Conspiracy Theory - Curtailing Toxic Content

Oh!

Enthusiast
Joined
Oct 1, 2020
Messages
138
Hi all,

I am interested to learn how other communities manage conspiracy theories at their forums. At my hobby forum, which involves health-related issues, we outright disallow the promotion of conspiracy theories (anti-vaxxers, for example) and try our best to tackle more general disinformation too. Of course, conspiracy theory propagation has skyrocketed over the past few years - I find such content toxic both for our online community and for society in general.

What rules do you have in place? Where do you draw lines? What responsibility do you feel towards your members and wider society?
 

Oh!

Enthusiast
Joined
Oct 1, 2020
Messages
138
And on a closely related matter (mass hysteria):


I just happened upon the above a few minutes ago. It nicely demonstrates the problems of disinformation and our collective responsibility in its spread.

On a side note: I rather like how the title of the video is crafted to appeal to those who are inclined to believe such nonsense (and then counter that belief). But on the other hand, some (who had never come across the issue before) might just read the title, not watch the video, and conclude that wind turbines make do indeed make us sick. I suppose this someway goes to support the closing comments of the video.
 

zappaDPJ

Administrator
Joined
Aug 26, 2010
Messages
7,435
As far as I'm aware none of the forums I'm involved with have rules that specifically cover that kind of topic. If members on my personal forums post pro-conspiracy theory content they only do it once because I make sure it gets debunked down to the very last atom.

It's far more usual that a member will start a thread mocking a conspiracy theory and I don't recall many members attempting to put forward counter arguments.

This actually touches on a very topical subject; free speech (so called) vs fake news/hate speech etc. but I won't derail this debate, that's a topic for another thread :)
 

Jim McClain

Senior Citizen
Joined
Jan 31, 2006
Messages
2,002
Whatver your forum's topic, I feel it should be open to all views.
I disagree. My forum shares professional experience and advice in the home improvement sector. Once in a while a DIYer will offer really bad advice to another DIYer - and sometimes even try to sway other pros. That advice, if followed, can cause expensive, long-term problems; some of it could even be dangerous to the health and welfare of anyone in the vicinity. Not all the pros on my forum will speak up about the problems or dangers of following that advice, but enough of us do that it tends to drive the DIY hack away, probably to some other home improvement type forum that doesn't care so much about the content shared on their site.

My forum is not a democracy. My country is (or at least used to be), but anyone who comes to my house or my domain is not entitled to free speech. It don't work that way. Pros and DIYers don't always agree on the right tools and procedures. There's plenty of ways to get to a successful and desirable conclusion to any project. But truly bad advice is not welcome - it's not a bannable offense, but that person will soon learn the reason why PRO is part of our name.
 

Oh!

Enthusiast
Joined
Oct 1, 2020
Messages
138
Whatver your forum's topic, I feel it should be open to all views.
That's a rather unequivocal position. Genuine questions: Do you have rules? Are there any topics which are out of bounds? Is there any content you disallow?
 

Oh!

Enthusiast
Joined
Oct 1, 2020
Messages
138
As far as I'm aware none of the forums I'm involved with have rules that specifically cover that kind of topic. If members on my personal forums post pro-conspiracy theory content they only do it once because I make sure it gets debunked down to the very last atom.

It's far more usual that a member will start a thread mocking a conspiracy theory and I don't recall many members attempting to put forward counter arguments.

This actually touches on a very topical subject; free speech (so called) vs fake news/hate speech etc. but I won't derail this debate, that's a topic for another thread :)
I can see not having a specific rule - but having a structure or procedures in place which effectively tackles such disinformation - could work, and work well for some communities. At my own form, we do not usually remove content, including conspiracy theory. In fact, strictly, we do not even have a specific rules to disallow conspiracy theories - it is covered by more general rules. So, we usually respond, debunking the theory and inform the member to not post more of the same. It might take a few warnings (and directions to reliable sources) in some cases before the member gets it - but they usually climb down. (Not that I think we have usually successfully persuaded them of our view). Rarely will we have to resort to suspending their ability to post, etc.

