13 June 2023
'Great replacement theory' and conspiracies about 15-minute cities, cost of living and digital currencies said to be definitely or probably true by one in three in UK
One in four also say they would take part in protests against some of these issues
As many as one in three people in the UK say conspiracies often promoted by some alternative media sources are definitely or probably true, including the “great replacement theory” – which suggests white people are being replaced by non-white immigrants – as well as claims that the cost of living crisis is a government plot to control the public, that “15-minute cities” are intended to keep people under surveillance, and that central bank digital currencies will be used to restrict people’s freedom.
Research by King’s College London for the new BBC Radio 4 podcast Marianna in Conspiracyland, also highlights the potential real-world impacts of such misinformation, finding that up to one in four people say they have either taken part in, or would be prepared to take part in, direct action on issues often linked to conspiracy theories.
These include protesting against a “deep state”, 15-minute cities, vaccines and the introduction of central bank digital currencies, with up to one in seven going as far as saying violence could be justified in such circumstances, and men twice as likely as women to say they would protest against these issues.
And with concerns that the pandemic has fuelled conspiracy belief in the UK, one in three (33%) say they are now less likely to believe official information because of how government and the media behaved during Covid – almost double the proportion who say the opposite (18%).
Meanwhile, the majority of the public (58%) say conspiracy belief is higher today than it was 20 years ago, but there is little evidence from academic studies that it has actually increased.1
Conspiracy beliefs are relatively widespread – with belief much higher among those who get their news from certain sources
Around a third of the public say the following conspiracy theories promoted by alternative “news” sources are either probably or definitely true:
- Central bank digital currencies will be used by governments to control people’s money and restrict their freedom (35%).
- So-called “15-minute cities”, where all services are with a 15-minute walk of where people live, are an attempt by governments to restrict people’s personal freedom and keep them under surveillance (33%).
- The cost of living crisis is a government plot to control the public (33%).
- The “great replacement theory” – the idea that white Americans and Europeans are being replaced by non-white immigrants – is happening (32%).
- The “Great Reset” announced by the World Economic Forum during the Covid-19 pandemic is a conspiracy to impose a totalitarian world government (29%).
And belief in such conspiracies is far higher among those who get much of their information from alternative media sources.
For example, while a third (32%) of the public overall say it’s true that the “great replacement theory” is happening, this rises to around two-thirds among those who say they get a great deal or fair amount of their news from outlets such as 21st Century Wire (65%), The Light (64%), The Exposé (63%) and Breitbart (62%).
A considerable minority say they would take direct action on issues often linked to conspiracy theories…
One in four people in the UK say they have either taken part in, or would be prepared to take part in, protests or rallies against:
- The introduction of central bank digital currencies (24%).
- A “deep state” of military, intelligence and government officials who try to secretly manipulate government policy (23%).
- So-called “15-minute cities” (23%).
- While one in five (20%) say the same about taking part in a protest or rally against vaccines.
A quarter also say they have taken part in, or would be prepared to take part in, protests against a government lockdown they did not agree with (25%) or government or media misinformation linked to Covid-19 (25%).
And men are around twice as likely as women to say they would participate in direct action on all of these issues. For example, 32% of men say they have either taken part in, or would be prepared to take part in, a protest or rally against central bank digital currencies – double the proportion of women (16%) who say the same. (See addendum.)
…while a smaller minority go as far as saying violence could be justified
Among the population overall, one in seven (15%) say violence would be acceptable in protests against central bank digital currencies or against 15-minute cities (14%), and one in eight (13%) say they would approve of violence being used in protests against vaccines, with similar proportions saying the same about other issues tested.
And there is a general belief among the public that conspiracy theories can lead to real-world harms – although some are less sure.
47% say people who believe in conspiracies are more likely to take violent action, compared with 18% who disagree.
There is a similar split in opinion on whether those who spread conspiracy theories should be prosecuted (44% agree vs 26% disagree).
And while 42% say that belief in conspiracies can be damaging, around three in 10 (28%) say such belief is harmless.
