If you’ve ever played a video game, like Pokemon Black/White, you know that the most challenging parts are the “boss fight” parts. Boss fights seem unbeatable.
They seem like a conspiracy created to stop you from achieving your goals. Conspiracies are tough to beat because they are built on belief rather than truth so defeating them is not just a matter of showing someone the truth. This past school year I saw conspiracy theories everywhere:
- Some of my students started a rumor that I, like B.o.B was a Flat Earth truther.
- I found out that David Theriault is Illuminati confirmed.
- Both of our presidential candidates are cloaked in, or clouded by, conspiracy theories.
- The teachers in my district went without a contract all year and our union and district ended up going to mediation to avoid a strike. If you want to hear conspiracy theories, just sit in a teacher’s lounge during a period of labor/management strife.
- Our school lost a football coach to a rival school, hired a new one, and then lost him after a month: rumors were more prevalent than facts.
- I talked to LA artist David Leonard about a conspiracy theory project he assigned when he was a professor at The Art Center In Pasadena.
I’ll address that last item first. My brother held an art show at the LA Gallery- Grice Bench. At the show I introduced myself to David Leonard, an artist and journalist. David Leonard has led a fascinating artistic/journalistic career which began when he joined his father in documenting the LA riots when David was just a teenager. As we talked about art, I shared with him the YouTube channel The Art Assignment and how I’ve been using art assignments in my English classroom. I asked him what his favorite art assignment was in college. He told me about how he had assigned his art class the task of creating a conspiracy theory and then they had to pass out flyers detailing their conspiracy theory. I immediately jotted the idea down in Google Keep. The idea haunted me, waiting for the right moment to come to life.
Then one day I figured out how to blend “Create A Conspiracy Theory” into my classroom. The assignment would become a “Boss Fight.” In Pokemon White/Black you have to collect eight badges. Over the course of the year my students had created:
- Blogging: Websites
- Social Media Account Creation
- Social Media Activities
- Writing and storytelling
- Image creation and manipulation
- Data research and data presentation
- Fake Flyers (and some other stuff, research papers, presentations etc…)
So how could I create ONE master assignment [A Boss Fight] that would test all eight skills? What if my students, formed groups and created a brand new conspiracy theory? They would create a website, social media accounts, videos, blog posts, fake flyers, interviews, data etc… all in support of selling their conspiracy theory. I couldn’t fit it into my Honors 10 curriculum on the fly so I decided to try it with my three CP3 classes.
The first thing I did was create an online discussion in our Canvas LMS where I asked the students to do the following:
Your job is to find an unusual conspiracy theory. It MUST be school appropriate (Kyle). Otherwise you will get a zero on this assignment.
- Title the conspiracy
- Share with us a brief paragraph explaining the conspiracy, you can cut and paste from a website.
- Why do you like this conspiracy?
- What kind of people would enjoy this conspiracy?
- How does this conspiracy make you see the world differently?
- How do rumors or conspiracies like this get started, what makes them more likely to spread to other people or to continue year after year.
I did this as both an intro to our activity AND to get a sense of what conspiracy theories they knew about already so I would see any duplicates in the assignment.
Then I assigned this:
Create A Conspiracy Theory
Your group (or just you) will create a webpage about your ORIGINAL conspiracy theory. You will create your own unique conspiracy theory that no one else has ever created. If I find out that you have just copied a conspiracy theory that you found online (maybe on Reddit or 4 chan) you will get an F and an honor code violation. Have fun with this, I don’t care if it’s weird or goofy as heck, just create your own strange idea. Please make sure your conspiracy theory is not mean, harmful, hurtful, or disparaging of people’s situations.
You can use any website building site that you want but it needs to be public:
- Square Space
- Hand coded
On your site you need to:
- Explain the background of the conspiracy theory
- Have written or spoken testimonials about the conspiracy. Or videos, interviews etc…
- Create fake photos, diagrams, data, graphs, maps etc… about your conspiracy and post or link to them
- The more you put, the higher the grade
- If you are in a group, each person must create their own page or content that has a unique URL so they can submit that for a grade. When you submit the link I want you to post a short reflection on what YOU did for the project in the “comment” section of the assignment submission.
Additionally you need to create a public share of your conspiracy, this can be done by/through
- Creating fake flyers and posting them around town (take a picture to prove it)
- Handout fake flyers at a public place like the HB Pier
- Interview people about your conspiracy and post the videos on Twitter, Instagram, or on your site. You could interview people in public places, online, or at school. You could even interview a teacher or admin.
- Create a fake Twitter or Instagram account to publicize your conspiracy, create a hashtag and see if you can get your friends to post to the hashtag. Take screenshots or embed the Tweets on your website
- Capture yourself on video speaking to the public about your conspiracy theory
- Create a YT or Vimeo video about your conspiracy
We will be presenting these in class.
I didn’t have any examples so I couldn’t show any exemplars or create a spec sheet so we just went for it. I gave them about 3+ weeks to do it. How did it go? Well here are a few of my favorite parts:
BarakObamasorusrex: The theory that Barak Obama is raising dinosaurs to replenish fossil fuels and this is driving oil prices down.