We attempt to use the posting of a conspiracy theory as a teachable moment, not only for the member posting the content, but for other members and guests too. So, although our (moderators and admins) view is quite strict, how we implement the 'rule' is a little more nuanced. We try to be as inclusive of membership as possible, but with an eye on preventing the forum from being (mis)used to spread disinformation and causing damage.

As for 'free speech' - I assume you refer to the (unfortunately) common misguided belief that forum operators (online or real world) are not allowed to apply editorial control over the content appearing on/in/at their platform/publication/venue. Actually, I do not think that is derailment, because this underpins and informs how we operate forums and apply rules. We all disallow some content (or we should, even if only for legal reasons). So, contrary to what's often espoused by disgruntled members, there is no point of principle at issue.
 

Oh!

Enthusiast
Joined
Oct 1, 2020
Messages
138
I disagree. My forum shares professional experience and advice in the home improvement sector. Once in a while a DIYer will offer really bad advice to another DIYer - and sometimes even try to sway other pros. That advice, if followed, can cause expensive, long-term problems; some of it could even be dangerous to the health and welfare of anyone in the vicinity. Not all the pros on my forum will speak up about the problems or dangers of following that advice, but enough of us do that it tends to drive the DIY hack away, probably to some other home improvement type forum that doesn't care so much about the content shared on their site.

My forum is not a democracy. My country is (or at least used to be), but anyone who comes to my house or my domain is not entitled to free speech. It don't work that way. Pros and DIYers don't always agree on the right tools and procedures. There's plenty of ways to get to a successful and desirable conclusion to any project. But truly bad advice is not welcome - it's not a bannable offense, but that person will soon learn the reason why PRO is part of our name.
Yep. It is about being responsible to our members and non-members (guests) alike. We surely have responsibilities other than to simply provide a platform for people to post what they wish without the risk of being challenged in any way. This is one of things which small to medium sized forum generally do very well compared to larger forums and huge social media sites.
 

Chemical

Aspirant
Joined
Feb 3, 2020
Messages
36
I believe you have to curate to some extent, on top of operating within the scope of the law. But generally, my feeling is folks should be free to offer their opinions as long as they are not manifestly misleading others. But it's not always as cut and dried as in the example below.
I disagree. My forum shares professional experience and advice in the home improvement sector. Once in a while a DIYer will offer really bad advice to another DIYer - and sometimes even try to sway other pros.

I find such content toxic both for our online community and for society in general.
Some communities thrive on conspiracy, but I can see that it's not for everyone. I lost a good friend recently when he revealed his inner thoughts about the Moon landings, NASA, 9/11, Flat Earth, 5G, COVID 19 and so on. He went from being what I thought was a gentle soul to a raving madman at the mere suggestion that his views might be considered irrational by 90% of the population. But on the other hand, he also identified aspects of life that were indeed questionable, and possibly part of governmental coverups. The issue was that he felt you had to buy everything his shop had to offer, or not shop there at all. The problem as I see it, is that by cutting these people out, you also have the potential to lose some good content.

We surely have responsibilities other than to simply provide a platform for people to post what they wish without the risk of being challenged in any way.
I think we have a duty to operate our communities in the way we set out in our community guidelines. If that means folks can post without being challenged, then so be it. But discussion is, in part, about challenging the views of others. Although, agreed, the toxicity that arises with the use of polemics hasn't got a place in every community.

This is one of things which small to medium sized forum generally do very well compared to larger forums and huge social media sites.
FB has its place and the sheer diversity of content on offer makes it the default choice for many. What I find challenging with FB is that it doesn't support long form discussion, which is where 'we' should have the edge. But what I think we can learn from FB and Twitter is the shear weight of opinion on offer. I like it that I can read wildly different points of views that might otherwise not surface on a community site with a much more restrictive set of allowed subjects.
 
  • Informative
Reactions: Oh!

Oh!

Enthusiast
Joined
Oct 1, 2020
Messages
138
I believe you have to curate to some extent, on top of operating within the scope of the law. But generally, my feeling is folks should be free to offer their opinions as long as they are not manifestly misleading others. But it's not always as cut and dried as in the example below.
(I know that you do not mean to suggest otherwise), but that's precisely where CTs (conspiracy theories) lie - in clear untruths. Many CTs are directly dangerous (anti-vaxxer, for example), but all are damaging to some degree. Even taking the 'moon landings are fake' narrative - seems harmless enough, even if crazy. But if someone believes this, they are already convinced that hundreds of thousands (or millions) of people are involved in (and/or perpetuating) a fake moon landing. Once they believe this, they can be convinced of nearly anything.

