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Disinformation and Conspiracy Theories: A Glimpse Into the Status Quo for Middle-Aged Adults

Authors: Paulina Kowalicka, Maria Grazia Peluso, Desideria-Giulia Pollak

From Qanon to flat-earthers, disinformation seems to find particularly fertile ground in today’s world, where conspiracy theories have mostly overcome the traditional means of dissemination and have increasingly transformed into virtual practices through social media (1).

Despite their ancient roots (back to the Peloponnesian war in 431 B.C.), conspiracy theories represent a growing concern to governments. What seems to accumulate over the centuries is the belief that “truth” is to be sought beyond visible reality, grounded in a climate of suspicion that guides the interpretation of events that differ from the culturally shared conceptions. These are often theories that believe in an invisible enemy, an elite of the powerful who operate for the sole purpose of causing harm to society (2).

Although the factual basis of conspiracies is most often rather questionable – if not openly nonexistent – these theories seem to represent a significant indicator for the state of public debate in a given society, providing access to its problems, expectations and worries. Extreme political narratives have been rising across Europe and the globe, and have a direct impact on mainstream cultural, political and social discourses and dynamics (3). While in most western countries these narratives are counter balanced by alternative media and propaganda, in restrictive regimes – especially those of eastern Europe and of the Arab world – conspiracies represent and portrayed as legitimate information, often directed by state channels themselves.

It is not surprising that governments are so concerned. Social media are currently permeated by those narratives: once perceived as delusions of those on the fringes of society, they have now become commonplace in digital culture and are mostly produced, consumed, endorsed and circulated in online environments, which have given conspiracy theories new shapes and content.

In this perspective, the SMIDGE project will investigate the possible effects – also in terms of undermining trust in democratic institutions – of the malicious use of social platforms by middle-aged adults (45-65yo), both susceptible to online extremism and influential as decision-makers. Not as digitally savvy as younger generations, the target group seems to typically lack the necessary skills to distinguish online truth from untruth, to exhibit higher levels of cynicism and distrust in mainstream media and may often be more prone to engage in easy models or explanations. Their use of social media, when fueled by conspiracy theories, hate speech and disinformation campaigns, shapes and mobilizes new kinds of social practices and concerns, such as the Capitol Hill attack on January 6th 2021 (4), the 23 days of New Zealand’s Parliament occupation (5), the Corona protests denying the COVID-19 pandemic and objecting to lockdowns (6) and, more widely, how democracy is perceived and frequently delegitimized (7).

While conspiracy theories are demonstrated to somewhat address a psychological need to be part of an in-crowd, social media appear to have the power to make individuals from peripherical groups gain significant influence and followers. The consequent effect on those in middle age is considerable.

For instance, the QAnon narrative – whose core belief is that a cabal of deep state saboteurs, who worship Satan and operate a global children sex trafficking ring and is conspiring against former U.S. President Trump – allows women (especially those who have experienced – motherhood) to feel they are somehow saving the world and children from powerful pedophiles and abusers.

Also, middle-aged adults seem to be more likely to be drawn into climate change conspiracy theories. Whereas the harmful effects of climate change have become more observable and tangible all over the globe, these narratives suggest that climate change is nothing but a scam, mainly invented to mislead the public. What seem to result from the observation of social trends in the last five years (following Greta Thunberg’s well-known first protest and the launch of the Friday for Future movement), is that teenagers and young adults are more sensitive to these issues and care more than older people about the future of the planet. The belief in, or simply the exposure to, climate change conspiracy narratives have negative downstream consequences for addressing climate change, including stronger climate skepticism, weaker climate policy support, and weaker pro-environmental behavioral intention (8).

At this point, the infrastructure of disinformation appears to be multi-layered within social media, covering messaging apps, online forums, alternative media channels, as well as websites, databases and content aggregators.

Such scenarios are calculated to attract specific categories of individuals, and may continue to do so, growing in membership size and geographical presence. Although multiple data-driven reports show that online information intermediaries’ output may be subject to inaccuracies, biases or conspiracy-promoting results, they are still commonly used and trusted by some members of the public (in particular, by adults)  (9).

