Conspiracy and Democracy: History, Political Theory and the Internet

23 November 2018, 09:30 - 17:30

Rooms SG1 and SG2, Ground Floor, Alison Richard Building, 7 West Road, Cambridge, CB3 9DT

Registration for this event is free but booking is essential. Please register here

This event will be the final showcase of work undertaken during the five-year Leverhulme Trust-funded project Conspiracy and Democracy. Led by Professor Sir Richard Evans, Professor John Naughton, and Professor David Runciman, this project asked big questions of a big topic at a time when discourses around conspiracy and democracy have become mainstream. This event will highlight some of the answers to these questions, explore trends in contemporary conspiracy theories, and launch the results of a new poll conducted by YouGov.  Bringing together researchers who have worked on the Conspiracy and Democracy project, the event will showcase research findings and outputs while giving an opportunity for discussion and exploring next steps. The event will be followed by a reception until 18:30.

• If you would like to attend the full-day event, please register here. If you would like to attend the Brexit and Conspiracy Theories public launch (15:30 to 16:30) only, please register here.

9:30 - 9:50

Registration and Tea/Coffee

9:50 - 10:00


10:00 - 10:30

Professor Sir Richard Evans (University of Cambridge)

Warrant for Genocide? The 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' Reconsidered

10:30 - 11:00

Dr Hugo Leal (University of Cambridge) 

It’s All Connected! Misinformation and the Rise of Nativism

11:00 - 11:30


11:30 -12:00

Dr Alfred Moore (University of York) 

A Conspiracy Against the Laity? Expertise and the Politics of Distrust

12:00 - 12:30

Dr Nayanika Mathur (University of Oxford)

Is it Climate Change or a Conspiracy Theory? Big Cats and Humans in the Indian Anthropocene

12:30 - 13:30


13:30 - 14:00

Professor David Runciman (University of Cambridge) 

Populism and the Logic of Conspiracy Theory

14:00 - 14:30

Professor John Naughton (University of Cambridge) 

Computational Conspiracism:  How Digital Technology Brought Conspiracy Theories into the Mainstream

14:30 - 15:00

Dr Rolf Fredheim (NATO StratCom COE) 

Bots, Trolls, and Fake Clicks: How Big a Problem is Social Media Fakery and What Can We Do About It? 

15:00 - 15:30


15:30 - 16:30

Dr Hugo Leal (University of Cambridge) and Dr Hugo Drochon (University of Nottingham)

Brexit and Conspiracy Theories (Public Launch)

16:30 - 17:30

Professor Sir Richard Evans (University of Cambridge), Professor John Naughton (University of Cambridge), Professor David Runciman (University of Cambridge) 

Panel Discussion

17:30 - 18:30


Professor Sir Richard Evans (University of Cambridge) 
Warrant for Genocide? The ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ Reconsidered 
The 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' have been described as the most important text on the Jewish world ‘conspiracy', a text that provided a 'warrant for genocide' and was the direct inspiration behind the Holocaust. In this paper, Richard J. Evans reconsiders this strange and remarkable document and asks whether its sinister reputation is really justified. What did the ‘Protocols’ actually say? Where did they come from? Was Hitler a conspiracy theorist? And how far was he seriously influenced by the ‘Protocols’?

Dr Hugo Leal (University of Cambridge) 
It’s All Connected! Misinformation and the Rise of Nativism
This talk will examine the connections between misinformation campaigns and the current wave of nativism in Europe and the United States. In particular, it will focus on the strategic use of migration-related fake stories and conspiracy theories by populist and far-right political actors to mainstream their agenda. The central argument is that, within the nativist realm, misinformation campaigns are orchestrated with the clear intention of recruiting and mobilising the general public through the networked dissemination of group-based threats. This phenomenon, which I call the manufacture of dissent, is fundamental to understanding the rise of nativism in countries, such as France, Germany, Italy, Hungary, United States and the UK.

Dr Alfred Moore (University of York)
A Conspiracy Against the Laity? Expertise and the Politics of Distrust 
GB Shaw once described professions as a 'conspiracy against the laity.’ Suspicion of experts has featured prominently in our recent politics, captured in the oft-quoted claim in 2016 that the British people had ‘had enough of experts’ telling them what to do. Conspiracy theorists in particular exhibit a radical distrust of experts in domains ranging from economics to climate change to migration. In this talk I will try to disentangle some of these forms of distrust, suggest how they might be related, and ask how worried we should be about them.

Dr Nayanika Mathur (University of Oxford)
Is It Climate Change or a Conspiracy Theory? Big Cats and Humans in the Indian Anthropocene 
This paper is an ethnographic study of attempts to explain the sharp rise in incidences of tigers and leopards attacking and eating humans in India. Popularly known as ‘man-eaters,’ divergent theories abound that attempt to explain their increase in recent years. Some of these narratives hinge upon explanations derived from established climate change narratives; others can only be described as ‘conspiracy theories’. In this paper, I discuss both these seemingly differing accounts to argue that, in fact, both the climate change based stories and the so-called conspiracy theories share much more in common than one would immediately assume. Building upwards from this case study rooted in India and centred upon charismatic megafauna, I ask how might it help us better understand climate denialism and climate conspiracism at a more global scale?

Dr Rolf Fredheim (NATO StratCom COE) 
Bots, Trolls, and Fake Clicks: How Big a Problem is Social Media Fakery and What Can We Do About It? 
This talk draws together results from two ongoing projects investigating social media manipulation. Attempts by Kremlin-backed actors to intervene in the US elections of 2016 prompted social media companies to introduce measures to protect their platforms from automated or paid messages. I argue that the major social media platforms Facebook and Twitter still have much work to do if they are to tackle the problem. Research conducted by NATO StratCom COE shows that measures implemented by Twitter have been less effective in Russian than in English. Initial findings from an experiment involving Facebook ads traffic suggest the platform faces similar problems. Perversely, the algorithms used to place ads may end up directing traffic to bots and click farms as such users are likely to interact with even poor ads. Fake activity undermines confidence in the online conversation. It makes a mockery of attempts to quantify public opinion based on social data. And it has real costs for advertisers who pay the bill.

Public Launch
Brexit and Conspiracy Theories 
During this event, Dr Hugo Leal (University of Cambridge) and Dr Hugo Drochon (University of Nottingham) will launch the results of a substantial recent YouGov poll which surveyed public opinion on the topic of conspiracy and democracy across the UK, Europe and the USA. The event will examine the results of the survey and reveal the associations between some of the most momentous events in contemporary history, like the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote, and conspiratorial beliefs.

Panel Discussion 
Professor Sir Richard Evans
, Professor John Naughton, and Professor David Runicman will review the research activities of the Conspiracy and Democracy project. This will explore the significant development in this field during the almost 6-year project and the contribution to the field that this research project has made.