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Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Appealing?

Use this free lesson plan to help students think critically about conspiracy theories and how to respond to them.

Daniel Vargas Campos | June 24, 2022

Grades: 8-12
Subjects: Digital Citizenship, SEL, Media Literacy, Social Studies, Civics

A 2020 Common Sense research report, Teens and the News, found that a whopping 77% of teens get their news primarily through social media. At the same time that young people are changing their media consumption habits, the United States is going through a period that is marked by an increased distrust in traditional news outlets.

According to the Survey Center on American Life, approximately two-thirds of Americans hold the belief that "you can learn more about what is going on in the world by ignoring mainstream news and doing your own research." This tendency to "do our own research" combined with our reliance on social media to meet our information needs make us susceptible to one of the most influential forces on the internet: conspiracy theories.

Use these lesson activities to help your students think critically about conspiracy theories, why they're often so appealing, and how social media impacts their spread. 

Learning objectives:

  1. Understand why conspiracy theories are so appealing and who is benefiting from them.
  2. Reflect on the potential impacts of stopping the spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
  3. Research the purported facts that prop up conspiracy theories and help prevent their viral spread online.

This lesson deep dive has three independent parts. You can string them together, or pull them apart to complement other parts of your curriculum.

Quick Activity: Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Popular? (25 minutes)

 

Dilemma Discussion: Memes, Mods, and Conspiracies (45 minutes)

 

Media Creation: Debunking Conspiracy Theories (time varies)

Note: All of these lessons are free, but you'll need to sign in (or create an account) to access the printable handouts.

Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Popular?

Prep for teachers:

Activity steps:

1. Before showing the video, ask: What's one conspiracy theory you've heard about? Do you think it's true? Why or why not? 

If necessary, support students with a quick definition of conspiracy theory (a belief that a group of people have a secret plot to do something) and an example that is appropriate.

2. Show the video Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Popular? and have students complete the graphic organizer on the "Conspiracy Theories 101" handout as they watch. Refer to the teacher version of the handout as you guide the class discussion.

Pressing play on the YouTube video will set third-party cookies controlled by Google if you are logged in to Chrome. See Google's cookie information for details.

3. After discussing the video, have students respond to the prompts in Part 2 of the student handout and share out as time permits.

Memes, Mods, and Conspiracies

Prep for teachers:

Activity steps: 

1. Gauge students' understanding of "mods," aka content moderators on online platforms, and ask: 
How are "mods" responsible for protecting against conspiratorial thinking on online platforms? 

Explain that content "mods" are typically volunteers with varying levels of training who review content posted in an online community for safety, privacy, and content concerns. Mods often have the power to delete posts and ban users for violations of the stated community guidelines, including the spread of mis- and disinformation. 

Note: If you haven't already taught the Quick Activity, we recommend first showing the Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Popular? video to help students gain a deeper understanding of conspiracy theories.

2. Distribute the "Memes, Mods, and Conspiracies" student handout and explain to students that they'll be using the "Take a Stand" thinking routine as they consider how to respond to conspiracy theories.

"Take a Stand" is a thinking routine that encourages students to explore different perspectives on dilemmas related to community and civic life. Learn more about teaching with dilemmas and thinking routines. 

3. After reading the dilemma as a class, facilitate a class discussion following the steps in Part 1. Have students follow along and take notes on their handouts.

For detailed facilitation guidance and suggestions to enrich your class discussion, use the teacher version of the "Memes, Mods, and Conspiracies" handout.

4. In pairs or small groups, have students discuss one or more of the scenarios in Part 2. Then bring the class back together and have each group share out and discuss how their perspectives may have changed.

Debunking Conspiracies

Prep for teachers:

Activity steps:
1. Distribute the "Debunking Conspiracy Theories" project handout and read through the directions as a class.

2. Have students use the project planner on page 2 of the handout to brainstorm ideas for their written or visual work before getting started. 

3. Have students share their work with the class or in any forum you find appropriate.

Image courtesy of Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.