Belief in conspiracy theories higher among teenagers than adults, as majority of Americans support social media reform, new polling finds

Posted on August 16, 2023 in Press releases.

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  • 49% of Americans agree with at least four statements which align with common conspiracy theories, including myths relating to white supremacy, antisemitism, vaccines, and climate change.
  • Belief in conspiracy theories was even more common 13-17 year olds (60%), and higher still among teenagers who are heavy social media users (69%)
  • The Center for Countering Digital Hate’s STAR model sets out a framework for social media regulation based on the principles of Safety by design, Transparency, Accountability and Responsibility
  • New polling by Survation finds that a clear majority of US respondents agreed with each individual principle of STAR framework

In May 2022, the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) hosted the Global Summit on Online Harms in Washington, D.C., where lawmakers, civil society leaders, and experts from the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand joined together to discuss the landscape of online harms and disinformation. 

Following the Summit, CCDH formulated the STAR Framework for legislative reform of the social media industry.

“The STAR Framework preserves freedom of speech, human rights and civil liberties online by presenting core principles of a system that would, implemented in full, force social media companies to be honest and responsible in the way they design their systems,” said Imran Ahmed, CEO of the CCDH.

A new poll by Survation for CCDH – of more than 1,000 US adults and more than 1,000 13-17 year olds – found that the overwhelming majority of the public acknowledges that online harms had offline consequences (68% of adults, and 83% of 13-17 year olds)

70% of parents and 67% of 13-17-year-olds also said they think it’s possible for social media companies and lawmakers to prevent online harms.

Among US adults:

  • 74% agree that social media platforms should build products with safety as the guiding principle
  • 72% believe social media platforms should be more transparent in how their algorithms work and how the monetize user data
  • 63% think they should be accountable to democratic bodies and regulators when they fail to protect users
  • 62% said social media executives and owners should be held personally responsible for failings and prosecuted for negligence that cause harm

The poll also indicated an alarming prevalence of belief in conspiracy theories among the US public. 

Participants were presented with eight statements corresponding with common conspiracy theories on a range of themes: anti-vaccine, antisemitism, incel ideology, Covid-19, climate denial, ‘Deep State’, anti-LGBTQ+ ‘groomer’ myths, and the Great Replacement theory.

49% of adults agreed with four or more conspiracy theory statements – rising to 60% of 13-17-year-olds.

This was even more pronounced for teenagers who were heavy users of social media, meaning that they spend four or more hours a day on any single social media platform. 69% of 13-17 year olds with a high degree of social media use agreed with four or more conspiracy statements.

43% of teens agreed with the statement, “Jewish people have a disproportionate amount of control over the media, politics and the economy”. This rose to 54% among teens who are heavy social media users.

43% of teens believed the statement “Mass migration of people into the western world is a deliberate policy of multiculturalism and part of a scheme to replace white people”. This rose to 52% among teens who are heavy social media users.

CCDH called on lawmakers in the US and globally to “deliberately pursue STAR principles in all future regulatory models,” and work to implement them in existing frameworks, which are at varying stages of the legislative process.

In 2024, the organization will hold the State of STAR conference in Washington, DC as a follow up to the 2022 event.

Imran Ahmed, CEO of the Center for Countering Digital Hate, said:

“This is the first generation of children who have never known a world before social media. They have been educated, socialized and raised by algorithms owned by corporations that seek to addict them in order to sell advertising. It should not come as a surprise that this chaotic and topsy-turvy environment, in which disinformation and hate are algorithmically amplified without effective guardrails, has produced a generation of kids who are so susceptible to falsehoods. 

“Our findings are a flashing red light, and require further investigation. But in the meantime, we urgently need to fix the problem. If this was any other business, it would be time to shut off the conveyor belt and check all the parts to work out what has gone wrong. 

“But despite overwhelming evidence and growing calls for reform, there are still no global standards for holding these dominant social media companies accountable for the decisions they have made that have led us to this point.

“What is clear from our polling is that the public understand that social media can cause serious harm to our society, they believe these harms are preventable – and they are getting tired of waiting for social media companies and lawmakers to get to grips with the problem. Now is the time for action.”