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Can Youths Navigate Dangers That Lurk Online?

In 2021, BBC reported that a German anti-lockdown, anti-vaccine movement had recruited hundreds of children into its private online group[1]. One as young as 15 years old was seen holding a loudspeaker, publicly proclaiming the organisation’s conspiracy theories against Germany’s COVID-19 restrictions[1]. She later bragged about being escorted by the police from her school for refusing to comply with restrictions[1].

Dr Omer Ali Saifudeen, Senior Lecturer, SUSS School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences, points this case out as an alarming example of just how far online infiltration strategies of conspiracy theory groups can go undetected, and how vulnerable youths are to them.

In exploring this topic, Dr Saifudeen, together with Dr Victor Seah, Deputy Head of Psychology, SUSS School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences, share their opinions.

The pandemic as a catalyst for the online spread of conspiracy theories

The use of the Internet took an exponential jump during the pandemic. In Singapore, Internet penetration in both 2018 and 2019 stood at 84%[2][3]. But by 2022, it had increased to 92% – an average of 2% growth per year since the pandemic started[4].

A lot of this growth could be attributed to the need to work from home or study online, as well as the desire for entertainment while physical restrictions were being imposed. But as the lines were further blurred between time spent online for work and for play, another challenge presented itself. Dr Saifudeen notes that for parents, it is now impossible to monitor their children’s exposure to what they see online. Thus, this inevitably puts youths at more risk to the likes of online conspiracy theories.

On top of that, the psychological effect of the pandemic itself caused many to be vulnerable to harmful ideologies. "Conspiracy theories tend to be particularly prominent in times of crisis," commented Professor Karen Douglas, a social psychologist at the University of Kent who specialises in the psychology of conspiracy theories, in a 2021 BBC article about the effects of the QAnon conspiracy theory group[5]. "People are looking for explanations that help them cope with difficult situations when there is a lot of uncertainty and contradictory information. They might also be looking for answers that make them feel better, and conspiracy theories might seem to offer those answers."[5]

Dr Seah’s opinion is that, quite simply, the pandemic caused many to feel like they had lost control over their lives. An interesting outcome, also revealed in our SUSS Coming Clean About Tidying Podcast, was that many turned to tidying up their houses, KonMari style, in an effort to gain control over their surroundings[6]. But in a darker alternative for others, subscribing to a conspiracy theory also became a way to alleviate those feelings[7].

And while the pandemic no longer dictates how we live our lives today, it was reported as recently as in May 2022 that many youths are still struggling with the lingering mental effects the pandemic has caused[8]. This leaves them still emotionally vulnerable and potentially more susceptible to the online influence of harmful ideologies.

Compounding the situation further is the fundamental way the Internet works – the recommendation algorithms that power most online platforms, including social media and video streaming services. Dr Seah explains that as human beings, we have an innate bias towards negative information. When this is amplified by the algorithms of search engines, the Internet becomes a massive echo chamber, giving us what we seek and more. All it takes is a little curiosity to click on something or too much time to explore. And very easily, the negatives are exaggerated by these algorithms, with the positives ignored.

The risks to our youths 

The risk of being exposed to conspiracy theories cannot be avoided to a certain extent, but if gone unchecked, can lead to more serious implications.

  • Radicalisation or terrorism

    The Internet offers terrorists and extremists the same opportunity and capability that it does for the rest of society: to communicate, collaborate and convince[9]. An increased use of the Internet has thus, also resulted in an increase in self-radicalisation cases[9].

    For example, between the years 2020 and 2021, 14 out of the 16 individuals who were issued terrorism-related orders had been self-radicalised online, according to a Singapore Internal Security Department report[10]. Further investigation proved that online platforms, including social media, communication and gaming, were indeed key factors in providing a place for the spread of self-radicalisation and domestic terrorism threats[10].
  • Alienation from society

    The real danger of believing in conspiracy theories is when believers end up completely cutting themselves off from the people they love, their families and their societies. In fact, there is a pattern to how it occurs.

    "First, a person will completely modify their values and their identity to mark their loyalty to a community. Then, they will cut themselves off from their core environment making dialogue impossible and finally they break with society," shares Pascale Duval, spokesperson for French anti-cult association Unadfi, in a 2021 Business Times article on how conspiracy theories can wreck lives[11].

    Dr Saifudeen describes this as being in a little bubble, shutting off the rest of the world. However, this is not just to the detriment of the individual, but also creates potential communal fault lines that can cause serious problems to the societal unit.

What can we do to safeguard our youths?

