Why Kids Believe Conspiracy Theories

Picture this: a lesson with a bottom set year 8 class. I’m teaching Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and we’re exploring the idea of inherent good or evil. To start off I’ve asked pupils to put famous people, politicians, characters from film and literature on a spectrum from ‘angelic’ to ‘pure evil’. The aim is to discuss characteristics of a stereotypically ‘evil’ persona; are some people inherently evil or are there only evil acts?

The results are, for the most part, as expected. Hitler: Evil. Beyoncé: Good (I mean, obviously). But then Rihanna is evil. And I mean more evil than Hitler. Naturally I question this. Answer: Illuminati.

I’m guessing most teachers working in London state schools, and probably beyond, are aware of the Illuminati. For the uninitiated they are a sinister, super-secret organisation who control everything in the world. They have penetrated governments, financial institutions, even the entertainment industry. Rihanna, my students told me, is a member.

How do you know she’s a member? There’s loads of evidence. For example, if you freeze one of her videos at just the right moment, you can see she’s making the sign of the devil.

What is she trying to achieve through being a member of the Illuminati? Power, world domination, control, to please the devil.

Why does she want to advertise her Illuminati membership by putting in secret symbols into her videos? To show she’s in the Illuminati.

Why doesn’t she either make a public announcement (if she wants to share the information) or not advertise it in a massively popular music video (if she wants to keep it secret)? Because she’s in the Illuminati.

What amazes me, apart from the circular logic (or complete lack of reason), is the conviction with which these beliefs are held by around half the class. There are varying degrees of scepticism, but many seem to pity me for my naivety, practically shaking their heads and smiling knowingly – ‘poor, gullible Mr Goundry, falling for the Illuminati’s deception hook, line and sinker’.

If you spend some time googling the Illuminati you enter a rabbit hole of sophisticated and complex conspiracy theories (as well as the less sophisticated), from lists of celebrity members to an ‘official’ website which claims that: ‘You may not find us praised [or mentioned?] in any history book or document. However, the Illuminati has helped with every major movement on this planet since the first human government was established.’

A lot of these websites look good and videos on the subject are sometimes edited to a professional standard. Everything from the tone of the writing to the graphic detail matches the style of official documents and credible sources.

Many students clearly lack the ability to read critically. I don’t think this is anything new, just look at how so many Murdoch papers can get away with bare-faced lies. What is new is the volume of information and the unlimited and constant access to it.

Teachers often talk about critical reading skills, such as identifying bias, thinking about rhetorical devices and so on. But perhaps the most important thing for being able to read a source critically is knowledge and understanding of the world. For instance, if you know that the Illuminati was an Enlightenment era society set up to oppose superstition and religious involvement in the state, you should be able to deduce that it is unsurprising that they were characterised by the Catholic Church as a sinister or devil-worshipping cult.

In fact, you don’t even need specific knowledge of the original Illuminati, you just need to know enough about how international politics works that when someone suggests there is a secret organisation spreading its tentacles into every aspect of life and is operating through agents such as Rihanna and Lionel Richie you stop and think about how unlikely that might be.

The problem is that the kids I was teaching had two things:

  1. A woeful knowledge of how the world works (the same class struggled to identify France on a map of Europe).
  2. A sneaking suspicion that society is rigged against them.

As teachers we really need to address the former. As for the latter, the tragic thing is that they’re kind of right. They go to a state school and are therefore underrepresented in most prestigious or influential professions; they live in a society where the richest 10% own half of the nation’s wealth; as young people they are inheriting a world threatened by catastrophic climate change; the majority are black and therefore underrepresented in parliament; the majority have African-sounding names and are therefore likely to be treated differently when applying for a job compared to someone with a White-sounding name – the list of injustices goes on.

However, these problems require complex and long-term solutions. To understand them we need nuanced thought and need to accept that we must, frequently, compromise. We need to understand the systems in order to see how they are rigged against us. Without this understanding, people are prone to believing wild conspiracy theories. In many ways, the idea of the Illuminati cannot come close to the terrifying reality of entrenched inequality and discrimination that exists in our world.

Conspiracy theories provide a simple narrative that help us make sense of a world that we find too complex to understand. Rather than challenging false narratives, many politicians have decided to fuel these conspiracies and to exploit the fear for political gain. Many teachers are just as guilty of throwing up their hands in surrender and giving into cynicism. We have to believe that we can inform young people of how the world works and empower them to change it. I’m not saying we direct them to any particular agenda, but that we should direct them away from conspiratorial fantasies.

Belief in post-truth conspiracies causes people to withdraw from the actual systems of power. Why vote for a politician if they’re all in the pocket of a secret organisation? We need to teach students about how the world works, and I don’t mean some jaded, cynical version of ‘that’s the way the world works’, but actually how political and economic systems work. This cannot possibly be controversial.

The greatest disservice we can do to our students is to fail to provide them with the knowledge and understanding required to engage meaningfully with the world around them. Conspiracy theories fill a void where understanding and reason should be.

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