Set the Stage
Start the activity by asking students if they are familiar with the term counterknowledge. Give them a few minutes to think about what counterknowledge might mean and then write a few notes about their thoughts on the Counterknowledge handout. Next ask class members to turn to someone sitting next to them and discuss their ideas.
Following this brief discussion time, explain to the class that the term counterknowledge was coined in 2008 by Damian Thompson and is defined as being misinformation packaged to look like fact. Encourage students to share the ideas they came up with and then use the space provided on their handout to write the definition in their own words.
Explain that counterknowledge engages people for several reasons:
1. Counterknowledge preys on people’s fears by suggesting that their safety is or will be compromised by the situation being described.
2. It is often the case that many of the facts presented in the counterknowledge narrative are true, but then one or more statements are included that are false. By beginning with carefully selected accurate declarations, it’s easier to get people to buy into statements that sound like they could then be true, but actually are not.
3. Journalists sometimes lead consumers astray through inaccurate, sensational reporting. Serious investigative reporters will take the time to research a story before making it public. But there are times when reporters go with a story before they actually have all the critical facts. In this case, stories are based on eye-witness reports and other anecdotes that may (or may not) be factual. For example, in the aftermath of the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing, a New York newspaper published the names and photographs of two young men, claiming they were the bombers. In fact, the Boston police did want to talk with the men because they appeared on surveillance video, but they were not suspects and were completely innocent. The men successfully sued the newspaper.
Point out that counterknowledge may be presented in various ways, but one familiar format is the conspiracy theory. A conspiracy theory is defined by dictionary.com as, “a theory that rejects the standard explanation for an event and instead credits a covert group or organization with carrying out a secret plot.” There are many well-known conspiracy theories such as the moon landing was a hoax or the attack of 9/11 was the work of the U.S. government. Lead a whole class discussion in which you ask students to brainstorm a list of conspiracy theories familiar to them.
Say to students that during this activity they will work in pairs or trios to research a well-known conspiracy theory to determine why that theory is an example of counterknowledge. Tell students they will use a variety of materials to learn about the conspiracy theory assigned to their teams. During their research they will:
1. Consider the on and offline sources they are using: Materials are provided for each conspiracy theory. Do these link materials appear to be reliable source? What can students do to determine reliability?
2. Check the facts: Search online or review print reference materials to see if the event(s) described in the conspiracy theory happened as described. Try to find three reliable sources that confirm or deny the facts as presented.
3. Explain the conspiracy theory’s structure including how it:
· Targets people’s fears or sense of insecurity
· Weaves truth with fiction
· Makes an interesting story
Explain that you will briefly model one way students might complete this activity using the assassination of President John F. Kennedy (JFK) as an example.
Walk the class through the Group Conspiracy Theory—JFK’s Assassination on the Counterknowledge handout. Ask them to read the description of the conspiracy theory and then model the three research steps presented in the Instruction portion of the lesson using on and offline resources: consider the sources they are using; check the facts; and, explain the structure of the conspiracy theory. Model the type of responses you expect to see on student handouts when they complete the rest of the activity independently.
When President John F. Kennedy (JFK) was shot and killed in Dallas, TX on November 22, 1963, most Americans believed that Lee Harvey Oswald was solely responsible for the assassination. However, since that time, multiple groups and hundreds of individuals have been accused of being involved in the assassination in some way. Theories include: the shooter on the grassy knoll, the umbrella man, the Russians, the FBI and CIA…the list goes on and on. The truth is there is no solid evidence that anyone aside from Lee Harvey Oswald was involved, but see for yourself. As you review the resources provided consider the following: the reliability of the sources; the dependability of the facts presented; and, how the conspiracy theory is structured.
As you walk students through this exercise, remind them of the definitions of counterknowledge and conspiracy theory. Remind them that the point of this activity is to determine how accepted conspiracy theories are structured to appeal to people, not to debate if the theory is true.
Model strategies for reviewing the resources you are providing (both print and online). Point out that even before they read something, students can use strategies like looking at the URL (online) or source of print material (offline) for clues about reliability of the resource and investigating the author(s). Once they read the material they can review additional resources to see if the information presented is confirmed elsewhere. Remind students that there are three questions they will answer during their group work and ask them to practice now by taking notes on their handout as you discuss the sample conspiracy theory. Project each online resource and summarize the information provided there. If you have a document camera, do the same with the print material. Or, simply summarize the main points made in the print material. Give students time to take notes, then discuss how they could answer each question on the handout. Answer questions.
Assign one of the following conspiracy theories to each pair or trio of students. There are just four, so several student groups will be researching each conspiracy theory.
The Holocaust is the largest and one of the best documented genocides in history. In addition to the 6 million Jews who died at the hands of the Nazis, it is estimated that at additional 11 million people were killed because they were considered ‘racially’ impure or undesirable in some other way. These people included Roma, political and religious dissenters, gay men, people with disabilities, and other groups. It’s difficult to believe, but there are people all over the world who deny that the Holocaust happened. The truth is there is ample solid evidence to show that this genocide did take place, but see for yourself. As you review the resources provided consider the following: the reliability of the sources; the dependability of the facts presented; and, how the conspiracy theory is structured.
Belief in Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) is widespread. Going back to the 1940s when conspiracy theorists allege that a flying saucer crashed in Roswell, NM to Area 51, a highly classified Air Force facility in Nevada, where some people believe that the U.S. government uses the facility to study crashed alien spacecraft, meet with extraterrestrials, and experiment with time travel among other assertions. The truth is the government does conduct highly classified work here, however there is no solid evidence that UFOs play any role in that research. But see for yourself. As you review the resources provided consider the following: the reliability of the sources; the dependability of the facts presented; and, how the conspiracy theory is structured.
Many cultures around the world have legends about giant, hairy creatures that resemble human beings. Some are quite terrifying, while others are said to be somewhat friendly—it depends on which legend is being told. Most Bigfoot sightings happen in the Pacific Northwest, but people in other regions of North America have also claimed to have encountered Bigfoot. Even Bigfoot believers admit that many sightings are hoaxes, but the stories live on despite the fact that there is no solid evidence that Bigfoot exists. But see for yourself. As you review the resources provided consider the following: the reliability of the sources; the dependability of the facts presented; and, how the conspiracy theory is structured.
For hundreds of years, educated people have accepted that the Earth is round. Then, in the mid to late 1800s, papers appeared which argued that the Earth was really flat. Interest in this claim carried into the early 1900s then faded. The establishment of The Flat Earth Society in the 1950s brought the idea of a flat earth back to the public eye briefly, but current interest stems from social media platforms like YouTube and minor celebrities who have posted online that they believe the Earth is flat. Flat-Earthers say Earth is shaped like a disc, with ice walls at the edge to keep people from falling off. They claim that NASA is just one organization conspiring to misinform people. But see for yourself. As you review the resources provided consider the following: the reliability of the sources; the dependability of the facts presented; and, how the conspiracy theory is structured.
Depending onyour students’skill levels, you may decide to end the activity with the review of the JFK Assassination conspiracy theory and then use some or all of the independent conspiracy theories in a center or as ongoing whole group activities.
There are hundreds of examples of conspiracy theories. Based upon your students’ interested and prior knowledge, you may decide to use different example for the independent activity.