Fake News and it's Damaging Consequences - Secret RE Teacher
We often hear that we are living in an age of
, or that we are in a post-truth era. As teachers, I think this is one of the most challenging issues we currently have to face.
I am particularly interested in the spread of conspiracy theories, and dis or misinformation following terrorist attacks.
This, of course, is not a new phenomenon. We are all aware of the 9/11 conspiracy theories. But when the (now) most powerful man in the world actively pushed the Birther conspiracy theory about the then most powerful man in the world (Obama) then it would appear that these things are becoming more main-stream (about a third of Americans believed the Birther conspiracy and a similar percentage believed 9/11 was an inside job).
Some conspiracy theories are pretty harmless. If “Mad” Mike Hughes wants to launch a homemade rocket in the Nevada desert to prove the world is flat then fine- it doesn’t cause too much pain and suffering (except for his spine).
The problem is that these theories use selected ‘evidence’ to push things that most rational people should instantly dismiss. They only contain the selected evidence they want to present. And as Mad Mike proves- this can lead to people taking extraordinary risks or putting others in harm’s way.
After the London Bridge attack in 2017, a video went viral around some schools purporting to show that the attack was actually done by police actors.
I can understand why the video could perturb. The narrator speaks with authority and makes it clear that only a fool could believe the mainstream narrative that 3 men inspired by ISIS attacked Londoners. Instead, this conspiracy maintains that the perpetrators were, in fact, police actors and goes on to ‘prove’ it by showing police officers getting changed by the side of a police van before engaging the terrorists. The conspiracy holds that the police were, in fact, changing into terrorist outfits to trick the public into thinking a terrorist attack had happened. Why on earth would they do this? Well, it turns out it’s to increase Islamophobia (sigh).
Of course, the video is nonsense. It’s standard police procedure to put on the heavy-duty gear before engaging with people who are armed (they were hardly going to drive back to the police station first to get changed- the whole attack took 8 minutes from start to finish).
So why does this conspiracy disturb me so much? Because, like the 9/11 ones, it must be hugely offensive for the friends and family of the victims. To be told that the loved one you lost was ‘made up’ and part of a Fast and Furious style set-piece done live, is deeply unpleasant.
It also undermines the incredible work that our first responders do when they respond to terrorism.
An eye witness being interviewed by the BBC after the attack had a beautiful response when he said that he ‘hoped London would hug’ those people who ran at the danger to help protect and save the lives of others. Our paramedics and police deserve our respect and admiration for doing this- not our suspicion. If the conspiracy were true then all the doctors, nurses, family, friends, etc. of everyone involved must also have been acting. It’s clearly nonsense and yet it gets pushed as fact by some people.
I can genuinely understand why Buzz Aldrin punched someone who claimed the moon landings were fake. His heroism and years of training were all questioned by someone who can’t accept basic truths. It’s disrespectful not only to him but also his family who would have had to ensure the risk and danger he went through; the incredible work done by his colleagues, and of course, those brave men who did not survive their space missions.
And yet, of course, we have to be critical. States can lie and push these lies to the population, and crucially to the population of other countries.
Part 2 of the Blog from the SECRET RE TEACHER
One of the biggest threats to our critical literacy currently comes from Russia. They have a deliberate campaign of disinformation (not to be confused with misinformation- disinformation is deliberate, misinformation is not).
Take the Salisbury attack (not terrorism, but not far off). Russia was clearly behind this attack, to think otherwise you’d have to suspend pretty much all your critical faculties. And yet how Russia responded was masterful (and scary). They released a huge number of theories about it ranging from the plausible to the insane. Their aim here is not to get us to believe a set version of the event- instead, it’s to create confusion. They don’t want our citizens believing one thing- they want them to have polarised versions of the events to breed doubt and discord in society. If we don’t know who to trust, or we actively mistrust others, it weakens the foundation of our society.
Anyone can sit behind a computer screen and challenge mainstream narratives using selective evidence. If they can edit a video with some degree of professionalism, or use technical terms then this adds to the ‘credibility’- despite these spurious claims failing to live up to the most basic of scrutiny. The problem is that for many young people these alternative accounts of events make compelling reading. It’s exciting to think that you hold the knowledge that your teachers, parents and even experts don’t.
As teachers, we have to have confidence in challenging conspiracy theories and fake news and we have to work on this together. It is essential that teachers across all subjects and key stages think about how they can help ensure that our children are resilient.
In English we can point to the power of persuasive speeches and writing throughout history; in History we can champion the importance of ensuring evidence is credible (please let’s not allow more Holocaust deniers!); In RE we can challenge the conspiracy theory narratives of ISIS and even groups like Britain First (who claim to be Christian); in ICT we need to teach children how easy it is to manipulate images/videos etc.
Research has shown that the better educated we are, the less likely we are to fall for these conspiracy theories. We might live in an age of fake news, but if we work together we can ensure that our children don’t fall for the traps set by conspiracy theorists and extremists (who are very often one and the same!).
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