Awareness and readership of The Light
One in seven (14%) people say they’ve heard of the conspiracy theorist newspaper The Light, which rose to prominence during the pandemic.
And among that minority, most say they have read a copy (62%) and helped distribute the paper (51%). (See addendum.)
Nevertheless, those who believe in the conspiracy theories included in the study are most likely to say they first came across them via social media or through family and friends, rather than alternative outlets like The Light.
Is conspiracy belief on the rise?
One in three (33%) people say they are now less likely to believe official information because of how government and the media behaved during Covid – almost double the proportion who say the opposite (18%).
A clear majority (58%) of the public say conspiracy belief is higher than it was 20 years ago, with three-quarters (73%) saying they think social media has contributed to this rise.
Despite most thinking conspiracy belief his risen, the public actually underestimate just how widespread it is
The public’s median guess is that 20% of the UK population think the following are definitely or probably true – but the reality is that closer to a third believe this:
- 15-minute cities are a surveillance attempt by government (reality: 33%).
- The “great replacement theory” is happening (reality: 32%).
- The “Great Reset” is an attempt to impose a totalitarian world government (reality: 29%).
Dr Rod Dacombe, reader in politics in the Department of Political Economy at King’s College London, said:
“This research provides new insights into belief in conspiracy theories in the UK and highlights the importance of alternative media in disseminating and reinforcing them – for example, we find that people who get much of their news from certain outlets are far more likely to believe in a range of conspiracies. Nevertheless, it’s important not to overstate the influence of some sources relative to others, as it’s clear from this study that social media is still the main way people first learn of these kinds of theories.
“We also see that relatively large sections of the population can be motivated to act on such beliefs, with around a quarter of the public saying they have taken part in, or would be prepared to take part in, direct action over conspiracist causes. Here, too, there is a strong association between use of alternative media and likelihood of participating in protests and rallies. Worryingly, of those who would be willing to take part, the majority believe that violence could be justified.
“These findings underline the importance of conspiracy theories in explaining how many people understand politics and the events which shape their lives. For some people, conspiracy theories provide the main focus of political participation and the primary means through which they understand what is going on in the world.”
Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:
“It's always shocking to see quite how widespread some conspiracy beliefs are, but it’s perhaps even more worrying how many people say they’d be willing to act on them. Of course, protest is a key part of a healthy democracy and people will have sometimes legitimate concerns about the motivations behind government and others’ actions – but it’s worrying that around one in seven say that violence would be acceptable in protests against, for example, government digital currencies or 15-minute cities.
“This tipping into violent action from a relatively small but still significant minority is perhaps the real concern here, more so than a general expansion of belief in conspiracies. Six in 10 of the public think conspiracy belief is higher today than it was 20 years ago, but there is very little evidence from long-term trends that this is the case. It will no doubt feel like that partly because we are more likely to see conspiracies shared on social media than in the past, and the study confirms how important these outlets are to conspiracy spreading – but that doesn’t automatically mean more and more people are being pulled into conspiracy belief.”
Read the full report, Conspiracy belief among the UK public and the role of alternative media.
Savanta interviewed 2,274 UK adults aged 18+ online between 28 and 30 April 2023. Data were weighted to be representative of the UK by age, sex, region, and social grade.
- Uscinski J, Enders A, Klofstad C, Seelig M, Drochon H, et al. (2022) Have beliefs in conspiracy theories increased over time?. PLOS ONE 17(7): e0270429. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0270429
These estimates for taking part in direct action are based on claimed behaviour in response to the questions as asked. They would convert into significantly more protestors than can be the case in reality, and so should be treated with caution. This could be due to false recall, a broader interpretation of "protest", or to the online panel sample and method. Similarly, it's important to note estimates of engagement with The Light are based on claimed behaviour, and do not fit with what we know about the paper's likely readership and distribution in reality. False recall could be a factor, as could the online panel sample and method. Read more on this here.
Note also that the headline of this article has been updated in order to emphasise more that we are reporting claimed levels of belief, and to be clearer on the response options presented to respondents.