It has been said that we have lost the usual gatekeepers of information and knowledge (mainstream media). If we accept this (I, personally, think this is largely true), then not only are the large platforms the new gatekeepers, but so are all of us who curate content ('information') from others in any form.

Some communities thrive on conspiracy, but I can see that it's not for everyone. I lost a good friend recently when he revealed his inner thoughts about the Moon landings, NASA, 9/11, Flat Earth, 5G, COVID 19 and so on. He went from being what I thought was a gentle soul to a raving madman at the mere suggestion that his views might be considered irrational by 90% of the population. But on the other hand, he also identified aspects of life that were indeed questionable, and possibly part of governmental coverups. The issue was that he felt you had to buy everything his shop had to offer, or not shop there at all. The problem as I see it, is that by cutting these people out, you also have the potential to lose some good content.
I am sorry to hear about you losing your friend to CTs. I read something similar the other day on Huffpost UK which might be interest you. And, rather aptly for this discussion, the HP article references a Reddit support group for those who have lost friends to QAnon.

I think we have a duty to operate our communities in the way we set out in our community guidelines. If that means folks can post without being challenged, then so be it. But discussion is, in part, about challenging the views of others. Although, agreed, the toxicity that arises with the use of polemics hasn't got a place in every community.
That's as it should be, of course. We should be consistent in applying community guidelines, without favor to anyone (including moderators - which has caused me some team problems once or twice). But, should we allow content which we know to be damaging?

FB has its place and the sheer diversity of content on offer makes it the default choice for many. What I find challenging with FB is that it doesn't support long form discussion, which is where 'we' should have the edge. But what I think we can learn from FB and Twitter is the shear weight of opinion on offer. I like it that I can read wildly different points of views that might otherwise not surface on a community site with a much more restrictive set of allowed subjects.
I made similar comments in the past week or two. This whole thread may be of interest to you:

https://www.theadminzone.com/threads/forums-bulletin-boards-vs-fb-groups-social-media.153549/

And, a shameless plug from me for some feedback about a new platform (in development) with which I am involved:

Which Community Features and Functions are Most Important to You?
 
Last edited:

Chemical

Aspirant
Joined
Feb 3, 2020
Messages
36
(I know that you do not mean to suggest otherwise), but that's precisely where CTs (conspiracy theories) lie - in clear untruths.
It depends on your perspective. I happen to believe that almost everything my ex friend claims to know, is irrational nonsense. But I don't know that for sure and I believe for the same reason, that he can't know for sure either. Which is what I believe separates rational skeptics like me from deluded theorists whose first and only thought is the unquestionable belief they are right.

Whilst on the subject, if you are not already aware of the Skeptics Society, take a look at their publications, especially those with articles on conspiracy theories and why people believe the things they do.

I am sorry to hear about you losing your friend to CTs. I read something similar the other day on Huffpost UK which might interest you. And, rather aptly for this discussion, the HP article references a Reddit support group for those who have lost friends to QAnon.
Thanks, there's lots of discussions around this area, and at least one documentary in the making on the same subject.

That's as it should be, of course. We should be consistent in applying community guidelines, without favor to anyone (including moderators - which has caused some team problems once or twice). But should we allow content which we know to be damaging?
I think the key point here is access to tools and techniques such as automated natural language analysis that assists with timely moderator intervention.

I made similar comments in the past week or two. This whole thread may be of interest to you:
Thanks I've been following this with interest.

Which Community Features and Functions are Most Important to You?
Thanks, I've been following this with interest too.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Oh!

MikeTF

Aspirant
Joined
Mar 8, 2017
Messages
12
That's a rather unequivocal position. Genuine questions: Do you have rules? Are there any topics which are out of bounds? Is there any content you disallow?

Content that Google is going to get butthurt over goes into a private area.

Virtually any topic is in bounds

We have rules, basic rules that disallow members from attacking each other, rules against content that is going to get us in trouble with Adsense (though we allow most of it in the private area anyway).

