Inoculating children against conspiracy theories
Last updated 7/12/2022 at Noon
We are sense-making creatures, trying our best to understand the world we live in. But how do we make sense of mass shootings and gun deaths on the rise, a global pandemic endangering our health, Islamic militants who threaten our way of life, or natural disasters that occur with greater frequency and ferocity?
Conspiracy theories are attractive because they provide a straightforward and satisfying explanation for events in the world while clarifying who the good guys and bad guys are.
According to psychologist Daniel Romer, “Conspiracy theories make people feel as though they have some sort of control over the world. They can be psychologically reassuring, especially in uncertain times.”
But they also instill a sense of worry in individuals who feel strongly connected with and care about a group who they perceive to be under threat from a hostile group.
Conspiracy beliefs evolve when people feel threatened — for example, by the power politicians wield or by minority groups and immigrants who appear threatening because negative stereotypes about them instill suspicion.
Conspiracy theorists often share similar characteristics: finding meaning in random stimuli; a belief that every event is caused by an intentional actor. Conspiracists may be eccentric and suspicious of others; they are anxious, have difficulty tolerating uncertainty, and experience lack of control over their world; their emotions and intuition shape their belief system. They often have received less formal education.
Individuals join conspiracy groups in order to feel special or unique, and for a sense of belonging. Membership also conveys a sense of moral superiority.
Conspiracy theories have real-world consequences for our health, interpersonal relationships, and safety.
Throughout the pandemic, conspiracy theorists challenged the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and claimed that state actors wanted to inject people with bots to control their minds.
According to Brown University researchers, “Of the more than 641,000 people who died from COVID-19 after vaccines were available, half of those deaths could have been averted … had every eligible adult gotten vaccinated.”
The claim that COVID-19 was manufactured in a Chinese lab to be used against Americans as a bioweapon fueled attacks on Asian Americans.
Conspiracists who insist that climate change is just a hoax undermine our willingness to reduce our carbon footprint or engage in pro-social behaviors.
Conspiratorial beliefs have shaped the thinking of vulnerable young men who, having decided that it is their patriotic duty to violently defend their group against its enemies, engage in mass shootings:
Replacement Theory, which claims that a Jewish cabal is conspiring to replace the majority white population through an influx of immigrants, may have inspired a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and motivated attacks on immigrant groups.
Fear by white supremacists of being relegated to second-class citizenship by the growing influence of African Americans likely contributed to mass shootings at Black churches, and more recently at a market in Buffalo, New York frequented by Black families.
Some followers of QAnon have engaged in such violent crimes that the FBI labeled the group a potential domestic terrorist threat.
President Trump’s exhortation to “stop the steal” of the 2020 presidential election by preventing the counting of electoral votes led to the invasion of the U.S. Capitol by violent supporters, and the subsequent the death of five Capitol Police officers.
We can inoculate our children against conspiracy theories:
According to The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE), “Media literacy is the ability to access, analyze, evaluate, create, and act using all forms of communication.”
With parental encouragement, children can learn to assess the accuracy and reliability of information by asking themselves:
• Why was this made?
• Who made it?
• What is missing?
• How might different people interpret it?
• What techniques are used and why?
• Who might benefit from this message?
• Who might be harmed?
Parents can teach their children how to conduct a lateral literacy search by seeking corroboration of information from reliable sites.
Parents can show their children how to examine news stories to see if they convey accurate information, understand the techniques advertisers use to try to persuade children to buy a new toy, how to recognize scams that are “too good to be true,” how a child’s private information might be unscrupulously used by others, and the importance of getting permission to use original content.
Parents can help their children understand how conspiracy peddlers are motivated by personal gain. For example how they profit from selling health supplements that fraudulently claim to “prevent and treat” COVID-19, how TV personalities spread conspiratorial beliefs in order to grow market shares, or how politicians spread false beliefs to whip up their followers and increase their political power.