How can we tackle conspiracy theories in schools?

If one of your students tells you that Covid is a hoax created by the Illuminati, should you go there? Paul Read did

Paul Read

What can teachers do if students push conspiracy theories in school, such as about Covid being a hoax or the Illuminati?

A boy in Year 9, begrudgingly wearing his face mask the way Abraham Lincoln wore his beard (ie, under his chin), was adamant that mask-wearing was “pointless”. 

His reasons had nothing to do with airborne transmission rates or the latest filtration efficacy science. He hated them because “there’s no such thing as coronavirus and the whole thing’s made up by the Illuminati to keep us living in fear”. 

How did he account for the deaths? The hospital statistics? The personal stories of his own classmates

He told me they were attributable to other causes, and Covid was “added” to the death certificates. He wasn’t merely arguing that Covid was less dangerous than the media saturation would have us believe; he was declaring there was no such thing.

No one in the class argued with him. They knew how exhausting, and ultimately pointless, it would be. 

Covid and schools: Opening a Pandora's box of conspiracy theories

I probably should have let it go, too, but I dug deeper. 

Oh, boy. 

The vaccine was hokum: a clandestine attempt to implant us with experimental and trackable microchips. Bill Gates was behind this sensational hoax, in some vague way.

And then Pandora’s conspiracy box exploded open with almost evangelical zeal. Humans had never set foot on the Moon. Risqué images inserted into Disney films by bored animators were proof of a paedophile cabal at the heart of Hollywood. The World Trade Center was an inside job to justify perpetual war in the Middle East. He didn’t mention a flat Earth, but I felt that, had he gone on long enough, it might easily have made the list.

I asked him why he believed these things, told him there was little to no verification for his claims. 

“There is proof,” he said. “But not much. That’s how I know it’s all true.” The scarcity of evidence was, in his mind, all the proof he needed. After all, if the elites, or the lizard-people in the Royal Family, or George Soros, were determined to control us, it stood to reason that they’d brush as much evidence as possible under the carpet.

It doesn't take a psychology PhD to work out that an unswerving belief in conspiracy theories might be a sign of serious disenfranchisement. If it renders you blameless, there’s a twisted comfort in believing someone’s out to get you. For those with genuine gripes about their lot, piling it all on “the man” explains a host of unfairnesses and economic hardships. 

But this was a child. Impressionable and vulnerable, as good as immune to the physical harms of the virus. Nevertheless, he’d been deeply affected by the lockdown enforced upon him.

Challenging conspiracy theories in the classroom

I enquired where he’d discovered all this “information”, and it turned out that an adult sibling had shown him a website during those long weeks of homeschooling. Or, during the time he should have been homeschooled. 

I asked his class how many had been consistently completing schoolwork over lockdown for their regular teachers, and found it to be less than half. Not for the first time, I realised I lived in a bubble. My own children completed work with me while they were housebound, and homeschooling was, by and large, something my partner and I made work. But the reality for many children was far different. Some family members couldn’t help, for a variety of reasons. 

Worse, some appeared to have filled their heads full of conspiracies. 

At some point during the lesson, I approached the boy privately to further question what I considered his circular reasoning. 

He was not an unintelligent student. True, his behaviour left something to be desired at times, and he’d be the first to admit he possessed attention-seeking tendencies. But these parrotings of anti-science were new. He ended up disclosing the name of a website he’d been visiting, as though I were the one in need of conversion.  

After school, I looked at the site. Everything he’d been claiming was there, sometimes in exactly the same words he’d used. The microchip theory. The 5G fears. A plethora of coronavirus mistruths. 

I spoke to him again, the following day. I praised his intelligence, told him his scepticism was healthy, and suggested other websites featuring qualified experts of many years’ standing who debunked the theories he’d tried to sell me. I asked him why men and women who’d dedicated 50 years of their lives to science would lie. 

We owe it to children not to laugh their theories off. To some, especially after so long away, school is seen as overly “woke”: an irrelevant few hours in the day spent with Illuminati-siding teachers in an otherwise online life. Children get their news from social media; they do not sit down at six o’clock and watch impartial headlines in the way that many adults still do.

A few days later, I asked the boy if he’d had a chance to think about re-evaluating the contents of the website he’d previously championed, and noted that some of his conspiracy passion had gone. He even conceded that, yes, coronavirus was “probably not” a hoax.

I didn’t expect to be weeding out the conspiracy theorists as I found them, and doubtless there are many who aren’t as vocal as others. But the next time it happens, I won’t hesitate to make it a whole-class matter. We owe it to our students to put conspiracy theories – and their debunking – on the curriculum.

Paul Read is a teacher and writer

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