My moderators are there to maintain order and respect, not dictate their or my version of truth.
 

MikeTF

Aspirant
Joined
Mar 8, 2017
Messages
12
I disagree. My forum shares professional experience and advice in the home improvement sector. Once in a while a DIYer will offer really bad advice to another DIYer - and sometimes even try to sway other pros. That advice, if followed, can cause expensive, long-term problems; some of it could even be dangerous to the health and welfare of anyone in the vicinity. Not all the pros on my forum will speak up about the problems or dangers of following that advice, but enough of us do that it tends to drive the DIY hack away, probably to some other home improvement type forum that doesn't care so much about the content shared on their site.

My forum is not a democracy. My country is (or at least used to be), but anyone who comes to my house or my domain is not entitled to free speech. It don't work that way. Pros and DIYers don't always agree on the right tools and procedures. There's plenty of ways to get to a successful and desirable conclusion to any project. But truly bad advice is not welcome - it's not a bannable offense, but that person will soon learn the reason why PRO is part of our name.
Sounds like you agree with me when you say you disagree. People offer advice that the majority disagree with, and the majority calls them out on it. Sounds to me like everyone's opinion is heard, things get worked out among the members, and the better content rises to the top. When 10 people are disagreeing with 1 person, those who are reading to get good ideas will ultimately know which way to go.
 

Jim McClain

Senior Citizen
Joined
Jan 31, 2006
Messages
2,002
People offer advice that the majority disagree with, and the majority calls them out on it. Sounds to me like everyone's opinion is heard, things get worked out among the members, and the better content rises to the top. When 10 people are disagreeing with 1 person, those who are reading to get good ideas will ultimately know which way to go.
The difference you may have missed is that the people who offer really bad advice generally only post once, then they go away.
 

Oh!

Enthusiast
Joined
Oct 1, 2020
Messages
138
Sounds like you agree with me when you say you disagree. People offer advice that the majority disagree with, and the majority calls them out on it. Sounds to me like everyone's opinion is heard, things get worked out among the members, and the better content rises to the top. When 10 people are disagreeing with 1 person, those who are reading to get good ideas will ultimately know which way to go.
What happens if the balance shifts and you get 10 members posting in support of bad (or even dangerous) advice and only one member posting against it? At your forum, does it really come down to the rule of the majority irrespective if the advice is demonstrably bad, plain wrong or even dangerous? Is medical advice down to opinion and (effectively) a vote? Same with legal advice, etc.?
 

Nev_Dull

Anachronism
Joined
Apr 27, 2010
Messages
2,112
We don't get any outright conspiracy theory posts on my forum. However, similar to Jim McClain we do sometimes get people suggesting practices that could be harmful or downright dangerous. In those cases, we take the opportunity to examine what the person has said and explain what is wrong with it and why no one should be doing it that way. In the event that someone else makes a similar post, we will edit it and point to the debunking thread.

Overall, I don't think I would ever consider making rules against posting conspiracy theories. Most of them come from a lack of understanding or the misapplication of science. I believe it is always worthwhile to have the debate and show how and why these theories are incorrect. (Providing your forum members can actually engage in a rational discussion without it devolving into chaos.) You will never change the minds of the conspiracy theory promoters, but you can reach those who might otherwise be swayed in the wrong direction.
 

GoingRight

Enthusiast
Joined
Jan 18, 2016
Messages
110
Content that Google is going to get butthurt over goes into a private area.

Virtually any topic is in bounds

We have rules, basic rules that disallow members from attacking each other, rules against content that is going to get us in trouble with Adsense (though we allow most of it in the private area anyway).

My moderators are there to maintain order and respect, not dictate their or my version of truth.
Any insight into what google gets butthurt over? We try to quarantine sex and politics so that guest viewers can’t read it. Its not part of our subject matter but its impossible to avoid as a community for us. We have though made coronavirus a public topic and I wonder if the disinformation being posted there is hurting our Google ratings. Ot course it might as well be a section for politics at this point. And it doesn't really pertain to our topic which Im sure is diluting our value.

To that extent is there a way to look at analytics or track if a subforum is helping or hurting google rankings? I am inclined to just hide the whole coronavirus section but its tons of topics and I dont want google to like us less for hiding all of those pages.

