When Sarah Wildes, a seventh-grade teacher in Alabama, was asked by a college student about the massive confusion surrounding the results of the 2020 US presidential election, she knew she had a big job ahead of her.
“I have to be careful, but I pointed out that we do know,” said Wildes, a science and technology teacher at Sparkman Middle School in the small town of Toney. “There are facts. There have been committees that have reviewed the elections. The numbers show us a truth, but the social media bubbles are confusing us about that truth.”
Wildes and teachers across the country face a tedious and evolving challenge as the new school year begins and students return to the classroom after an approximately 18-month hiatus from normal personal learning. Since the last time crowded classrooms gathered, an entire industry of misinformation has exploded online, spreading conspiracy theories about everything from the alleged theft of the presidential election that Joe Biden won, to the prevalence of microchips in Covid-19 vaccines. .
It’s bad enough that kids are exposed to dangerous falsehoods through their favorite social media apps like Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok. An equally big problem is that, while stuck at home during the pandemic, their days of virtual education were interrupted by screaming parents, who had themselves fallen deep into the internet’s darkest rabbit holes.
About 15 percent of Americans believe QAnon conspiracy theories, according to a May report from the nonprofits Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core. QAnon believers were largely responsible for spreading “stop the steal” content on social media, supporting the lie that former President Donald Trump won the election.
Meanwhile, 22% of Americans identify as anti-vaxxers, according to an academic study published in May, even as scientists and public health officials agree on the extreme efficacy and importance of Covid-19 vaccines.
For children who have not yet fully developed their critical thinking skills, the basic truths are distorted by the combination of misinformation on social media and a growing population of duped and radicalized parents.
“They were consuming this information at home without really being able to get out of their own bubble after being quarantined,” Wildes said. “They were starving for guidance in navigating all the things they saw.”
In addition to dealing with the standard curriculum and making up for lost class time, Wildes takes on the responsibility of helping students filter out misinformation and find reliable news sources. She relies on the News Literacy Project (NLP), a nonprofit organization in Washington, DC, that in 2016 developed Checkology, an online tool for educators to help students identify and remove misinformation.
Checkology teaches students about the different types of misinformation they may encounter, the role the press plays in democracy, understanding bias in the news, and recognizing how people fall into conspiracies. Since its launch in May 2016, Checkology has registered more than 1.3 million students and nearly 36,300 teachers.
“The pandemic, the elections, social justice issues — people are looking for information and educators need support to navigate that misinformation,” said Shaelynn Farnsworth, NLP’s director of educator networking.
Finding a Reddit Community
Other online communities give the children of conspiracy theorists ways to connect and share their experiences. And also to detox.
Mobius, a 17-year-old who lives on the West Coast, said his mother is an anti-vaxxer who started in QAnon’s path. Mobius, who asked us not to use his real name to preserve his family relationships, said his mother talks about the coronavirus as biological warfare and thinks the government is trying to profit from vaccines. He said 90% of her information comes from Facebook or TikTok.
In July, most of Mobius’ family was infected with Covid-19 after his mother contracted the virus and did not go into quarantine. She even traveled by plane while sick, Mobius said, adding that he was the only one in the family to be vaccinated and able to prevent infection.
He said his mother would not let his siblings get the vaccine and that he missed several vaccinations during his childhood.
Mobius posted about his experience in QAnonCasualties, a Reddit group that says it offers “support, resources and a place to vent” to people who have friends or loved ones “recorded by QAnon”. The group was founded in July 2019 and has 186,000 members. It is inundated with stories similar to Mobius’ experience.
A user post last month was from a university student who talked about the fear she felt after her father showed her a video claiming that Covid vaccines would make her infertile. A more recent report came from a 16-year-old girl, who claims she recently “escaped” her abusive QAnon parents and doesn’t know if she should get the Covid vaccination.
“I don’t remember what’s real or not anymore,” she wrote on the Reddit board. “I am terrified and confused. My parents told me I would have blood clots, I would die, be dead in five years, be sterile, microchipped, government monitored, government monitored, etc.”
QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory that emerged after the 2016 election. Though the reports are incoherent, members often claim that the world is controlled by a cabal of satanic and cannibalistic elites who have conspired against former President Trump.
Mobius, who had just entered college and needed the vaccination to participate, said he began to question his family’s views around the time Trump took office. He became more proactive in seeking the facts, turning to news sources rather than listening to his mother. He ended up on the Associated Press and BBC as his most trusted outlets.
Still, Mobius said he tries to avoid talking about anything political with his mother’s side of the family. He said his mother has gotten better at spewing conspiracies since she got sick, though her beliefs haven’t changed.
On QAnonCasualties, divorces mourn the loss of decades-long relationships, employees talk about leaving their jobs because of a supervisor’s anti-vaccine smells, and teens and young adults vent desperately about their parents.
Afraid of ‘vaccine toxicity’
Another member of the Reddit group, who asked to be called Vulture, posted to the board in early August, seeking support and advice on interacting with her mother.
Vulture, who is 18 and was only comfortable using a pseudonym, described her mother as an anti-vaxxer who began diving into the QAnon conspiracy in early 2020, at the start of the pandemic.
She said her mother believes 5G cell phone towers are harmful (a QAnon theory says 5G causes the coronavirus), and she doesn’t allow her kids to have Wi-Fi on at night because she’s concerned about radiation. . Vulture said her mother gets her information from Facebook, YouTube, Telegram, and even personal groups.
Vulture’s parents are divorced and her mother is now married to another woman. Her mother’s wife was vaccinated earlier this year, which caused a riff in the relationship as Vulture’s mother feared she had “vaccine toxicity” and told her wife she no longer loved her unconditionally.
Vulture said her mother has also threatened to kick her and her younger sibling out of the house if they are vaccinated, a threat that weighs heavily on her, especially as she prepares for her freshman year of college.
While teens like Mobius and Vulture find like-minded people online, groups like Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) are trying to protect children from becoming victims of cheating and misinformation.
Last year, PERIL and SPLC published “A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Youth Radicalization” to help adults interact with teens at risk of exposure to extremism and conspiracy theories.
“Radicalization is a problem for our entire society, from the innocent people it victimizes to the family ties it severs,” says the guide. It includes sections on recognizing warning signs, understanding what drives people to extremism, and how health care providers can deal with at-risk youth.
PERIL and the SPLC have also made supplements to the guide for educators, counselors, and coaches and mentors.
Wildes, the school teacher in Alabama, sees a greater role for the classroom and technology like Checkology in curbing the spread of misinformation.
“Once people go down the rabbit hole, it’s hard to get them out,” she said.
Checkology isn’t dogmatic in its approach, Wildes said. Through interactive lessons, the program is designed to give children the tools to figure out what is a hoax and what is a fact, backed up by evidence. NLP also produces a weekly newsletter, The Sift, which aims to help educators educate students about news literacy and understand why a hoax or conspiracy theory spreading is inaccurate.
Wildes said, based on the behavior she witnessed, she thinks many high school students today are better equipped than adults to reject misinformation.
“I think they really enjoy being addressed in such a way that they are responsible for their own thoughts,” she said.
WATCH: Former Facebook chief privacy officer on fighting vaccine misinformation