MPs given guide to spotting conspiracy theories

Penny Mordaunt
Penny Mordaunt commissioned the new guide for MPs [PA Media]

A new guide to conspiracy theories that "can pose a danger to democracy" has been written for MPs and would-be politicians.

Penny Mordaunt, the leader of the House of Commons, commissioned the booklet to warn colleagues of eight of the biggest false claims.

These include conspiracies around vaccines, 5G and "15 minute cities".

It came as Ms Mordaunt took a swipe at former Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, saying he "promotes conspiracy theories".

As the Commons leader was introducing the guide in the Commons on Thursday, Mr Bridgen - who was a Conservative MP but was expelled from the party for spreading "dangerous" anti-vaccine conspiracies in April last year and now sits as an independent - raised the issue of Covid 19 vaccines.


Analysis

By Marianna Spring, Disinformation and social media correspondent

It feels a bit like an episode of a Dystopian TV drama when elected politicians have to refer to a conspiracy theory handbook.

But really, this is an indication of the real-world harm disinformation, conspiracy theories and hate on social media have caused in recent months and years.

Once the Covid-19 pandemic eased and restrictions were lifted, you'd be forgiven for thinking the proliferation of online conspiracy theories might have subsided. But now they emerge up every time something major happens - whether a violent attack, a war, a disappearance.

They're used to explain what's unfolding in the here and now, rather than historical events. And a committed conspiracy theory movement exists here in the UK.

These conspiracy theories often exploit valid questions or go far beyond legitimate concerns - instead suggesting elaborate plots for which there is no evidence.

This handbook is a reminder of how MPs are grappling with the social media world. And that feels particularly acute with an election on the horizon and AI-generated content further exacerbating the murky underbelly online.


Mr Bridgen said the original version of the AstraZeneca vaccine had been being withdrawn this week.

Describing how he had suffered vaccine side effects, he claimed there is "huge and growing concern" over "a medical intervention that this House encouraged, coerced and, in some cases, mandated people to inject into their bodies" and asked for a ministerial statement on "why the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency failed to act to protect the public interest".

Highlighting how the Covid 19 vaccines had saved millions of lives, Ms Mordaunt remined the MP he had already had several Commons debates on the issue and, while side effects are a serious issue, "that is quite another thing from promoting false information about the effectiveness and safety of vaccines".

Ms Mordaunt said the guide had a chapter on anti-vaccine conspiracies and encouraged Mr Bridgen to "get a copy and read it, to think seriously when he comes to the House, as he does every week, and promotes conspiracy theories and to really think about the consequences of what he is doing."

The eight conspiracies are explained by different charity groups and fact-checking organisations in the booklet are:

  • Covid-19 - False claims that Covid-19 is a means of government control or about vaccines containing 5G traceable microchips (Full Fact)

  • Climate Lockdown & 15-minute cities- 15-minute cities is an urban design term for having all amenities available within a 15-minute walk of homes. False claims that measures to tackle climate change, including 15-minute cities, are a pretence to strip people of civil liberties and limit movement. (Institute for Strategic Dialogue & Antisemitism Policy Trust)

  • Global Control, the Great Reset and the New World Order - False claims of a plan by the World Economic Forum to control populations and economies to benefit a powerful elites (Arieh Kovler)

  • QAnon - False claims about the existence of a paedophile ring run by a global elite, who may be shape-shifting reptilians (Institute for Strategic Dialogue)

  • The Great Replacement - False claims there is a plan to replace the European white population with ethnic minority groups (Tell MAMA)

  • 5G - False claims that 5G technology is unsafe due to radiation from 5G waves (Full Fact)

  • Ukraine War - False claims that the Russian invasion is countering power-grabs by global elites and also antisemitic conspiracy theories (Antisemitism Policy Trust)

  • Chemtrails - False claims that aircraft condensation trails are full of chemicals that are deliberately sprayed to control or reduce populations (Full Fact)

Urging all MPs to read the guide to conspiracy theories on Thursday, Ms Mordaunt said: "Such theories are a real threat not just to democracy, but to the wellbeing of our constituents.

"They are a form of radicalisation, they are spreading and we must do everything we can to combat them."

The guide says many of the conspiracy theories are linked to anti-Jewish racism, with a shared belief around "a secret cabal that seeks world domination by controlling world events, promoting conflicts and financial instability, [which] can find its roots in age-old antisemitism".

"This risk is not only of conspiracy theories targeting governments and populations but also the active support and proliferation of conspiracy theories by government or other public officials," it states.

'Quietly spreading their poison'

Showing cross-party support for the move, Labour's Lucy Powell also welcomed the "important guide", adding: "Although the existence of conspiracy theories is nothing new, their reach, risk and repercussions are ever increasing."

The SNP's Deirdre Brock was also supportive but criticised the the "the malign influence" of Facebook groups linked to Conservative party HQ staff and activists during the London Mayor campaign, which she said were "forums full of vile racism, conspiracy theories and Islamophobic abuse of Sadiq Khan".

"There is reason to suspect similar groups are quietly spreading their poison across the UK, including in Scotland," she said.

The guide was written jointly by the Antisemitism Policy Trust, Full Fact, Tell Mama, Global Network on Extremism and Technology, the Community Security Trust and the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.