Conspiracy theories have always been a little dangerous — and of course, a little delicious to be privy to. They range from the adorably dumb but ultimately absurd, like Bat Boy and flat-earthers, to the legitimately terrifying and tangibly damaging, like vaccine denial and Pizzagate. But while a lot of political conspiracy theories (like the idea of rampant voter fraud, which has most recently been pushed by the president and debunked repeatedly) feel like the department of baby boomers and older Gen X parents on Facebook, there’s a contingency of believers who are young, extremely online, and bringing their theories to school for their teachers to try to parse.
In mid-October, BuzzFeed News asked teachers around the country what kind of conspiracy theories or collective delusions — which is what BuzzFeed News is calling QAnon thanks to its sheer size and influence — they’re hearing from students. I received responses from all over the country, and while it’s not a scientific survey, what’s clear is that students are bringing learned conspiracy theories to class — from the well-trodden (the Clintons are murderers) to the lesser known (birds are actually just government cameras and COVID is a fraud perpetrated by the government because they had to change the batteries...in the birds).
“I have a student who truly believes Wyoming doesn’t actually exist and is only used by the Republicans to gain votes,” wrote one public high school English teacher from Texas. “They said the Democrats are trying to invade it to create their own fake votes for the state. His reasoning? ‘Have you ever actually met anyone from Wyoming?’”
This is markedly close to the Bielefeld conspiracy, a German satire of conspiracy theories that claims that the city of Bielefeld doesn’t actually exist. Or the one about how Australia doesn’t actually exist. Or that Molise in southern Italy doesn’t actually exist. (There are a lot of conspiracy theories about places not existing.) It’s not really clear if the students parroting any of these conspiracy theories actually believe them or if they’re just being ironic in their attempts to ruin their teachers’ lives, but this moment in history won’t be remembered for leaving a lot of room for satiric contrarianism. For the teachers, at least, it’s a very real and increasingly common problem in class, one that doesn’t have a clear solution so long as they fear being labeled the “liberal propagandist” of their school district.
With the teachers I talked to, there are two conspiracy theories, or mass delusions, in particular that came up again and again: Jeffrey Epstein and QAnon.
It’s evident that Gen Z is picking up at least some of these stories from their own social networks, on TikTok and Snapchat, but they’re also hearing about it in their homes. Liz (a pseudonym to protect her privacy, like most sources in this story), a public and private school eighth-grade science, history, and English teacher who lives in Florida, said she’s struggling to talk to one student in particular, who comes from a family of fervent Trump supporters, about QAnon. “Our [school] administration has told us they don’t want us talking about any of this, anything political. Of course they’re going to end up talking about it because it’s what’s important and relevant in the world,” Liz said. “So you ask them, how do you prove any of this? ‘Oh well, you know, everyone is evil and America is amazing because Trump is the leader of America. My dad told me and Fox News told me.’ ‘What about the homeless rate? The joblessness rate?’ ‘That’s fake news. Trump is fighting Wayfair.’”
There are two conspiracy theories, or mass delusions, in particular that came up again and again: Jeffrey Epstein and QAnon.
What Liz is referencing is the completely baseless (and discredited) conspiracy theory that the online furniture retailer Wayfair is somehow involved in human trafficking — yet another QAnon belief that ran rampant on TikTok a few months ago. (TikTok recently started banning QAnon posts, hashtags, and accounts on the app.)
Once students learn these conspiracies and start to buy into them, they bring them to school, tell their classmates about them like they are true fact, use them to belittle other students, and force their teachers to try to make sense of their logic at school. For the teachers I spoke to, explaining actual facts to misguided students can seem nearly impossible. In response, their students simply say that the news media is biased, and that Donald Trump is sending subtle signals to QAnon believers about how he’s on the brink of saving the world from pedophile rings.
My colleague recently spoke to family members and friends of QAnon believers who were candid about the difficulties in trying to convince their loved ones that what they believe is not real. Many of the teachers I spoke to for this piece echoed the same frustrations and asked to talk off the record or to not have their full names be published out of fear of reprisal from their administrators — or worse, the parents of their students. Many of them are English, history, or social studies teachers. One is a grad student teaching first-year university courses, with no tenure protections. Still, it’s clear that over the last several years, conspiracy theories (namely ones that position Republicans as saviors) are on the rise in schools. And no matter what happens after all the votes are counted and the winner of the presidential election is definitively named in the next few weeks, all those theories and all those believers aren’t just going to disappear.
Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide — or, if you ask these students, his murder — is among the latest fixation for Gen Z on TikTok and for the students of the teachers I talked to. The logic around this seems to vary; liberal students think Trump had him killed, while conservative students think the Clintons did it. The official answer around his death seems to be something along the lines of, fishy but there’s zero evidence that either Trump or the Clintons or people associated with them walked into his jail cell to strangle him. Referencing Epstein, both online and in school, seems to be both a tongue-in-cheek way to make teachers run out of patience, while also signaling your own political views to the rest of the class. “Someone would raise their hand and be like, ‘What happened with Jeffrey Epstein?’” said Denise, a public high school English teacher in Illinois. “They were very much just trying to get me to say that Trump did it so they could find any reason to fly off the handle a little bit.” Most of the teachers I spoke to said conspiracy theories in their classes have been on the steady uptick for a decade, but the last four years have been particularly rough. “I’ve taught for 14 years,” Denise said, “and I’ve never had a group of humans do this.”
