Why conspiracy theories are thriving on dating apps

On Hinge and Bumble, a growing number of 20-somethings are looking for love by claiming Epstein didn't kill himself and Finland isn't real.

by Morgan Jones
06 July 2022, 9:21am

It can be hard to set oneself apart from the crowd in the world of online dating. Pretty much everyone is attractive to someone, but on The Apps, one most often finds only an unappealing morass of platitudes and Peep Show quotes. It’s difficult; the nature of these platforms means the parameters of self-description are limited. Generally, users are given a set of prompts to select from; Hinge righteously invites you to share a “social cause you care about”, while Bumble suggests you tell potential romantic partners your “zombie apocalypse plan”. Many people, in this bleak landscape of love language full of sarcasm and rock-climbing enthusiasts, turn to unusual tacks to sell themselves online. Then there’s the conspiracy theories.

Professing a belief in the earth being flat or the royals killing Diana might seem like an odd way to go looking for love. Dr. Siân Brooke, a researcher in computational social science based at LSE whose work covers, among other things, self-representation on dating apps, suggests that conspiracy theories and other niche dating app content serve as a “fishing rod”, a mechanism to single out people with whom one might share a sense of humour and a set of cultural references. “It’s in group signalling, seeing who is in on the joke as a way of bonding”, she says, “you want to find people who are assessing things at the same level as you; not taking things too seriously, knowing what is meant ironically and what isn’t”.

This chimes with the experience of Tim (24), who says he has used conspiracy theories while dating. It is, he thinks, a way of trying to signal you're a bit too cool for the apps. “I don't think anyone really wants to be using an app and I don't think there's much dignity in them, so I respect profiles that are aware of that, and I try to make mine like that”. It is also, he says, “very revealing if they say something crazy or racist” in response.

Laura (28), says that “the asinine prompts of dating apps are a golden opportunity for a good bit”; they are also good “shorthand for finding someone who shares your humour and worldview”. She wrote on her profile that “Greg Wallace masterminded 9/11”, and described herself as a “clubcard truther” (there’s a grain of truth in this one, she insists- “they are stealing our data, clubcard is a hoax, you are the product”). Ellie (24), who has used both “Boris Johnson’s baby is fake” and “Epstein didn’t kill himself” as dating app prompts, says that “they can be the basis for a funny and interesting conversation that is not boring or cliché”, as “people on dating apps usually want to present themselves as being interesting and thoughtful about things, and conspiracy theories can be a useful tool for demonstrating those qualities without seeming pretentious.”

Conspiracy theories about the deceased pedophile billionaire Jeffrey Epstein are particularly prevalent on dating apps, reflecting its position as one of today’s most popular conspiracy theories (an example of how pervasive it is; some years ago a friend’s central London co-working space bulk ordered “Jeffrey Epstein didn’t kill himself” branded coffee). Online conspiracy researcher and UK correspondent for the QAnon Anonymous podcast Dr. Annie Kelly thinks that its popularity comes from the fact that it is “a news story that spread so widely in both the established press and more stigmatised or informal online spaces.”

“Both worlds were talking about his suicide on a somewhat similar level,” she says. “‘Epstein didn't kill himself’ is a punchy meme, a little like ‘Bush did 9/11’ before it, because it references a well-known event, indicates access to secret knowledge, and also knowingly plays with taboo or serious topics”. A perfect medium, then, to show off one’s edgy sense of humour and awareness of current cultural goings on.

Not everyone, of course, finds Epstein an appropriate topic for courtship. Callum (26), whose dating app conspiracy theory of choice is “Finland isn’t real” (“a fun jumping off point”), finds Epstein jokes distasteful; “it's saying ‘I'm an edgy person’. Frankly, get over yourself”. Dr. Brooke has some sympathy with this position, stressing that irony and sincerity on the internet are “not dichotomous”. Irony, after all, tends towards sincerity (as Reductress puts it; “man being ironically sexist is also normal sexist”). “If you are putting Epstein jokes on your profile, you are signalling that you know about the case, and that you think it is somehow appealing, or appealing to be in the know about,” Dr. Brooke says. “You are placing yourself in the devil’s advocate position from the get-go, and hoping to create social tension and attraction through this to start a conversation that goes beyond small talk.”

When thinking about how conspiracy theories are deployed, it is also worth considering how men and women are differently filtering in the dating world. Eleanor Sharman, founder of the dating start-up Swan, notes that men make up about 85% of all app users in the UK, according to one study, and so women looking to date men often filter stringently. “Professing belief in conspiracy theories is a great way to do that, because it alienates a large proportion of potential partners –– whilst also imparting information about your sense of humour and capacity for irony,” Eleanor says. “Men, meanwhile, might turn to conspiracy theories in an effort to stand out from the crowd: we know that being divisive is no bad thing when it comes to dating. An online profile reveals so little information that you've got to make it all as dense as possible, and if you can say ‘I'm interesting, different, and funny’ with a single ‘Freemasons did 9/11,’ by that measure you're doing pretty well.”

Depending how you count it, somewhere between 40 and 60% of the population believes at least one conspiracy theory, but there is no reason to believe this has particularly grown in recent years. What has grown, however, due to our increased societal online-ness, is our fluency in “conspiratorial language”, as more and more vernacular from the stranger and less savoury bits of the internet washes up on the shores of mainstream culture. Consider, for example, the greater prevalence of words like “truther” or “pilled”. It makes a certain sense, then, that if we increasingly speak this language, we also increasingly date in it.

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