Online conspiracy theories are now inspiring real world violence. Since 2018, supporters of the grotesque QAnon conspiracy theory (which originated in the US but has adherents across Europe) have been linked to kidnappings, car chases, and even a murder. The FBI has gone so far as to label the movement a domestic terror threat.
In October 2020, Facebook banned QAnon-linked accounts from its platforms. Similar crackdowns have been enacted by YouTube, Twitter, and Reddit. Is this the right approach? Should conspiracy theories that inspire violent acts be banned from all social media platforms?
What do our readers think? We had a comment come in from Civis, who says: “Freedom of speech goes with responsibility. And I don’t see any responsibility in people publishing conspiracy theories online or anti-semitic content for example. There should be some reasonable limits to free speech, especially when it contains an appeal to violence against others.”
To get a response, we spoke to Dr. Daniel Jolley, who studies the psychological consequences of conspiracy theories at Northumbria University. What should be done to stop conspiracy theories circulating on social media platforms?
For another perspective, we also spoke to Professor Michael Butter from the University of Tübingen. As the project leader of “Populism and Conspiracy Theory (PACT)” his research focuses on the importance of conspiracy theories for populist movements. What would he say?
The best thing to do about conspiracy theories is not to look at the symptoms, but rather at the causes. People who feel powerless can be better involved in political decision-making processes but, above all, you can invest heavily in education. You have to teach people how society and politics work.
Conspiracy theories always misjudge what happens by chance and what happens through structural relationships. At least in the German educational landscape, a lot is happening right now, and people are thinking about including the topic in curricula.
I am very skeptical about banning things. There are, of course, very clear cases – anti-Semitic hate speech or calls to violence are already banned in many countries. Such posts should be deleted. But there is always an area where this is not so clear. In this grey area, where people often have different opinions and interpretations, it can get hairy; then the question of freedom of expression comes up, which is a very important value. Therefore, I am more of the opinion with such posts that they should be left online. Especially if the decision is made by large American companies, otherwise you will end up doing more harm than good. Freedom of expression must – as far as possible – be preserved.
However, nobody has a right to freedom of dissemination, and one’s own opinion does not have to be amplified by algorithms on social media. So, it is better if YouTube no longer automatically links to conspiracy videos and the other platforms use warning notices.
Should conspiracy theories be banned on social media? Would you ban conspiracy theories such as QAnon? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions?