of it and must therefore be wiped out.
The compaction of grandly conspiratorial thinking and unreliable reporting did not start with recent events in Israel, of course. There is a bigger story here about Big Tech, AI, social media, increasing scepticism of all our public institutions, and how our politics is being radically transformed so that it might very soon become unrecognisable.
On 2 October Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, in his speech to the Conservative conference in Manchester, gave oxygen to a conspiracy. He was “calling time”, he said, on the misuse of 15-minute cities: “What is sinister, and what we shouldn’t tolerate, is the idea that local councils can decide how often you go to the shops, and that they can ration who uses the roads and when, and that they police it all with CCTV.”
Harper was conflating local, low-traffic zones – Oxford’s scheme is the best-known example – with a theory that denying people the ability to move freely in their cars and confining them to small, urban areas is part of a global governmental plan to take away human liberty as Western democracies embrace net-zero politics.
Conspiracies about 15-minute cities are a marginal part of a great cloud of unknowing, or of unreason, that now surrounds and menaces our political culture. Conspiracy theories begin with a deliberate decision to turn away from mainstream politics and media. The original Cloud of Unknowing, probably written by a priest in the late 1300s in Nottinghamshire or Leicestershire, and a work of profound spirituality, recommends a surrender of ego and reason, what the priest calls “a privation of knowing”, in order to glimpse God.
Today, we have a privation of knowing, a Cloud of Unreason billowing through our politics. It is often described as “conspiracy theories” but it is more than that. It is a wholesale rejection of a plain-daylight grounding of facts that would ordinarily connect citizens and allow us to talk, in fact, politically.
Inside this dark cloud, it seems, world government is being stealthily created, machinating Jews are everywhere – some things haven’t changed since medieval times – controlling us through, er, town planning; and lies about global warming; and lockdowns; and vaccines manufactured by Chinese communist agents.
Those inside the Cloud of Unreason cannot see out. Those outside cannot see in. The division between it and the world of party-political conferences, medical experts, agreed facts about contested issues such as the pandemic, or wars in Ukraine or Gaza, or climate change, is absolute.
But how seriously should we take the views of conspiracists? One answer is to point to the QAnon conspiracy’s impact on the attempted putsch against the US Congress on 6 January 2021. That was real enough. But there are popular conspiracies nearer to home. The “great replacement theory”, for example, which takes its name from a 2011 book by the French writer Renaud Camus, proposes that elites are plotting to replace the ethnic white population of Europe with black and brown migrants.
Echoes of this thinking could be heard in Suella Braverman’s conference speech in Manchester on 3 October, when she said there was “a hurricane” of immigration coming because “the option of moving from a poorer country to a richer one is not just a dream for billions of people” but “an entirely realistic prospect”. The Home Secretary also criticised the “luxury beliefs” of the liberal elites who oppose her.
To whom was she speaking? According to a poll conducted in April by Savanta for King’s College London and the BBC, 32 per cent of British people agree with the great replacement theory. Expressions of militant Islamism on the streets of Britain during the Gaza crisis will not have tempered that.
Consider also the 15-minute city conspiracy theory. The original urban planning idea of suppressing car use to make densely inhabited cities more liveable for walkers and cyclists, with local shops and amenities, goes back to the French-Colombian urbanist Carlos Moreno, who coined the term “15-minute city” in 2015. In its pure form, the idea seems conservative, a return to the lost, near-at-hand world of traditional small towns.
But implementing the policy – or others like it – means big changes for millions of people, as we saw in the recent Uxbridge and South Ruislip by-election. Local opposition to London’s Ultra Low Emission Zone (Ulez), which levies a daily charge of £12.50 on drivers of more polluting cars, enabled the Conservatives to hold the seat.
Cars have become an emotional extension of the home for many, particularly for older people who can’t cycle or walk far or have limited access to public transport. For conspiracists, inside their cloud, this is an authoritarian grab for control. Earlier in the year the Tory MP Nick Fletcher told the Commons that the idea was an “international socialist” one that would “cost us our personal freedom”. That same Savanta poll found 33 per cent of people believe this.
[See also: Two cheers for the mainstream media]
Another conspiracy theory is the “great reset”. This starts with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) characteristically fuzzy and grandiose 2020 proposal to realign the post-pandemic world economy with new technology and on more environmentally sustainable principles. There is plenty to criticise about the WEF and this corporatist blueprint. But for the conspiracists, it is nothing less than genocidal.
There is now a large section of political opinion that rejects almost everything conventional politics takes for granted. Shrewd MPs who listen to their constituents are reporting that the number who believe that politics has failed them and their communities is growing all the time. The Gaza crisis is likely to accelerate that. There is a growing gap between younger Britons, at greater risk of being exposed to unreliable information online and being radicalised by it, and the mainstream media.
The bigger question is why the Cloud of Unreason has started to envelop British politics – and why now?
