What if a student believes a conspiracy theory?

This article is part of Conspiracy theories

Conspiracy theories offer clarity and certainty to their believers. They also make the world seem exciting. Therefore it shouldn’t be a surprise that youngsters are very susceptible to them. But how can you, as a teacher, respond when a student believes a conspiracy theory?

Don’t immediately debunk

Your first reflex as a teacher is to show students the truth. But by immediately dismissing a conspiracy theory, you risk exacerbating polarisation. You’ll become part of the enemy or of the non-believers, which will make the student less likely to be open to your perspectives. Try to exchange ideas with an open and curious mind, and to look for what is true as equal partners.


There are of course limits to this strategy. If the goal of the conspiracy theory is to sow hatred or to call for violence, a stricter approach is indicated. Express very clearly that such ideas are unacceptable.

Where does it come from?

Teenagers are searching for their identity. Conspiracy theories and other convictions are an important building block in that process. Try to home in on why the youngster believes the conspiracy theory, and what this says about them and their process.

Start an open conversation

Listen to the student’s ideas and ask a lot of questions, like: “Can you explain that?” and “Why do you think that?”. Involve the rest of the class as well, for example by asking a general question like: “How could you verify whether this theory is true?”. Try to stimulate the student to look at the matter from the other side: “What would someone who doesn’t agree with you say?”.

Let them question your truth

It’s not easy for young people to question their own ideas. Be willing to do the same: let your students ask critical questions about your and each other’s opinions. That way, you teach them to be open to the doubts of others.

Focus on the attraction

Conspiracy theories divide the world into good and bad, into us and them. That’s one of the main draws of conspiracy theories: it feels good to be part of the ‘good guys’, who try to expose evil. Explain to your students why we like to believe in conspiracy theories.

Published on 18 October 2023