Someone is keeping a secret
Why does his signature look like a baby dinosaur?
Human Energy Extraction Theory: Do you ever wonder why you are always tired in the morning even though you have slept? Did you know that ONE man (the CEO of 5 hour energy) and his team are stealing your energy?
This group used the power of Reddit in some really creative ways to generate a massive response to their “it must be true” theory.
This theory is getting so much attention it started trending on Twitter- just like your trending twitter chat.
It got so much attention that Hilary Clinton had to make a statement about it. As we all know if Hillary is denying something… there must be something going on.
The Cult of Apollyonti. In order to destroy the world they want to summon a demon known as Apollyon.
There were others:
- Is Iggy Azalea an android created in Area 51?
- What is The Mystery Train?
- Is David Theriault part of the Illuminati?
- Aliquam’s Cataracts
- The Trump Carrot Conspiracy
Reflection: What didn’t work, or do I want to improve?
- Students didn’t understand the difference between a conspiracy theory and a secret- that was MY fault.
- Some of the websites were more of an attack then having fun. I need to explain this better.
- I should have brought in some supplemental/outside readings
- I want to figure out which other novels you could do this with. This should work well with The Crucible.
- Even though I had students link directly to what part of the website they were responsible for, I should have had ALL of them write a short reflection on their own work in the project. Some did, some didn’t.
- I want to use this unit to help my students understand and create logical arguments. I would LOVE for our AP Stats class to create a primer on using data in arguments.
- A few students created websites built on ideas that already exist. These were supposed to be original ideas.
I also want students to identify and dig deeper into, perhaps, the types of conspiracies:
Jesse Walker (2013) has developed a historical typology of five basic kinds of conspiracy theories:
- The “Enemy Outside” is based on devilish figures mobilizing outside the community and scheming against it.
- The “Enemy Within” finds the conspirators lurking inside the nation, indistinguishable from ordinary citizens.
- The “Enemy Above” involves powerful people manipulating the system for their own gain.
- The “Enemy Below” features the lower classes ready to break through their constraints and overturn the social order.
- The “Benevolent Conspiracies” are angelic forces that work behind the scenes to improve the world and help people.
If you want to learn more about these you should read Jesse Walker’s examination of conspiracy theories in modern times on Slate Magazine.
I also listened to this podcast and I might have my students listen to parts, or all of this in class or at home.
What did work?
- Students demonstrated all of their skills
- For the most part we really enjoyed the conspiracy theory presentations.
So I really loved it, but it really got me thinking about our modern day infatuation with conspiracy theories, we’ve even given the people who love these theories a special name: truthers. While most people roll their eyes at “truthers” or dismiss them as quacks they have real powers. Powers that we are NOT currently addressing in school. In 2016 you can be working on a local city council or as a city planner and your new transportation plan that will reduce traffic can be put on hold permanently because of truthers Agenda 21 concerns. This is no joke. People’s all too real suffering can become a target for a conspiracy theory targeted at the federal government, or something much larger. I’ve had conversations with people who are convinced that dinosaurs are an elaborate hoax and that there is a group of people attempting to create a new world order.
While conspiracy theories are far from new they are more popular and powerful than ever. Why? Well, two factors are at play: quick societal, cultural or procedural shifts, and the internet.
The bigger the impact of the event/decision/movement the more likely it is that conspiracy theories will exist. They will come to life to help us understand something which seems difficult for us to understand, something like “how can a single person have taken out JFK?” This is why so many people jumped on board the Common Core conspiracy train. It was a big shift for school and not just in one state.
Conspiracy thinking lies most deeply in cynicism. Conspiracy thinkers disbelieve contrary to evidence. Why?
The common thread between distrust and cynicism, as defined in these experiments, is a perception of bad character. More broadly, it’s a tendency to focus on intention and agency, rather than randomness or causal complexity. -Slate Magazine, article link below.
That’s right. If you are an optimist, if you believe that people are generally good, then you have a harder time believing in conspiracy theories. How much time do we spent in school showing students the good in the world, the good in other people? How much of our history books and literature books are filled with people making bad choices? How can you build up a mental and emotional shield against cynicism when you are overwhelmed with “a world gone wrong.”
What else counters conspiracy thinking?
- Transparency: This is why transparency is one of the strongest moves you can make to help people believe in your process. Districts, schools, teachers, leaders do well when they open up their process to others.
- Skepticism: Skeptics separate what is likely to be true and untrue by using a process and then reflecting on their own process, using metacognition.
- Evidence: a reminder, anomalies are NOT evidence, nor is a statement by a person holding a title evidence. Evidence is something that can hold up to scrutiny by all sides. Evidence is NOT a series of unlikely coincidences.
I feel like I’m just discovering the tip of the iceberg on this subject and I may expand this idea into a complete unit at some point. If you have any other ideas or resources, please leave them in the comments below. I’m going to go and beat LA traffic right now by experimenting with Moovel’s latest beta project their Autonomous Human Drone Taxi.
PS. I can’t share this online, but if you run into me in person remind me to tell you about how Pokemon Black/White was created to help our kids accept Common Core and their place in the New World Order. It’s complicated, but fascinating…
Unova: one world- takes place in New York, the home of the U.N.