One answer might lie in the mass transfer of industrial capacity – particularly in “green” technologies such as electric vehicles and solar panels – to China. This has not only gutted a generation of what would have been skilled workers across the US and Europe, but posed huge questions about the status and future power of Western countries at this phase of globalisation. Politicians’ promises to “onshore” manufacturing capacity and strengthen cybersecurity inside universities and technology companies against Chinese espionage have so far been empty and not convinced voters at all. They look at a world in which the West is losing its technological advantages for the first time in perhaps half a millennium. It is hardly surprising there is a mistrustful, fearful mood about.
It is worth noting that previous periods of British insecurity also led to a rise in irrational or extreme beliefs. The battering of the First World War produced a surge of interest in spiritualism, satirised by TS Eliot among others, and unorthodox political creeds such as the Kibbo Kift, or Greenshirts. The nuclear and space age brought mass evangelical crusades by preachers who claimed the “end times” were near, as well as widespread interest in extraterrestrial visitors – covered up, of course, by “the establishment”. Going much further back, the wars and revolutions of the 17th century spawned a huge range of extreme millenarian cults and anti-establishment conspiracies. History, which never repeats itself, repeats itself.
But another more specific reason for the contagion of conspiracist thinking in the 21st century may be the addictive power of the QAnon theory. QAnon began on clammy, pornographic message boards among isolated but passionate supporters of Donald Trump more than six years ago. It proposed the thrilling idea that secret intelligence figures in Washington were leaking coded information about the coming arrest of Hillary Clinton and her associates for treason and child sex exploitation. It quickly spread, rolling up anti-Semitic tropes. In its portrayal of Trump as a world-changing hero champion against a shadowy regiment of enemies, it owed something to distorted Christianity and much to the world of superhero movies.
QAnon led to the insurrectionary storming of Congress. But its paranoid thinking also went global, infecting the German imperial right-wing Reichsbürger movement, which was plotting a Reichstag coup late last year, and Dutch, Japanese, Brazilian and Australian society too. In his book on QAnon, The Storm is Upon Us, the American writer Mike Rothschild argues that a rebranding of the conspiracy, “#SaveTheChildren”, became particularly influential in the UK.
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The dark cloud has been embraced in Britain, and not only on the right. What of Piers Corbyn, a leading denier of man-made climate change and an anti-vaxxer? What of the former TV historian and then GB News motor-mouth Neil Oliver, who has compared protests against Covid measures to the fight against Nazi Germany and who claims politicians are waging a “silent war” to take “total control of the people” and impose world government?
And what, indeed, of Russell Brand, the disgraced comedian who warned in a video message that negotiations for a world treaty on future pandemics meant that democracy would be “finished” and that, in the future, people would say that “we lapsed into a terrible technocratic, globalist agenda”?
We cannot pretend that the Cloud of Unreason isn’t part of modern Britain, or that it’s an import that can be controlled – still less that it can be safely ignored. So, how can we best start to think about it?
We should begin by acknowledging that this is only the beginning. In the years ahead you will be able to view – theoretically, at least, owing to advances in deep-fake technology, – convincing speeches by Keir Starmer calling for mass Muslim immigration. You will watch missiles arriving and causing slaughter in Leicester Square and Oldham, followed by frantic social media messages asking about the cover-up. Get ready for a world of garbage, in which you can believe almost nothing you see.
But this is not only about technology. Conspiracy theories, AI and a paranoid appetite for fake news offer the illusion of power – and of meaning. We are living through a period in world history in which Western populations have lost their heft and security. People are scared.
Mass migration is real. The rise of China is real. The corruption caused by malign internet actors is real. Unregulated tech platforms are real. Economic dislocation is real.
We are also living in post-editor, no-gatekeeper times. In the previous ups and downs of modern industrial life there has always been a class of people whose role was to calm the fever of busy, angry citizens; to check and contextualise shocking facts; and to curb exaggeration. These were the editors working in the mainstream media, but also the publishing executives, agents, producers and directors: the mediators, the intervening substance, the in-betweeners.
With the triumph of personalised “new media”, their power is much reduced and perhaps even vanishing. All that fine sieving and thoughtful grading, that pruning, assessing, comparing and checking, is losing out to instantaneous, no-consequences, unmediated self-publishing. Have the thought, express the thought. Hear a “fact”, seize it, hurl it on. The wilder, the more compelling, the better.
This can’t be ignored by mainstream politics. The conspiracists and trolls are burrowing hard into right- and left-wing politics and broadcasting, and many voters are with them. Research by New York University and Princeton suggested that people aged over 65 share seven times as many fake-news stories as those aged 18 to 29. And older people are, of course, likelier to vote.
This is going to require a new kind of political speaking – much more forthright and assertive in calling out exaggeration and untruth. We are going to have to lean more heavily on fact checkers, such as Bellingcat, an investigative organisation that specialises in open-source intelligence, and BBC News’s Verify. But this is also going to require political thinking that properly understands the fear voters have of losing their place in a fast-changing world, and offers them what security it can. So far, I don’t see politicians prepared to regulate the tide of fakery or condemn conspiracist nonsense for what it is. But the time for looking away has passed. The Cloud of Unknowing may one day block out our light.
[See also: Paranoia takes root in rural England]
This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War