Beware the rise of conspiracy theories in our local politics

By Jessica Studdert | 08 November 2023

Conspiracy theories have long lurked in the shadows of our public discourse but are beginning to creep into the mainstream.

The rise in online news consumption, combined with the isolation of Covid lockdowns, has created more space for ideas to take hold. In the UK, we have been bystanders to the increasing influence of conspiracy theories like QAnon on US politics and Trump’s post-truth reality distortions. Now, some of our own national politicians seem determined to indulge in similar ways.

Transport secretary Mark Harper used his party conference speech to claim how ‘sinister’ the ‘idea’ is that councils can ‘ration who uses roads’ and ‘decide how often you go to the shops’. Of course, no council has attempted to do this, but the truth is less important than the signal, and this has created greater risk for navigating complex long-term decisions.

His comments echoed the distortions of the 15-minute city concept that have been gaining traction in many local areas, which has become increasingly conflated with local measures to ease traffic congestion.

It had come as a surprise to many that such a niche urban planning concept focused on making neighbourhoods more accessible and liveable, could be deemed a tool of government oppression. But herein lies the problem – conspiracy theories create hidden traps that conventional practice falls into. Campaigns using online platforms enable those citing reasonable, practical objections fast become exposed via algorithms to more sinister narratives which frame institutional intent. And sometimes the actions of those institutions – however well intentioned – can help feed those narratives.

Conspiracy theories thrive in the absence of transparency and effective communication. If we are to effectively navigate future big challenges like public health and climate change, part of the answer must lie in more, not fewer opportunities for public participation in decisions and build buy-in over trade-offs.

Jessica Studdert is deputy chief executive at New Local

X – @jesstud

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