The Guardian has an opinion piece by Julia Ebner on how conspiracy theories undermine democracy. She mainly focus on the role of non-transparent algorithms used by platforms like YouTube in spreading conspiracy theories. Though we agree with her on that those algorithms should be transparent and the conspiracy theories are harmful to society, we are missing a fundamental piece.
That part is the question why people believe such theories in the first place? We believe that there are two main reasons why people are inclined to take conspiracy theories serious.
The first reason, we believe, is the lack of teaching critical thinking at schools. Unfortunately education around the world is still not adapted to digital age and hence children fail to learn how to process the information they find online.
However, the most important reason why people are vulnerable to conspiracy theories is the fact that authorities around the world are failing to take serious the concerns of their citizens. Whether it is crime, unemployment or immigration people see that political leaders are not addressing their problems.
People are not stupid and if, for instance, they are told that the economy is doing well but the average man on the street does not receive a raise or is unable to find a job, while simultaneously large businesses are making immense profits and government continue to cut spending – it is not strange that people start to question the “official story”.
Conspiracy theories offer an alternative, albeit wrong, explanation of what is happening in society. People who have lost their confidence in the authorities might find such theories attractive as these confirm their distrust of institution.
Blaming online platforms for the spread of harmful conspiracies and urging those to take action is at best a partial solution. But at worst it will only reinforce some people’s believe that the “powers that be” do not want you to know “things”. If authorities around the world really want to restore confidence in public institutions, they need to take their citizens seriously and to address their real grievances.