31 October 2022
Terrorism conspiracy theories: belief among the UK public
A hardcore minority of one in 11 people can be classed as strong believers
Truth under attack? Belief in terrorism conspiracy theories among the UK public
Read the research
Notable minorities of the UK public say they believe conspiracy theories about terror attacks including the Manchester Arena bombing, the 7/7 attacks in London, 9/11, and school shootings in the US, with belief particularly high among younger people and those who get much of their news from social media and messaging platforms, according to new research.
The study was carried out by the Policy Institute at King’s College London for BBC Panorama and BBC Radio 4 podcasts, using data collected by Savanta ComRes. It reveals that while the vast majority – four in five people (80%) – believe serious terrorist attacks have taken place in the UK in recent years, a third (35%) say they don't think the official story has told us the whole truth, and one in five (19%) goes as far as saying they think the victims of terror attacks in the UK are not being truthful about what happened to them.
These doubts extend to beliefs about specific attacks, elements of which are questioned by a minority of the public:
- One in seven (14%) say it’s definitely or probably true that the Manchester Arena bombing involved “crisis actors” who pretended to be injured or killed – but that people weren’t really injured or killed.
- One in eight (13%) say it’s definitely or probably true that the 7/7 attacks in London were probably a hoax.
- One in six (17%) believe it’s definitely or probably the case that attacks such as the Manchester Arena bombing and the 7/7 attacks in London did happen, but they were not carried out by terrorists.
Belief is even higher when it comes to the suggestion that information about these attacks is being suppressed:
- A quarter (26%) of the public say it’s definitely or probably true that the mainstream media and government officials are involved in a conspiracy to cover up important information about the attack at Manchester Arena.
- A similar proportion – 29% – think the real truth about the attack on 7/7 in London is being kept from the public.
And it’s not just attacks in this country that are questioned:
- A quarter (24%) of the UK public say it’s definitely or probably true that people in the US government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop them because they wanted the US to go to war in the Middle East.
- One in six (16%) people in the UK say they believe at least some of the school shootings in the US have probably been hoaxes.
Belief in terror-related conspiracy theories is higher among younger people, as well as those who get much of their news from social media
One in four (24%) people aged 18 to 34 say it’s true that the 7/7 attacks were probably a hoax – roughly double the proportion who say this among the population overall (13%). Belief in this conspiracy theory declines with age, with 8% of 45- to 54-year-olds thinking it’s true, and just 4% of the oldest surveyed – those aged 65 and above – thinking the same.
And while 14% of the population overall say it’s definitely or probably true that the Manchester attack involved “crisis actors”, this rises to 44% among those who say they know a great deal or fair amount about news and events from the messaging app Telegram.
Those who get much of their information from other social networks, such as TikTok (32%), Instagram (29%), Twitter (28%) and WhatsApp (28%), are also more likely than the public as a whole to say they believe this conspiracy theory – in contrast to those who rely more on traditional news sources, such as newspapers and magazines (16%) and major TV and radio broadcasters (13%).
There are also differences in belief by gender and level of engagement with the political process
Men (17%) are twice as likely as women (8%) to say the Manchester Arena attack was probably a hoax, as well as more likely to think victims of UK terror attacks are not telling the truth about their experience (23% men vs 15% women).
Meanwhile, 24% of those who say they didn’t cast a vote in the 2019 general election think the Manchester and 7/7 attacks were not carried out by terrorists, compared with 16% of the public overall.
There is distrust about the role of the UK government in terror attacks, and this may have worsened due to the experience of the pandemic
Around a third (31%) believe the UK government has been involved in covering up terror attacks in the country, and one in five (22%) think it has deliberately allowed such attacks to happen to further their own political agenda. Another one in five (18%) think the UK government has been involved in orchestrating terror attacks on UK soil.
Added to this, one in three (34%) people agree that the experience of the Covid-19 pandemic has made them much more suspicious of official explanations of events, including terrorist attacks – and they are more likely to feel this way if they already see it as an important part of their identity to question what they’re told rather than just believe explanations from the government or mainstream media (44%).
Overall, when it comes to belief in a range of different types of conspiracy theories relating to terror attacks in the UK, there is a hardcore minority who are particularly strong believers
From analysis of responses to 11 conspiracy statements about terrorist attacks in the UK, it is possible to identify five distinct groups among the public with varying degrees of belief.
It reveals that a hardcore minority of around one in 11 (9%) people can be classed as strongly accepting most or all 11 conspiracies, while a further one in five weakly accept (21%) at least some of them, and 6% say they’re not sure what to think about these theories.
But the biggest group, making up half (50%) of the population, strongly reject most or all of the statements, and one in eight (13%) reject them more weakly, thinking some types of claims are false, but having less certainty about others.
Professor Bobby Duffy, director of the Policy Institute at King’s College London, said:
“Significant minorities of the UK public say they believe outlandish conspiracy theories on terror attacks, even that high-profile terror attacks such as the 7/7 bombings in London and the Manchester Arena attack were a hoax, involved 'crisis actors' or that they weren’t carried out by terrorists. Overall, around one in 11 of the UK population fall into a group who can be classed as strongly believing such conspiracies. This type of extreme belief is at the end of a much wider funnel of suspicion and distrust, where around four in 10 think there are so many conflicting accounts it’s hard to know what to believe and around three in 10 do not believe the whole truth is being told about these incidents.
“There are clear characteristics of those who tip from this suspicion into conspiracism, with younger people, those who get a lot of their information from social media and messaging platforms, and those who’re disengaged from mainstream politics being most likely to believe conspiracies. Of course, this doesn’t mean that social media use causes these beliefs, rather than attracting those already susceptible, or that it is an easy task to crack down on the sharing or fuelling of conspiracies. But it is a key and growing challenge that governments and platforms need to engage with.”
Savanta ComRes surveyed 4,459 UK adults aged 18+ online, from 1 to 9 October 2022. Data was weighted to be representative of the UK population by age, gender, region and social grade.