Saturday, 8 October 2011

UK Think Tank Wants School Teachers to Address “Conspiracy Theories”

Here’s a very interesting BBC report on British youth learning about conspiracy theories on the internet.

Is the internet rewriting history?

Osama Bin Laden is not dead; 9/11 was an inside job; and police were slow to tackle this summer’s rioters as an excuse to lock up a whole raft of young black men.

Conspiracy theories like these are nothing new; opposing views to the official line given by authorities are in fact crucial in exposing deceptions.

However, independent think tank Demos says that young people do not know how to navigate this information when it appears on the Internet.

“We have something like a Wild West on the internet,” says Jamie Bartlett, senior researcher at Demos.

“There’s a huge amount of very trustworthy, academic, good bits of journalism [on the internet], more than ever before, which is extremely liberating.

But at the same time, equal proportions of distortions, propaganda, lies, mistruths, half-truths and all sorts of rubbish. It can be very difficult, especially for younger people, to sort the wheat from the chaff.”


As part of their research into the influence of the internet on young people, Demos teamed up with creative agency Bold for a workshop exploring digital literacy at a secondary school in Tower Hamlets, in East London.

Pupils were asked to rate various sources of information – the government, Twitter, the Guardian newspaper, their family – according to how much they trusted it. The results were telling.

Closest to the heading ‘Trust’ the pupils placed YouTube; somewhere near the heading ‘Distrust’, they placed the government.

As part of the exercise, the pupils were asked what kind of videos they had viewed online. A lot of discussion ensued about various conspiracy theories. All the pupils had seen videos about 9/11, but were not sure who had made them.

“Those ones are true,” said Aminul Islam, 16.

“There was a documentary, I forgot the name of the guy, but he presented evidence that 9/11 was an inside job. I saw it on the internet – I don’t know what website it was,” said Rizwan Choudhury, 16.

It is the same with news surrounding the death of Osama Bin Laden. Pupils said that they had found evidence showing that he was not killed when it was reported that he had been.

The pupils at this school are predominantly of Bangladeshi Muslim heritage, and stories relating to Muslim communities are a common theme in their internet research.

However, Demos say that this problem is not limited to one community, but is prevalent among deprived communities in general.
‘Digital literacy’

At another school session – this time at Shorefields Technology College in Liverpool, the class is more ethnically diverse. Videos raising questions about 9/11 are still the first examples of conspiracy theories to be discussed.

Some pupils are more sophisticated in their knowledge. They point out a need to double-check facts and sources and not take information directly from sites such as Wikipedia. But there is still confusion about the way the internet operates.

“I was searching on Google,” said pupil Faye Barkley.

“I just believed the first answer that came up, to be honest. I know I shouldn’t do it, but Google’s like a trusted website; it’s a lot of people’s home page and you just automatically put trust in it.”

Demos’ report into digital literacy brings together existing research alongside a new survey of 500 teachers across England and Wales.

The report says that students did not verify sources, had poor understanding of how search engines work, and were not good at differentiating between propaganda and accurate information.

“These are the skills now that are so central to education and to broader life for young people, but it’s just not getting taught enough.”

What is needed, according to Demos, is ‘digital judgement’. The think tank says it should be a core part of the curriculum, alongside functional skills that are already taught.

At Shorefields Technology College in Liverpool, teachers say that they are already trying to improve their pupils’ internet skills, placing emphasis on research and interpretation of information.

“We’re no longer a knowledge-based industry, we’re about developing the independent learning skills of students.”

Associate head teacher Larry Wilson says that he is very aware of the power of the internet, but argues that it should be embraced.

“The impact of the internet is colossal but we sometimes dwell too much on the negatives and not the fact that it’s been so liberating.”

“I don’t welcome that people will be taken down the garden path so we [teachers] have to skill ourselves up to ask the right questions as well.”


There is certainly plenty of confusion about who or what to trust at the school in Tower Hamlets. The pupils have recently been watching videos and reading about links between government figures and the News of the World, leaving them ever unsure about who is telling the truth.

“Why should we trust the government when everything that is being broadcast on TV could be misleading us as well… what are we supposed to believe?” said Reema Begum, 16.

A tough question, and not one that anyone in the classroom could answer completely.

“A lot of the information on the internet is radical historical revisionism,” said Jamie Bartlett.

“Without a common base of history that we all understand and accept and agree upon it’s very hard for people to have a shared understanding of where we are now.”

- Source

I wrote above that this BBC report was “interesting” – not for its content – but for the way it treated the issue. It is a classic case of double-speak as described in the novel 1984 (WAR IS PEACE, FREEDOM IS SLAVERY, IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH), where the definition of critical thinking is reversed. Critical thinking implies questioning the official version of a story, seeking alternate sources of information and processing everything to come to an independent conclusion. This is exactly what some of these young people have accomplished, yet the report concluded that they have not used critical thinking because they have believed sources that are not deemed trustworthy (not mass media). Instead of praising their resourcefulness, they are almost perceived as a threat.

There is no question that critical thinking and fact checking is absolutely necessary when researching information. There is indeed a lot of garbage and propaganda on the internet. But what about the #1 source of propaganda in the world: mass media? Why isn’t critical thinking towards the biggest information machine in the world being taught?

Let’s take this very report and apply some critical thinking to it. Who are the authors and what message are they trying to convey?

Logo of Demos: Keeping an "eye" on the people.

Demos is a think tank that is said to be “independent” but is however strongly connected with corporate media and the government. In fact, the Chair of Demos, Philip Collins was the Chief Speech Writer to the Prime Minister Tony Blair until 2007. As for the BBC, it is the biggest news network and is owned by…the Crown. So, chances are, the editorial view of these entities are “pro elite”.

How is this report treating “conspiracy theories” (I hate that term and I put it in quotes because that is the term used by the media)? Are they alternative explanations that deserve some attention or ridiculous stories invented by ignorant people?

At first, the little “theorists” are shown to be mostly Muslims, subtly implying that these theories are usually accepted by those who naturally sympathetic to terrorists. The report then goes on to state that conspiracies are not only believed by Muslims but also poor people (and therefore not educated people).

“However, Demos say that this problem is not limited to one community, but is prevalent among deprived communities in general.”

Deprived communities?

The report closes with an odd statement from a Demos researcher:

“Without a common base of history that we all understand and accept and agree upon it’s very hard for people to have a shared understanding of where we are now.”

In other words, if the youth does not fully buy and agree with the official version of History – the one that was written by the elite – we won’t have the society we’re looking for. Are we really promoting critical thinking or official propaganda?

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