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Help Students Resist Conspiracy Theories

By Carrie Rogers-Whitehead
October 20, 2021
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Anyone who regularly reads the headlines knows that the world can seem like a scary place. But for young people with less life experience than adults — particularly those who they are holed up behind screens — it can be particularly terrifying.

And with that anxiety comes a tendency to believe in fringe theories and a move away from fact and research-based media. This can be a threat to our democracy.

Research from psychologists Joshua Hart and Molly Graether found that individuals who believe in conspiracy theories often feel threatened and scared.

“People develop beliefs about the world partly to cultivate a sense of safety and security,” they write. These conspiracy theories, despite sounding scary or apocalyptic, provide a sense of clarity and a feeling that one understands the world.

How can educators soothe that anxiety and help restore trust in institutions and democracy? Here are five things you can do to help students become less susceptible to damaging conspiracy theories.

1. Understand where students are developmentally.

Children are naturally prone to “us vs. them” perspectives and binary thinking. Young people whose brains are still developing can be more prone to strong beliefs that may lack nuance or perspectives. As they age and proceed through puberty, children’s frontal lobes develop, making them better at thinking abstractly.

When talking with students about controversial issues, be prepared for strong responses. It’s normal and healthy for adolescents to challenge viewpoints, and those challenges may come out very forcefully.

Educators can channel those passions by helping them curate and articulate teen’s opinions. A teacher can provide a safe and inclusive environment for students to discuss. They can share the basics of debate and inform how to back up assertions. Educators can also provide space for adolescents to give input at school leadership meetings, community councils and even have a “letter to the editor” assignment instead of just a persuasive essay.

Digital literacy classroom posters

2. Teach the difference between rhetoric and logic.

The internet is full of rhetoric, which is information that appeals to emotions and uses arguments around the authority of the speaker. Logic focuses on the validity of arguments. We often confuse logic and rhetoric online and give more credence to impassioned statements on YouTube or memes than to the sometimes-boring-but-important skill of logic.

Educators can show samples of rhetoric and logic and help students distinguish between the two. Turner Bitton, a writer and president of the Utah Center for Civic Improvement, works to bring different community groups together. “Appeals to raw emotionality and the creation of narratives have left us badly divided, vulnerable to oversimplified rhetorical tricks and unable to communicate with one another effectively.”

3. Identify your emotions.

To differentiate between rhetoric and logic, one must be aware of their own emotions. Strong emotions can leave us vulnerable to conspiracy theories and “tricks” of rhetoric. Educators can continually help students stop and self-reflect. Some questions educators can ask of their students are:

  • How does this make me feel?
  • What is the motivation of the speaker/author/media?
  • What does this speaker/author/media want me to do?

4. Include young people civically.

Bitton’s solution to building trust is for institutions to better include others. “In my view, among the most important roles of institutions is that of actively seeking to include citizens in their processes and work. Instead of laying responsibility on citizens to be engaged, institutions should be actively working to find new ways to include citizens in their work. Trust will continue to erode without a genuine commitment to challenging ourselves to be more inclusive, more welcoming and more intentional with our approach to public discourse.”

Schools can better include their students in decision-making. Instead of an opt-in approach to student advisory boards or councils, consider an opt-out. The default should be inclusivity and educators can also remove barriers to participations by evaluating their requirements. Are GPA requirements keeping out particular students? Is the application process cumbersome? Are clubs and organizations advertised broadly across campus?

5. Nurture global citizens.

The Global Collaborator standard within the ISTE Standards encourages students to “use digital tools to connect with learners from a variety of backgrounds and cultures.” Partisan divides increase when we are in our bubbles where we fall prey to echo chambers of rhetoric. When educators connect students with people from other countries and cultures who can share their stories, it helps students pierce those bubbles. For those who perceive the world to be frightening, hearing positive stories from other places can calm that anxiety.

For many students, the pandemic weakened their sense of safety and security and made them feel adrift online, and in life. It left them vulnerable to misinformation and conspiracies. It’s hard work to repair the damage to our democracy and help students develop feelings of trust and safety, and it will take all of us—media, schools, educators, parents and the wider community.  But nothing could be more important.

Read ISTE's Fact Vs. Fiction.

Carrie Rogers-Whitehead is the founder of Digital Respons-Ability and the author of Digital Citizenship: Teaching Strategies and Practice from the Field and the upcoming title from publisher Taylor & Francis, Becoming a Digital Parent.