We allow conspiracy garbage and hope the community can talk it out. I hate to oppress ideas and think that hinders progress. 2-3 years ago it seemed manageable. Now the truth seems to be politically divided. Also every idea is a trigger for the other side. I think what twitter is doing is their right to do, though I know its impossible for them to impose that censorship without bias and subjectivity, especially with that much content. Reddit has a better model in my opinion with user created and managed groups.
 

Oh!

Enthusiast
Joined
Oct 1, 2020
Messages
138
We don't get any outright conspiracy theory posts on my forum. However, similar to Jim McClain we do sometimes get people suggesting practices that could be harmful or downright dangerous. In those cases, we take the opportunity to examine what the person has said and explain what is wrong with it and why no one should be doing it that way. In the event that someone else makes a similar post, we will edit it and point to the debunking thread.
Hi Nev_Dull,

Unfortunately, we get CTs every now and then. Chemtrails a few times, and recently, 5G. Probably the milder end of 5G CTs - 'radiation' rather than the completely insane that 'it causes coronavirus'. Still, nonsense stuff. Oh, and anti-vaxxers of course, which has been around for ages now and rather wide-spread, to the degree that some diseases which had all but disappeared have returned for no other reason than through willful ignorance. I know - I am preaching to the converted.

I don't know if we have managed to persuade a rethink in any of those who have posted such material (by posting rebuttals and referencing reliable sources). But we might have helped some of the more casual (non-posting) observers. I do hope so.

We usually end up having to lay down the law - and, rarely, lock the thread (we aim to avoid ever doing this - last resort stuff).

As for editing member posts: this is getting more problematic for all of us. There are potential liabilities involved. If someone is minded to sue over a comment, do they sue the original author or the editor? In that situation, they'd probably sue both unless they have screen shots showing before and after edited material. So, for this reason, the platform I keep mentioning (sorry) will not allow editing by anyone but the original author. I think this is probably what we all should be doing now anyway. If the post falls below what is acceptable, the better (safer) approach is for us to quote it, PM it to the poster outlining why it fails your rules, and remove the original. The poster then has the option of editing and re-posting.

Overall, I don't think I would ever consider making rules against posting conspiracy theories. Most of them come from a lack of understanding or the misapplication of science. I believe it is always worthwhile to have the debate and show how and why these theories are incorrect. (Providing your forum members can actually engage in a rational discussion without it devolving into chaos.) You will never change the minds of the conspiracy theory promoters, but you can reach those who might otherwise be swayed in the wrong direction.
We don't have specific rule at my hobby forum. We tackle the material as it arises. The platform will take what I think is a more novel/creative approach to the problem, avoiding overly restricting forum operators. I'll explain more about that soon in another thread.
 
Last edited:

Klaatu

Fan
Joined
Mar 1, 2010
Messages
606
I wouldn't allow conspiracy theory topics on any forum that dealt with a serious subject (like health, fitness, security, money, etc.) You won't want some halfwit warning people not to vaccinate because Bill Gates will spy on you if you run a health forum.

Actually I don't know if I would allow the subject on any type of forum. I used to find conspiracy theories and theorists amusing; but they've proven they can be deadly in the real world. Their ignorance can kill them and others.

I think I'd prefer to be accused of being part of the conspiracy than letting them use my platform to continue spreading their nonsense.
 
  • Like
Reactions: Oh!

Oh!

Enthusiast
Joined
Oct 1, 2020
Messages
138
I wouldn't allow conspiracy theory topics on any forum that dealt with a serious subject (like health, fitness, security, money, etc.) You won't want some halfwit warning people not to vaccinate because Bill Gates will spy on you if you run a health forum.

Actually I don't know if I would allow the subject on any type of forum. I used to find conspiracy theories and theorists amusing; but they've proven they can be deadly in the real world. Their ignorance can kill them and others.

I think I'd prefer to be accused of being part of the conspiracy than letting them use my platform to continue spreading their nonsense.
I agree. We do not let them just get away with it. The problem is that they are just as likely to hijack a discussion on, for example, coronavirus and inject their 5G anti-vaccine nonsense. It is rather depressing to see how the promise of the Internet being 'democratizing' has failed so miserably in this respect.
 
Top