In this blog series, I have referred several times to the concept of “modern challenges” to teaching news literacy, and at the risk of sounding repetitive, I will refer again to this blog’s topic as a “modern challenge.”
There are many modern challenges because so many aspects of our information environment are new. Two particular kinds of informational content are prevalent in ways that simply did not exist in their present forms until now: conspiracy theories and memes.
Though it is true that conspiracy theories have existed for a long time, such as in grocery store tabloids (think of everything from “Elvis is still alive” and “The moon landing was fake” to “Hillary Clinton has a secret alien baby”), they have taken on new forms in our current social media and smartphone era.
In a similar manner, the predecessor to the meme—the political cartoon—has existed for a long time, but the meme evolved beyond the political cartoon format into new formats that are particularly persuasive in our current technological age. Often, people rely on information learned in memes as support in their political arguments, which may manifest in phrases beginning with “Well, I heard that….”
Both conspiracy theories and memes are themselves sources of information upon which people rely. As outlandish and/or simplistic as they seem, people often use these pieces of information along with, or in lieu of, actual news to make their decisions and inform their worldviews. Consequently, teaching news literacy comprehensively requires teaching students about how to detect and question conspiracy theories and how to deconstruct the arguments made by memes.
This blog will discuss strategies for teaching about conspiracy theories in some detail and will provide a brief overview and framework for teaching about memes. Memes are best taught via visual examples, and later in Infobase’s News Literacy Workshop, I will be presenting a webinar using such visual examples.
Because the very premise of a conspiracy theory often strikes educators and savvy news consumers as outrageous and ridiculous, it is tempting to dismiss such claims outright when they are made by students, relatives, and friends. However, dismissing them outright is often ineffective at persuading someone who believes a ridiculous claim, and often has the unintended effect of further entrenching the claimant in their position; they may view your refusal to consider their claim as evidence that they know something you do not, and that you are the one who is being deceived.
To teach students how to identify and debunk conspiracy theories on their own, an important first step is to understand why they are compelling. Another important step is to understand that the clues you automatically and subconsciously detect to tell you something is false are not necessarily automatically and subconsciously detectable to others.
Why Conspiracy Theories Are Compelling
First, modern Internet conspiracy theories can be complex. The stories that underlie the seemingly ridiculous conclusions often contain some real facts. For example, the conspiracy theory that “Bill Gates created the coronavirus pandemic” is a convoluted story tying together a few knowable facts, including that Bill Gates has spoken about the threats of pandemics in the past and that he is currently putting a lot of effort into vaccine development.
Weaving facts into a false story makes the false story at least plausible, and often, people have a hard time distinguishing between something that is plausible but unlikely to be true and a better explanation that is actually true.
Second, people are open to conspiracy theories when their level of distrust in institutions is high. There are many valid reasons for distrust in institutions because bad actors within institutions do exist and bad acts and cover-ups have happened across many institutions, including government, corporations, churches, and media. Some level of distrust is warranted, and it makes people open to plausible stories of other bad acts and cover-ups.
Third, believing a conspiracy theory provides emotional rewards, such as:
- The feeling of knowing something others do not
- The feeling of being right
- The feeling of being individualistic and going against the grain
- The feeling of certainty and order in a simple good/evil binary
Given that conspiracy theories are compelling, it is important to teach students how to identify them before getting pulled in.
Identifying and Combating Conspiracy Theories
Here are steps for helping students identify a conspiracy theory:
- Focus on spotting rhetorical patterns. Many conspiracy theories contain the following common rhetorical tropes or “red flags”:
- It explicitly states that it is telling the truth and/or that everyone else is lying to you
- It contains short, conclusory opinion statements and wild conclusions
- It is organized as a list of questions or hypotheses
- It is prospectively defended as worth considering even if it seems absurd
- It puts the burden on you to answer the questions
- It asks you to prove a negative, which is often impossible
- It suggests an insidious plot by “someone” (the media, elites, corporations, or the government) but doesn’t exactly say what the plot is or provide any evidence for it
- It elevates the credibility of one credentialed expert who goes against the consensus of their entire credentialed expert peer group
- It claims that being taken down for promoting misinformation is “censorship,” which therefore, somehow, proves that the thing taken down is actually true
- Dive right into conspiracy theory examples as a teaching tool instead of dismissing them. For example, if a student brings up a conspiracy theory, such as “Well, I heard Bill Gates wants to microchip everybody,” the best way to teach about it is to look it up on the Internet and deconstruct it together.
When walking through the results you find on Internet searches, you can help students spot the “red flags” listed above. You can also do close rhetorical analysis of individual components, such as diving into a picture or a sentence and asking students to think about what that picture or sentence is doing—a key skill for any kind of media literacy exercise. You can follow links and citations and discover any underlying facts that are being used to tie the story together and discuss whether there are likelier explanations for those underlying facts than the story that is being presented.
Internet memes come in all types and forms, and some of the best Internet humor comes in meme form. However, bad political arguments also come in meme form, and people struggle with how to recognize the fallacies in meme-based arguments.
The most common type of political argument meme is the “juxtaposition” form, in which two pictures and accompanying sets of words are juxtaposed next to each other. The purpose of the meme is to encourage you to draw a conclusion based solely on the pictures and words juxtaposed together.
In these types of memes, the creator is saying that the similarities and differences between the two pictures and sets of words are the most salient similarities and differences applicable. However, these memes often omit other salient details—other important context, facts, similarities, and differences. These memes are nonetheless compelling because they draw your attention to the pictures and ideas presented and leave you to come up with what is missing on your own, which is a difficult mental task.
The following is a framework for breaking down and analyzing meme-based arguments:
- What is the point the meme is trying to convince you of?
- Is anything factually incorrect?
- Is anything mischaracterized?
- What other facts and context are missing?
In our upcoming webinar session, I will use examples of modern juxtaposition memes and walk through this framework for breaking them down.
Meeting the challenges of teaching modern news literacy often requires exploring new formats of persuasive information. With tools for teaching about conspiracy theories and memes, you can prepare students to tackle a big chunk of the Internet’s nuttiest, yet influential, content.