Sean Rafferty, a college instructor in Albany, New York for the last eight years, who teaches a first-year class on critical thinking, also has students who don’t believe Epstein killed himself. “There were several people I could not convince that Jeffrey Epstein almost certainly did commit suicide in jail and wasn’t murdered by some cabal of President Trump or Secretary Clinton,” he said. “I thought conspiracy theories were highly problematic when I started this class. And now you have people doing murders because they believe there’s some kind of conspiracy of pedophile Satanist liberals feeding on kidnapped babies’ adrenal glands.”
“I’ve taught for 14 years, and I’ve never had a group of humans do this.”
“When we talk about the more traditional version of QAnon that grew out of Pizzagate, it does tend to skew older,” said Joan Donovan, the director and lead researcher of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Harvard Kennedy School, whose research focuses on media manipulation and disinformation campaigns. “But when you start to look at the confluence of folks showing up at the reopen protests related to conspiracy theories about the deep state trying to upend Trump’s presidency by colluding with China to bring a pandemic to the US, you end up seeing young men. It really takes all kinds. It’s not just young and old, but it’s also multiracial,” she said.“It’s really important to call that kind of behavior out early on and say, ‘I don’t understand what you’re talking about.’”
Jane, a public college professor in Texas who teaches research and writing to first-year students, made a lesson plan on how to discern fake news from reliable news. “In Texas, it’s this weird battle where you’re always going to get one or two students who think Breitbart is real news and I’m just a hater, I’m just a liberal hater,” she said. “I can’t sit there and be like, you’re full of shit, fuck Fox News. What I can do is start to chip away at Fox News.” During class, Jane made her students watch Tucker Carlson segments and ask if he is, indeed, a news reporter. She mentioned to her students that a defamation suit against Fox and Carlson was dismissed because his work is “rhetorical hyperbole and opinion commentary,” and therefore not applicable as defamation. “That,” Jane said, “was actually very effective.” Even still, Jane has to walk a fine line in her instructionals; her classes are recorded, her supervisor can watch all of them, and she’s a graduate student with no tenure protection.
The QAnon network of conspiracy theories is especially enticing largely because it’s not a static belief about something that happened in the past, like JFK’s assassination. (Though it’s worth noting that QAnon supporters are also obsessed with JFK Jr.) “The thing about the Q network is that it’s extensible, adaptable, and resilient,” Donovan said. “It mutates with breaking news so there’s always something new to discover. Anything that happens in the world can be made to fit this conspiracy. It’s also playing on a bunch of trauma that people have had in their lives. It draws in people who have been abused, that feel as if no one protected them so their job is to protect vulnerable people.”
The real difference for how young people now are getting sucked in, then, is largely just the delivery mechanism. “Celebrities, sports figures, influencers online, all of these kinds of people stand to gain attention by mentioning these conspiracy theories, by participating in the creation of the story,” Donovan said. “Social media has decontextualized the way people assess evidence and truth.” At the beginning of the pandemic, for example, a few high-profile celebrities (not to mention internet-teen-famous influencers) started circulating a conspiracy theory connecting coronavirus to 5G networks. Woody Harrelson and M.I.A. were among the believers.
“Earlier generations had to resign themselves to knowing some people will always believe the moon landing was fake.”
TikTok and YouTube are some of the key social media networks responsible for the spread of conspiracy theories online, namely among young people. The Wayfair trafficking conspiracy ripped through TikTok despite there being no evidence that any of it was remotely true. There are also people on the app spreading misinformation about everything from coronavirus precautions to vaccines. TikTok has noticed, too: This month, they restricted the kind of content available on the app, including what the New York Times called “a crackdown on QAnon supporters and a prohibition of ‘coded’ language that could serve to normalize hate speech.” YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook also recently announced their own bans on QAnon.
The cure for a conspiracy theory spreading wide is for social networks to do more to curb it, especially for young people who are even more attached to their phones as the pandemic roils on in the US. And though Facebook has recently committed to banning QAnon, the ban comes about four years too late. “Earlier generations had to resign themselves to knowing some people will always believe the moon landing was fake,” Donovan said. “My big worry is the scale of [Qanon]. It’s really important that we understand that these technologies have limits and unless they deal with the scale problem and start to make it more difficult for these theories to proliferate, they’re only going to mutate.”
According to cult expert and The Cult of Trump author Steve Hassan, the best way to help someone stuck in a mass delusion is to speak to them calmly, rationally, and without judgment. “The frame that I’m recommending my clients or anyone take is a respectful, curious, concerned, tell me more kinds of posture,” Hassan said, “versus, ‘you dumbfuck, how could you believe this conspiracy?’”
