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Opinion Conspiracy theorists, rejoice: Brexit proves you don’t need the truth to win

In case you missed it, MI-5 totally screwed up the whole Brexit vote-rigging thing. Britain's domestic spy service was supposed to spend the evening erasing the pencil-marked "Leave" crosses on EU referendum ballots and replacing them with "Remain" votes.

Brexit explained: The latest updates and what you need to know

I'm not sure what happened. Perhaps they forgot to hide enough erasers in the heels of their shoes. Maybe they were too busy carrying out their other clandestine operations, such as weaponizing bumblebees and giving One Direction their orders to carry out that coup in Libya (once Harry Styles finishes his paratrooper training).

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The Leave faction was so sure the vote would be rigged that a hashtag – #usepens – sprang up on Twitter. Their supporters stood outside polling stations offering pens to the voter-sheep who did not know the fix was in. British newspapers ran stories about why polling stations use pencils anyway (the short, wonderfully British answer: Because it has always been that way.)

A poll the week before the referendum had revealed that 46 per cent of Leavers thought it was probable the vote would be "rigged," with MI-5 the most likely culprit. (I'm not sure a conspiracy telegraphed so far in advance meets the strict criteria laid out in the New World Order Gazette, but whatever.) In the end, a secret plot wasn't necessary, only a flood of well-oiled propaganda.

The only thing rigged about this referendum is the future of the young people of Britain (it is estimated that three-quarters of them voted to stay in the EU). And the older generation has conspired to change it for the worse, not the better. The last time young people were this shafted by old people in Britain, we got punk music. So maybe something good will come of it.

I've often wished I could believe in conspiracy theories, because it would make life so much easier. Boyfriend seems to have changed over the years, and not for the better? He's a lizard wearing boyfriend skin. Late for work in the morning? The Illuminati drained my gas tank!

Ah, for the days when we could laugh at such theories, before they took over the mainstream and became not crazy talk, but just talk. What used to be the province of 1970s thrillers and basement-dwelling neck-beards is now everywhere: Dropping from the mouths of presidential candidates and arriving on Facebook in san-serif outrage memes from your Aunt Leona, which bristle with exclamation marks like rabid porcupines. The embrace of the conspiracy theory has become so commonplace that I'm pretty sure Fox is making a sitcom called Married … With Preppers.

We now live in a world where three-quarters of the supporters of the presumptive Republican nominee for president believe the sitting President is "hiding something about his background," i.e. that he was born in Kenya and leads a second life as an imam when Michelle lets him leave the White House. Mr. Trump, one of the first and most prominent of the birthers, is supremely canny at peddling his conspiracy theories – that vaccines cause autism, Ted Cruz's father was involved in the assassination of JFK, and foreign governments have "blackmail" files on Hillary Clinton.

He uses coded language that may seem innocuous to average citizens, but rings a rewarding bell in the brains of people with the right receptors. The Washington Post recently looked at Mr. Trump's favourite aspersion-casting phrase, "there's something going on," which he likes to use to suggest the President might not just be a Muslim, but an Islamic-State-supporting Muslim at that. "That phrase, according to political scientists who study conspiracy theories, is characteristic of politicians who seek to exploit the psychology of suspicion and cynicism to win votes," the Post concluded.

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This twisting of truth is toddler reasoning (if it does not achieve my aims, it must be wrong), and it is not confined to Mr. Trump and his millions of supporters. A core of Bernie Sanders fans sincerely believe the primary season was rigged against their candidate, and that a nefarious cabal kept him from his proper victories in New York and California. They will vote for anyone but Ms. Clinton, the "establishment" candidate. This corrosive suspicion of elites, whether in the United States or Britain or anywhere else in the world, does not just bring down the establishment – it decays the whole foundation of a civil society based on trust.

You end up with a world where a significant number of people believe that mass murders like the one in Orlando are "false flag" attacks orchestrated by the CIA as a way to bring in gun control, or that MI-5 is planning to fix a referendum. This mistrust spreads to science, and leads to a situation where one-third of Americans believe that the spread of the Zika virus is a conspiracy involving genetically modified mosquitoes.

It has been noted that we live in a post-truth world, where all facts are open to interpretation, spin and doubt, but equally we live in a post-trust world. If you look at Gallup's surveys of trust in institutions over the decades, the decay is obvious: Trust in almost all institutions – government, judiciary, church, media, business – has fallen in the past 40 years, in some cases precipitously. Only one institution has become more trustworthy in that time, and if you said, "the military," you would be right, although you might have to have a little lie-down to recover from the shock of it all.

"People in this country have had enough of experts," pro-Leave Tory Michael Gove said before comparing pro-Remain economists to Nazis. And this man used to be the education secretary. People have had enough of experts, all right – unless they're sitting in the dark wearing tinfoil hats.

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