September 7, 2023 | GNET

GNET’s conspiracy theories series: Policy challenges, gaps and how to fill them

ISD Analyst Hannah Rose wrote an article for GNET as part of their Insights miniseries on conspiracy theories, extremism and violence. In the final article of the series, Hannah outlines the commonalities and gaps in policy approaches to combatting violent conspiracy theory networks and offers recommendations on how to strengthen social media and government approaches.

She begins by outlining the complex policy landscape around conspiracy theories: “Although conspiracy theories can motivate their proponents towards violence, believing in a conspiracy theory is not inherently illegal, nor is it against a platform’s terms of service, even if it carries the potential for real-world harm. Policies are further complicated by the nebulous structure of conspiracy movements, which lack clear group affiliations, and the frequent use of coded language or ‘dog whistles’, which hinders detection. Additionally, conspiracy theories tend to revolve around an anonymous or undefined villain, whose identity is heavily inferred but is never explicitly revealed, sitting in a grey area when it comes to policies against incitement.”

She goes on to explain the three core challenges social media platforms face when combating conspiracy theories and how to deal with removing content produced by proscribed terrorist groups and other illegal behaviour. Since the nature of conspiracy theories is 1) decentralised and anonymous, 2) ambiguous, and 3) heterogeneous, such content often falls outside the scope of clear-cut mass content removal approaches.

She recommends platforms adapt their content moderation software and focus on ongoing refinement of human moderator expertise to fill the existing gaps in their policies. She adds: “Platforms must also consider the different policy levers available to them beyond content removal, including content warning notices, redirection strategies, counter-narratives and targeted interventions.”

Hannah additionally outlines the challenges and gaps in government responses. “Government policies addressing the proliferation of conspiracy theories are similarly fractured, with no clear international consistency regarding its policy domain, ranging from digital governance to counter-extremism to matters of security. Across governments, the effort to tackle violent conspiracy networks currently sits in three overarching portfolios; counter-terrorism, threats to democracy and incitement to violence.”

She offers two recommendations at the national and international level. At the national level, she suggests governments should build a comprehensive cross-government policy program to ensure collaboration across the various areas involved in countering this threat. At the international level, she recommends establishing a uniform framework to facilitate a fluid international response to this transnational threat.

“Furthermore, with the forthcoming of the UK’s Online Safety Bill and the implementation of the European Digital Regulation Framework in 2024, collaboration between governments, regulators and social media platforms to ensure legal consistency across the online and offline spaces is paramount. As the threat posed by radicalised online communities continues to morph and innovate, policies must be suitably flexible and agile to adjust to evolving landscapes of violence.”

You can also read the other articles in the series from ISD analysts on when conspiracies lead to violence, the violent outcomes of conspiracy beliefs, and the relationship between key elements of violent conspiracy theories,