Building resilience to resist conspiracy theories

In the fourth of a series of blogs around the theme of safeguarding, ETF Associate Selina Stewart looks at what colleagues can do to help learners understand and appraise conspiracy theories. The first three blogs in the series are available on the blogs page of the ETF website.

A very important starting point in building resilience is that students, apprentices and trainees feel safe expressing their views but also that they feel safe from extremist statements and hate speech.

Admittedly this can present problems if what they are saying is hate speech or if they make other students feel threatened or uncomfortable.

In these cases, it is vital that you show that racism, sexism, or any kind of abuse is not acceptable in your organisation. However, you also need to have a discussion with the person about what they have said.

  • Telling someone they should get back to “their own country” is not acceptable but saying that they are worried about immigration is a topic to explore and look at the evidence about migration.
  • Attacking someone’s faith is not acceptable but asking questions about what one or other faith practices and believes is. This should only be asked of an individual if they are happy to answer; otherwise, a practitioner can find sources to give answers.

If worrying statements have been made, tutors, lecturers or trainers should use questions to explore the student’s knowledge and ideas. This will help students to question what they have been told but will also help you as an educational professional decide if this is actually someone who needs further support because they are being drawn into extremism or other harm.

A safe approach for all learners is encouraging them to do their own fact checking. This is much more powerful than an individual telling them they are wrong – that rarely works. Adapted from the FullFact coronavirus factcheck framework, this list of checks will support learners to question anything that they see or hear:

1. Where is the information from?

2. Who is being quoted? Often false information will be said to come from:
A friend’s uncle or aunt, a friend’s friends, a nurse, a doctor, a police officer. Identical content will often be found in many places. Frequently the content will be exactly the same but appears to come from different people.

3. Is the source anonymous? If you cannot verify the source then think carefully before believing it.

4. Have you checked through trusted sources: Check through organisations like the BBC news or ITV news. Also use a fact checking organisation. Try using Full Fact or Channel 4 fact check or BBC reality check.

5. Even if you find a reference to the claim, it still doesn’t mean it is true – so be wary.

6. When you look at it in detail does it look ‘right’? Be careful, websites can be made to look trustworthy when they are actually falsified. Look for clues: e.g.Fake BBC website screenshot

  • The URL doesn’t look right
  • Spelling and grammar are poor
  • The other articles are strange
  • The layout is poor
  • Common sense: Would the BBC promote a diet?
  • Is it in the normal BBC font and style?
  • Do adverts e.g. Women’s Health normally appear on BBC webpages?

7. Have you looked at where images actually come from and whether they actually relate to the story?

How to reverse image search graphic

8. What is missing? If it makes claims, does it back them up?

9. Can you find this story elsewhere? Even if you can find it elsewhere it doesn’t mean it is true, but if you can find the story on reliable websites then it is more likely to be.

10. How does the story make you feel? Conspiracy theories and fake news are intended to make you feel angry or scared.

11. Is this actually a joke: In some cases satire can be confused for reality. Check the style of writing – does it read like satire? Again, check against other sites.Man recognises blades of grass joke story

12. Does it look too good to be true? Usually when something looks too good to be true, it isn’t true!

Encouraging students to question what they read and see as above is a practical way to build critical thinking skills.

Our students need to realise that not everything they read is based on facts and that we may be pulled into believing a story because it is more attractive to us than the truth. Climate change is an example of the unpalatable truth; conspiracy theories may be easier to accept because they are not frightening and they mean we don’t need to change the way we live.

The reality of climate change is frightening; we will suffer from extreme and unpredictable weather, many countries will suffer from excessive heat, sea levels will rise and – in order to slow global warming – we will all need to change our lives dramatically.

When faced with real dangers isn’t it easier to claim that this is fake, to live in denial? Conspiracy theories tell us that this a deception, that we are being told that we will have to change our lives by a global elite who want to control us while making a profit from us. Climate change denial is also a very effective way for individuals to relinquish personal responsibility for climate change – if they believe it is actually false news or a conspiracy.

Activities

One way to give students a real understanding of how conspiracy theories work is to ask them to engage with them. You could try the following activities:

1. Ask students to investigate a conspiracy theory that they have chosen

If they cannot think of one they could investigate one of the following conspiracy theories:

  • that 9/11 was carried out by the CIA
  • that the moon landings are fake
  • that the MMR vaccine causes autism
  • that there are microchips in the Covid-19 vaccination.

They should try to find out where the origins of the conspiracy theory come from and what evidence the people who promote the conspiracy theory claim to have. Use the Full Fact techniques set out above to evaluate the claims, images and text.

Once they have investigated the conspiracy theory, they should look at the negative effect this conspiracy theory has on society. Examples are:

  • For the moon-landings – this might include a general distrust of science with consideration of what damage that might do in society.
  • For microchips in Covid-19 vaccine – this could include a low uptake of the vaccine and continued serious illness and death for a minority of people.They might want to further their investigation by seeing how the conspiracy theory has changed over time and why.

Note: you are building a skill set here to build resilience in your students

2. Ask your students to build their own conspiracy theory to see how it works

They can then present the conspiracy theory to a colleague who must then debunk the theory. As part of this both students should identify what harm would be done if people believe the conspiracy theory.

Note that this activity will take time and you might want the student to develop the conspiracy theory at home and then present their argument in class.

Conspiracy theories appeal to our fears and also our needs and desires. The conspiracy theories that the students develop should set out to appeal to these. You might want to give then the following chart to help them:

Diagram explaining characteristics of people conspiracy theories appeal to

(From Coronavirus: vaccine misinformation and the role of social media and Current Directions in Psychological Science)

These activities can be time consuming but they can have a real impact on learners because they require them to look at how conspiracy theories manipulate people, how they are constructed and what negative impacts they can have. They support them to build resilience and to develop critical thinking skills.

Critical thinking skills will support learners to think about what they read and see. This is useful in their everyday lives, whether they are looking at advertisements or claims made by political parties or governments, but it is particularly important in protecting them from the wild claims made in conspiracy theories.

An ETF webinar for all those responsible for safeguarding and Prevent in the FE and Training sector considering grooming and extremism and what they mean takes place on 20 April. For details, and to book your place, please visit the ETF booking site.

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