Out of the shadows

Immigration has been one of the most divisive and salient issues shaping Western political life over the past decade, with profound demographic changes giving rise to a host of social, economic and cultural insecurities. The rise in immigration levels and the public’s concerns about immigration have coincided with the weakening of trust in governments and institutions. These forces are mutually reinforcing, with politicians seen to have systematically ignored and disregarded citizens’ anxieties, challenging the contract that stands at the heart of Western democracies. The structural evolutions in our political systems towards fragmentation and polarisation, the broader appetite for risk-taking among citizens, their hardening views towards traditional political institutions, and the rise of populist politics, have all fundamentally reshaped our political discourse and our engagement with information. Such landscapes have also created unique conditions that support the proliferation of conspiracy messages, an opportunity that some politicians – from both the Left and the Right – are harnessing through a targeted focus on the issue of immigration. Given the levels of anxiety around immigration in almost every Western nation, this strategy has proven especially effective; hence, we can see the rise of conspiracy politics as both a responsive and a proactive force in its relationships with public opinion. While it is true that the common appeal of conspiracy thinking has been observed for decades, the mainstreaming of conspiracy thinking appears to be accelerating. This process means our received wisdom as to the demographics of those susceptible to conspiracy thinking must also shift.

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