The moon landing is fake. The earth is flat. 5G radio waves cause COVID-19 and suppress the immune system.
What do these claims have in common? They are conspiracy theories.
Renee Hobbs, Professor of Communication Studies, Director Media Education Lab, University of Rhode Island, defines conspiracy theories as “a type of belief in which the ultimate cause of an event is believed to be due to a plot by multiple actors working together with a clear goal in mind, often unlawfully and in secret” (2017). A worldwide pandemic and increased social media usage fuel the spread of conspiracies in and misinformation tenfold. Our students, like the general public, are susceptible to conspiracies in today’s super-charged world because, “anyone can end up believing a conspiracy theory since most of them are structured with a compelling story that provokes strong emotional reactions and has a connection to an existing bias or belief” (Silva 2018).
Teaching Conspiracy Theories
Why teach conspiracies? They are a massive part of the misinformation landscape and only increasing in scope and sequence. Conspiracies engage students in discussions about misinformation. Teaching conspiracies provides a natural framework for lessons on information and media literacy: the construction of arguments, bias, context/background information, authority, author’s intention, types of evidence, and logical fallacies. For example, the Flat Earth Society argues that the world is flat because it seems that way when we walk around. Their evidence is our everyday observations. If you go to their website, the proof is in a silo – links go to other pages within the site. Teaching students to read laterally about this conspiracy gives them context and the multitude of evidence against the conspiracy. The Flat Earth Society dismisses counter-evidence as part of space agency conspiracies. They employ numerous logical fallacies – such as the ad hominem – to avoid confrontation and engagement with counter-evidence, arguments, and perspectives. By teaching this conspiracy theory to students on a lesson about evidence, students have an example of how to employ critical thinking skills to debunk their claims. As the News Literacy Project points out, “if students do not have the skills to take on misinformation, “their ability to be critical and open-minded about all types of information, including news, is compromised.”
Conspiracy theories are seductive. They present a compelling and straightforward explanation of complex events with a clear enemy. So how do you teach conspiracies without converting students to a false cause? Be cautious with videos because without context and adequate discussion time it becomes easy to validate conspiracies by dismissing them as crazy or insane. Don’t pass judgment. We don’t want to push students towards conspiracies by making them feel judged or ridiculed for a particular point of view or belief. Because with any strong opinion, “You’re not going to change people’s minds on things with an argument. Because a lot of these views are deep-seated. They’re ingrained in us” (Kolowich 2018). But you can force people to think about their beliefs with thought-provoking questions. PBS offers an excellent video for how to address confirmation bias:
Benefits for Life
Critical thinking benefits students for life. We need to create multiple pathways for students to engage critically with content; conspiracy theories provide an absorbing means for them to do so “by providing students with the tools to better understand information and express themselves in more confident and cogent ways, we can give their voices greater power and efficacy” (DiCarlo 2015).
And just for fun: take this quiz I created and see how you do! https://forms.gle/o8naspDq71PbDc8h7
DiCarlo, Christopher. 2015. “Introducing Standardized Critical Thinking Skills to Ontario High School Students.” Humanist Perspectives 192: 7+. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A437059095/AONE?u=nysl_me_nycitysl&sid=AONE&xid=c4a98d7e (accessed Sept. 6, 2020).
Hobbs, Renee. 2017. “Teaching the Conspiracies” [Scholarly project]. In SlideShare.
Kolowich, Steve. 2018. “What Does This Professor Know about Conspiracy Theorists That We Don’t?” The Chronicle of Higher Education 64 (40): A25. https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A553116501/AONE?u=nysl_me_nycitysl&sid=AONE&xid=a4f8c63 (accessed 6 Sept. 2020).
Silva, John. 2019. “News Literacy and Conspiracy Theories.” https://newslit.org/updates/news-literacy-and-conspiracy-theories/ (accessed Sept. 8, 2020).
“Why Do Our Brains Love Fake News?” 2017. PBS [Video file].
Author: Leanne Ellis
I am a School Library Instructional Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Office of Literacy, AIS, and Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and just started facilitating an online course on Information Literacy for Spring 2019.