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Why Do Conspiracy Theories Develop?

If you search 9/11 your biggest hit regarding the matter will be conspiracy theories. In fact, take any political or social issue and you are bound to find ‘alternative facts’. We’ve all stumbled across a ludicrous theory at some time or another, however with time they can become more elaborate, more intricate and more convincing. We’re going to explore some of the reasons why conspiracy theories develop and most importantly, why we need to counter them, particularly in the classroom.

1. Fear and uncertainty

It is during times of fear and uncertainty, that conspiracy theories tend to crop up the most. And what has been the most fearful, unclear and perplexing incident in recent history? For many it remains 9/11 – the day the world turned upside down. Even now conspiracy theories about the terrorist attacks in New York remain popular, for example:

  • ‘The twin towers were destroyed by controlled demolition’
  • ‘There was no trace of the plane that hit the pentagon’
  • ‘Orders were given not to intercept the planes’

With the consequences of that day still with us 16 years on, and with the rise of terrorist attacks in Europe in recent years, it comes as no shock that many are still trying to understand what is happening around them. Research suggests humans try to make sense of anxiety inducing situations, where there is a loss of control by finding patterns and connecting dots. Of course, as we know this can often lead to misinterpretation and false information becoming theorised.

Pupils that will now be in secondary school and below, have been born into a post-9/11 world, and were not even alive to witness the tragic events on September 11th 2001. This, along with the widespread use of the internet and popularity of social media, has allowed conspiracy theories to proliferate. It is therefore paramount to educate children and young people about the events, causes and consequences of 9/11 with the true facts, in order for them to understand what is happening in the world today and to safeguard them against extremism.
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2. Peer pressure and confirmation bias

As we know most young people are exposed to ideas via their social group, and as studies suggest the more people around you believe in something, the more likely you are to accept it too.
Children are curious by nature and as mentioned in point 1 can therefore be more susceptible to look for, and believe in conspiracy theories (that begin to surface almost immediately after any major incident, especially a terrorist attack). All it takes is a couple of children to mention an alternative postulation, for their peers to then seek out information (which can be done with particular ease in the digital age, with on-hand access to the internet) to confirm these beliefs and select the sources that already agree with them or what they have heard – this is confirmation bias.
And so, the cycle begins and without the proper education to nip these beliefs in the bud, the consequences can become detrimental. Therefore, what might be spreading in the playground needs to be taught objectively in the classroom. Terrorism can be a tricky subject to tackle but without opening dialogue on the matter with students, we risk paving the way for conspiracy theories to prevail.
For more information on how to tackle conspiracy theories click here.

3. Sensationalism

Often media sources have one common goal – to sell. Sensationalism is a way of presenting stories to provoke public interest or excitement at the expense of accuracy. Whilst there are plenty of credible news sources, those drawn into sensationalist reporting that appeals to their emotions, particularly in times of confusion as we’ve aforementioned, can easily search controversial, misinterpreted stories manipulated for views and readership, and fall victim to the inaccurate information. Sensationalism is often a tactic used in terrorist propaganda itself and can pose a risk if exposed to vulnerable individuals.

Some students may face a hard time, following a terrorist incident due to their faith or beliefs for example. Other students may feel misplaced anger or animosity towards a certain group of people. It is therefore indispensable to promote respect and tolerance for all faiths and religions and to teach shared values and rights, so children do no turn to finding answers to their emotions in false stories and reports that comfort their grievances.

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