November 1, 2022 | BBC One

Sasha Havlicek on why conspiracists claim terror attacks are being faked

ISD’s CEO, Sasha Havlicek, appears in an episode of BBC’s Panorama programme to discuss how and why people come to believe that terror attacks are hoaxes.

‘Disaster Deniers: Hunting the Trolls’, presented by Marianna Spring, takes as its subject the conspiracy theorists propagating the narrative that terror attacks, such as the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing that killed 22 people and injured over 100 others, are in fact hoaxes. The programme focusses on the impact these conspiracy theories have on the survivors of terror attacks.

Sasha sets out the context in which theories like this have found fertile ground, explaining the mainstreaming of extremism, hatred and conspiracy. “In the last decade we’ve seen a mainstreaming of all of these types of movements that we once thought of as being in the fringe, whether that’s extremist mobilisation or conspiracist ideologies, not least because of the massive social media amplification of the content that comes closest to the red line.”

Research conducted for the BBC found that around one in five people in the UK think that survivors of terror attacks are not telling the truth about what happened to them, and 14% think that the Manchester Arena bombing involved ‘crisis actors’. Sasha explained, “A crisis actor is the idea that when you see something horrendous in the news, you’re not seeing what’s happening in the real world, you’re seeing a show being put on, people being paid to act these desperate parts to tell you a tale that’s untrue.”

Was Sasha surprised by how many people believed these narratives? “They did shock me, but they didn’t surprise me. It’s a post-COVID conspiracy movement. What happened with COVID was immense. Around the whole world, we saw this enormous rise in online conspiracy content and engagement with conspiracy content. As we’ve seen the rise of these internet sub-cultures, we have at the same time seen the plummeting of trust in institutions, in mainstream media. We’ve seen a decrease in support for democracy as a concept. The idea of a shared reality is the basis on which our polities are constructed. So we do need to take seriously conspiracy networks and the proliferation of this kind of thinking online and offline.”

Panorama’s Disaster Deniers: Hunting the Trolls can be watched on BBC iPlayer.