Teaching about conspiracy theories and propaganda

This article is part of Conspiracy theories

How can you teach young people to deal with propaganda, conspiracy theories and fake news on the internet? Here are 6 tips for broaching these topics in class.

The time is now

Don’t wait until a student starts spouting conspiracy theories in class, or until propaganda images cause confusion at school. You want your students to be able to critically assess various media without being misled.

Presenting the topic at a ‘calm’ moment gives you control over the examples you want to discuss in class, without having to get tangled up in current affairs. Prevention is better than aftercare.

Pay attention to emotions

Your first reflex as a teacher might be to look at things objectively and to argue with facts. But propaganda and conspiracy theories are made to elicit and aggravate emotional responses. This will especially be the case when you discuss topics that are important to your students (religion, favourite sports club, love of animals, the climate, health, …).

Don’t ask them to look at everything rationally: you’re likely to only get ‘socially acceptable’ responses, or your students might withdraw. Focus on how your students feel: make them listen to each other and show appreciation for their engagement.

Focus on questions

Don’t ask directly for analyses or opinions when discussing propaganda and conspiracy theories with your students. Instead, invite them to pose as many questions as possible when presented with videos, posters or texts. Every new question will pique their interest, but also encourage them to look for answers themselves. Don’t label their answers as right or wrong, but keep asking questions to get them thinking.

Focus on diversity

Propaganda and conspiracy theories flourish between the similarly minded. Try to break through in-groups by presenting a wide variety of insights. A different opinion will invite them to defend their own point of view, to provide arguments, and perhaps to adjust their stance. Listening to different opinions can help foster understanding.

Don’t call it nonsense

You may be completely unable to understand how someone could have been deceived by propaganda or a conspiracy theory. But just be aware that these techniques are designed specifically to capitalise on existing frustrations, anxieties or other feelings. Science, the government or the media sometimes don’t provide sufficient answers. Propagandists and conspiracy theorists may offer the answer instead (even if it’s not the right one). 

Sometimes a wrong answer offers more relief than a lack of answers. That doesn’t mean that the student is stupid, simply that they might be worried or frustrated. Look for the reasons why someone believes something, rather than trying to correct them immediately.

Correct false information

It’s not always easy to debunk misleading information. You don’t have the necessary expertise to talk about every subject. And sometimes people are so convinced that they are right, that any counterargument fades into the background. 

Conspiracy theorists often believe that the lack of tangible evidence for the conspiracy is due to a cover-up. The ‘elite’ has supposedly destroyed all the evidence. Despite this, it’s still important to call out false information. Not to convince the conspiracy theorist or the propagandist, but to offer the other students a wide range of perspectives.

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Published on 18 October 2023