Liz, the middle school teacher from Florida, has been told by her school’s administrator to no longer talk to students about current events or any of their conspiracy theories. But if that’s the guidance teachers are getting, then how can they do their jobs effectively? For a 14-year-old, it’s natural to want to bring your questions about the world to the classroom. “I usually try to be like, all right: This is what you believe. Why do you believe it? Besides, just, your dad told you, tell me why you believe this to be true.” Liz said. “How can we vet our facts and make sure they are facts? How do these beliefs affect yourself but also the people around you?” Shutting students down entirely when they bring up the things they read online will only push them further into the darkest parts of the internet, resigned to believing their teachers either don’t have the answer, or don’t want them to know “the truth” for more nefarious reasons.
All the teachers I spoke to said they wanted to talk to their students directly about topics like QAnon and Pizzagate, in an attempt to redirect them toward actual facts and not Reddit threads and inaccurate TikTok videos. But they often feel they’re unable to without repercussions. “I want them to be able to think critically and back up their own information. But if they go home and tell their parents, they might get in trouble or yelled at. That’s concerning,” Liz said. “I want to make sure everyone is going to be safe and understood and heard. But I can’t control what happens outside of [the classroom].”
And with so many classes now being held over Zoom, it’s even harder to engage students. “We’ve been pretty impacted by the pandemic in a lot of job loss,” said Grant, a public high school teacher in a red district in California. “There’s a lot of parents lurking in the backgrounds of these Zooms. I have to choose what I say in response carefully.” In a classroom, these teachers might have slightly more autonomy to correct or advise their students when the information they’re delivering is demonstrably false, but over Zoom, it’s much harder to avoid an adversarial parent. “They're sitting at home still listening to what mom and dad say, or they’re zoned out watching chiropractor videos on YouTube,” Denise, the high school teacher from Illinois, said. “I don’t know how to fix it. But I do worry, especially with the election days away.”
“When I first graduated and got my first teaching job, I wasn’t thinking, like, How am I going to get kids to believe that QAnon isn’t the most credible source of information?”
More frustrating for educators is that students aren’t just harming themselves by sharing racist birther conspiracy theories spread by Donald Trump about former president Barack Obama. They’re also making life infinitely harder for other students, namely Black and brown ones, trans or nonbinary students, and queer students, too. For Liz, that means having to fend off anti-gay beliefs like “God sent AIDS to punish the gays” or cutting conversations around Black Lives Matter short before they get too personal. “Another student was talking about BLM and oh, it’s a horrible organization and they’re all rioting and killing people and Black lives don’t matter, all lives matter,” she said, adding that a particular Black student in that class didn’t know how to counter her classmate’s argument. “She couldn’t talk or explain to them in any way that they would be able to listen to understand why this hurt her or why this mattered to her.” Anyone who might get caught in the crosshairs of a conspiracy theory ends up the unwitting target of it. “That’s one of the hardest parts about managing these topics,” Liz said. “How can you tell me what you think without accidentally making you hurt your friends?”
Not entirely surprisingly, many teachers reported that it was their conservative white male students who were the loudest purveyors of conspiracy theories, with conservative girls and women a close second. “They’re articulating the same exact thing. They’re not louder, they’re just better at it,” Grant said. “And those straight white males and straight white females are the ones drowning out my students of color who already feel intimidated and don’t feel comfortable sharing.”
The kids verbalizing the theories they’re curious about, or believe in, are just the beginning of a larger issue. “The problem of conspiracies is bigger than most people think,” said Grant. “The kids willing to speak out about it are the smallest part of it. There are kids who aren’t willing to share but hear kids sharing them, and they latch on. Inevitably, what ends up happening is we don’t have all the tools we need to repair or replace these ideas with factual evidence.”
“When I first graduated and got my first teaching job,” Liz said, “I wasn’t thinking, like, How am I going to get kids to believe that QAnon isn’t the most credible source of information?”
Hassan said that QAnon, unlike some other conspiracy theories, is more like a cult than just a belief system. “It’s not a conspiracy theory, it’s a much more demanding allegiance,” he said. “They take existing groups and infiltrate them and then use those groups as proxies to disseminate stuff. It’s a network of cults. They actually have an organization of these apostles and prophets.”
There are just a few days before the election, and just a few weeks left in this semester of school. For a lot of these students, this is their first eligible election, and they’re voting, in part, armed with misinformation and sometimes outright lies. “I have this one man who’s holding on to QAnon and is so willing to hurt other students in the class. He’s intelligent and writes well and recently completed an assignment where I made him talk about the way women are treated in trials compared to the Salem witch trials. He wrote a good essay!” Jane said. “Then in class, he’ll bring up an absurd news story about the Clintons and the children. He knows there’s social problems but it’s become more important to be a white man in his QAnon world.”
Ultimately, there’s only so much a teacher can do. “He’s going to get a job and get married,” Jane said. “And QAnon will live on another generation.” ●