Prevention of digital usage is not an option, a sentiment echoed by Dr Seah, who opines that “We should not go from one extreme to another”. As Singapore works towards becoming a Smart Nation, more and more initiatives are aimed at ensuring every segment of society keeps up with digital adoption[12]. So what can we do to help safeguard the youths of Singapore from harmful online influences?

  • Work with platforms to address radicalisation

    Dr Seah believes it starts with understanding the echo chambers that exist surrounding radical theories. To help with that, he suggests that authorities could share information with platform content moderators, community moderators, trusted content creators and platform users. This helps these individuals gain a better understanding of how past instances of self-radicalisation developed, and inform efforts to identify new, potentially problematic content[13].

    Information sharing can also be reciprocal, as community and content moderators are valuable sources of intelligence when it comes to identifying extreme content. And cultivating such alliances can provide governments a ground-level view of trends in digital platform spaces and keep pace with the amorphousness of these online communities[13].

  • Create a middle ground to talk about issues

    From a psychological point of view, Dr Seah highlights two broad reasons why people resist influence and persuasion. That of a disdain for the “how of the influence” as well as the influencing agent. Thus, to convey a message or get through to someone, there needs to be consideration of how the message is coming across, and how ready people are to engage.

    Dr Saifudeen adds on, suggesting that we should address issues through a common platform, which acts as a middle ground where topics can be discussed and people are ready to listen. Instead of simply bombarding people with facts and clarifications as an authority figure.

    In fact, the Singapore government has already recognised this need and kickstarted initiatives. Minister of State for Culture, Community and Youth, Alvin Tan, recently announced in March 2022 that the Government will start working with the youths to create safe platforms “to explore and engage in a diversity of views, and help them build empathy towards those who hold different views.”[14]

  • Amplify the voices of the right advocates

    Working with formers is another way to counter the influence of radicalisation. They are individuals who had been influenced by conspiracy theories before, but have now become advocates against such schools of thought. Identifying such individuals and amplifying their voices could be a very effective strategy in curbing dangerous influences.

    Content creators acting as community leaders can additionally aid in distributing rehabilitative messaging – an approach proven by research to undermine the manipulative effects of radical doctrine[13].

    Other digital initiatives for good, can also play a part. Dr Saifudeen commends the Moonshot initiative, originally developed to help counter online violent extremism and terrorism by redirecting searches of such information to different messages. It has since evolved to develop technologies to help organisations counter a wider range of online harm. That include disinformation, human trafficking and gender-based violence[15].

Vigilance is key

When it comes to safeguarding our youths from the influence of conspiracy theories, it falls on the society as a whole to take on the responsibility, as friends, family or key influencers, community-based, industry-aligned or with the government itself. Together, we need to remain vigilant and to do so, we need to strive for open communication between different parties. As quoted by our Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, “The price of security is eternal vigilance. The price of harmony is an unflagging effort to uphold and realise ever more fully our nation’s founding ideal to become one people.”[16]


This article is an adaptation of the podcast Behind the Electronic Veil. The podcast features Dr Omer Ali Saifudeen, Senior Lecturer, and Dr Victor Seah, Deputy Head, Psychology Programme, from SUSS School of Humanities and Behavioural Sciences, who discuss the impact of youths spending more time on digital media and how they can navigate the dangers that await online. Listen to the podcast here.

[1] BBC (APR 2021) The anti-vax movement targeting German children

[2] We Are Social (2018) Digital 2018: Singapore

[3] We Are Social (2019) Digital 2019: Singapore 

[4] We Are Social (2022) Digital 2022: Singapore 

[5] BBC (SEP 2021) The moment QAnon took the person I love most

[6] STRAITS TIMES (SEP 2021) Tidying takes off during Covid-19 in Singapore and around the world

[7] BBC Science Focus (JAN 2022) A psychologist explains why people believe in conspiracy theories

[8] CNA (MAY 2022) More youths seeking help with mental health - but finding it isn’t always easy

[9] RAND EUROPE (2013) Radicalisation in the digital era

[10] Channel News Asia (SEP 2021) Commentary: How video-streaming platforms feed hate and sow divisions and what we can do about it

[11] BUSINESS TIMES (MAY 2021) 'Through the looking glass': How conspiracy theories wreck lives

[12] Channel News Asia (MAY 2020) Commentary: COVID-19 has revealed a new disadvantaged group among us – digital outcasts

[13] Channel News Asia (SEP 2021) Commentary: How video-streaming platforms feed hate and sow divisions and what we can do about it

[14] TODAY (MAR 2022) Govt to create platforms for youth to discuss social issues, boost mental health support

[15] Irish Times (JUN 2021) Online threat company Moonshot secures €5.8m in funding

[16] Channel News Asia (SEP 2021) Commentary: 9/11 showed powerful forces can pull Singapore apart


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