While radical groups are attempting to create an alternative tech ecosystem, which includes alternative web search engines, handling the spread of conspiracy-promoting results and returned links to conspiracy-dedicated websites becomes crucial, especially in favour of middle-aged people lacking adequate and structured online search skills.

To do so effectively, there is a clear role to be played by media literacy and critical education. Together with the strengthening of the sense of belonging and of social support, these factors may (hopefully) contribute to the reduction of reasoning in an emotional and non-rational way and to the decrease in (the sense of) social polarization, which is at the base of conspiracy thinking. This is why the SMIDGE project will be eliciting reflexivity through the production of counter-narratives, education and specific training for journalists, policy makers and security professionals, in order to encourage more accuracy of reporting, and through the development of guidelines and recommendations to guide policy and decision makers.


  1. I. HIMELBOIM, P. BORAH, D. KA LAI LEE, J. (JANICE) LEE, Y. SU, A.A VISHNEVSKAYA, X. Xiao, “What do 5G networks, Bill Gates, Agenda 21, QAnon have in common? Sources, distribution, and characteristics”, «New Media & Society», 2023, pp. 1-21.

  2. C. BRICHALL, Knowledge Goes Pop. From Conspiracy Theory to Gossip, Berg, 2006; M. FRENKEN, R. IMHOFF, “Dont’ trust anybody: Conspiracy mentality and the detection of facial trustworthiness cues”, «Applied Cognitive Psychology», 2023, vol. 37, pp. 256–265.

  3. J. E. USCINSKI, J. M. PARENT, American Conspiracy Therories, Oxford University Press, 2014; A. R. DIMAGGIO, “Conspiracy Theories and the Manufacture of Dissent: QAnon, the ‘Big Lie’, Covid-19, and the Rise of Rightwing Propaganda”, «Critical Sociology», vol. 48, n. 6, 2022, pp. 1025-1048; Q. CASSAM, “Conspiracy Theories”, «Society», 2023.

  4. C. S. LEE, J. MERIZALDE, J. D. COLAUTTI, J. AN, H. KWAK, “Storm the Capitol: Linking Offline Political Speech and Online Twitter Extra-Representational Participation on QAnon and the January 6 Insurrection”, «Frontiers in Sociology», vol. 7, no. 876070, May 2022.

  5. D. ROBIE, “New Zealand’s 23-day Parliament siege, QAnon and how social media disinformation manufactured an ‘alternate reality’”, «Pacific Journalism Review», vol. 28, no. 1 & 2, 2022, p. 105-113, and B. CLARK, “The NZ media and the occupation of Parliament”, «Pacific Journalism Review», vol. 28, no. 1-2, 2022.

  6. M. ZEHRING, E. DOMAHIDI, “German Corona Protest Mobilizers on Telegram and Their Relations to the Far Right: A Network and Topic Analysis”, «Social Media + Society», vol. I-12, 2023, p. 1-12.

  7. M. RHODES-PURDY, The Age of Discontent, Populism, Extremism, and Conspiracy Theories in Contemporary Democracies, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2023 and K. PAPAIOANNOU, M. PANTAZI, J. VAN PROOIJEN, “Is democracy under threat? Why belief in conspiracy theories predicts autocratic attitudes”, «Wiley EASP», vol. I-11, 2023, p. 1-11.

  8. H. CHAN, K. TAM, Y. HONG, “Does belief in climate change conspiracy theories predict everyday life pro-environmental behaviors? Testing the longitudinal relationship in China and the U.S.”, «Journal of Environmental Psychology», vol. 87, no. 101980, 2023.

  9. URMAN, M. MAKHORTYKH, R. ULLOA, J. KULSHRESTHA, “Where the earth is flat and 9/11 is an inside job: A comparative algorithm audit of conspiratorial information in web search results”, «Telematics and Informatics», vol. 72, n. 101860, 2022.


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