July 31, 2023 | The Guardian

Julia Ebner: Is it too late to stop democracies from being taken over by conspiratorial thinking?

In an op-ed for The Guardian, ISD Senior Resident Research Fellow Julia Ebner outlines how extremism has seeped into the mainstream of Western society. Looking back at 2017, she recalls a time when briefing government officials on the emerging internet movement around the QAnon conspiracy was a laughing matter. Today, there are elected officials in office who adhere to this theory and deriving narratives.

This shift can be observed not only in the rise of right populist parties such as the Alternative für Deutschland, Fratelli d’Italia or Sweden Democrats, but also in the way moderate conservative parties in the UK and the US have adopted similar extreme views, she explains. “I am often asked why the UK doesn’t have a successful far-right populist party. My answer is: Because it doesn’t need to. Parts of the Conservative party now cater to audiences that would have voted for the BNP or Ukip in the past. […] It might be hard for extreme-right parties to rise to power in Britain, but there is no shortage of routes for extremist ideas to reach Westminster.”

“In 2019 – before conspiracy myths inspired attacks on the US Capitol, the German Reichstag, the New Zealand parliament and the Brazilian Congress – I warned in a Guardian opinion piece of the threat QAnon would soon pose to democracy. Are we now at a point where it is too late to stop democracies being taken over by far-right ideologies and conspiracy thinking? If so, do we simply have to accept the ‘new normal?’”

Julia explains there are several ways to push back on the spread of extremist rhetoric. “[…] It is essential to expose extremist manipulation tactics, call out politicians when they normalise conspiracy thinking and regulate algorithm design by the big technology companies that still amplify harmful content.”

She says: “If the private sector is part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution. Surveys by the Edelman Trust Barometer found that people in liberal democracies have largely lost trust in governments, media and even NGOs but, surprisingly, still trust their employers and workplaces. Companies can play an important role in the fight for democratic values. For example, [ISD’s] the Business Council for Democracy tests and develops training courses that firms can offer to employees to help them identify and counter conspiracy myths and targeted disinformation.”

“Young people should be helped to become good digital citizens with rights and responsibilities online, so that they can develop into critical consumers of information. National school curricula should include a new subject at the intersection of psychology and internet studies to help digital natives understand the forces that their parents have struggled to grasp: the psychological processes that drive digital group dynamics, online engagement and the rise of conspiracy thinking.”

The full article is available on the Guardian.