The Local Government Association (LGA) is to talk to university experts to help councils counter a rising tide of conspiracy theories.
A meeting of the LGA’s safer and stronger communities board was yesterday warned the QAnon myth, which includes wild allegations of a child sex ring, had gained ‘significant traction’ among conspiracy theorists in the UK, with 35% of 18-24-year-olds agreeing that secret satanic cults featuring influential elites exist.
The meeting heard that conspiracy theories were ‘taking hold across the whole political spectrum’ and advocates were a ‘very broad church,’ with COVID-19 having ‘put wind in their sails’.
Board chair, Cllr Nesil Caliskan, said: ‘If we do not act quickly some of these conspiracy theories that do exist are going to take hold.’
Deputy chair, Cllr Bridget Smith, said the ‘urgent aim’ was not to change the minds of conspiracy theorists but rather stop them from recruiting anyone else.
She added: ‘I don’t want to wait for government to act on this.
'Government moves slowly.
'We in local government – the big advantage is we can act fast.’
Board member Cllr Farah Hussain said councillors had a ‘responsibility to speak out against conspiracies’ like the one linking the coronavirus outbreak to 5G masts, which she said some councillors had mentioned when objecting to planning applications.
Dr Valerie van Mulukom, a cognitive scientist at Coventry University, acknowledged it might sometimes be difficult for councillors to change minds, adding: ‘When you’re an authority you’re part of the elite.
'That is problematic.’
Lead facilitator of the special interest group on countering extremism, Dr Gareth Harris, told councillors: ‘Conspiracy theories are very hard to counter with rational argument.
'They seem to flourish in times of uncertainty.
'People feel they have become part of a community.
‘I think it will have a negative effect on councillors as more people believe them, but you’re ideally placed to engage with people over these concerns.’
Councillors agreed to talk further with the university experts to discuss next steps.