This blog comes from Nick Doran. Nick Doran is currently working as Project Officer with 'Saolta. His background is in Media and Critical Linguistics which he has taught at youth groups and universities. He’s passionate about equality and sustainability, has published numerous pieces on unequal power distribution in society, and is predisposed to spontaneous debate! Nick kayaks, is an adventure fanatic, a board games aficionado, and kimchi lover!
In November 2020 as part of Saolta with Development Perspectives and Aontas, I was lucky to be given the opportunity to facilitate a workshop Entitled: Development Education: tackling misinformation and conspiracies during a pandemic. The workshop addressed the current state of the seeming growth in misinformation and conspiracies currently facing many societies, how the issue has been exacerbated during Covid 19, the effects that the apparent growth in misinformation and conspiracies has had, and what role development education can play, in particular in the adult and community education space, in tackling the issue.
Then in February of this year, in collaboration with the Global Citizen Award, Saolta hosted a panel discussion on fake news misinformation and the role of the journalist in information literacy. Paul Gillespie of The Irish Times and Orla Ryan of the Journal were panellists on the day and the discussion was engaging and illuminating.
The following article follows on from these workshops in addressing misinformation, the growth of conspiracy theories, and the importance of information literacy
Why is tackling misinformation and conspiracy theories important?
What role does development education play in tackling them through information literacy learning?
Gary Larson penned a famous cartoon strip in which a herd of cows is casually loafing about on two legs engaged in deep discussion with each other when an on-duty watch-cow raises the alarm shouting: “CAR”. Straight away the cows revert back to four legs, mooing and chewing grass, as you might expect from your standard non-circus cow.
Once the car passes they return to two legs and continue their discussion.
But these cows have been pulling the wool over our eyes for years. They’re taking us for a ride and we’re walking into it blindly, like sheep. And don’t get me started about sheep! They’re running the whole show behind the scenes. I challenge anyone to show me verifiable evidence that this isn’t the case. Do your own research! They’re just masters of disguise and no one has ever seen the reality of what they are. The only saving grace at the moment is that the cows and the sheep don’t see eye to eye, and that’s not just because of the sheep’s height disadvantage.
Of course, Gary Larson’s humanised cows haven’t actually reached conspiracy theory status yet, at least not as far as I know. I just completely made up the above narrative for rhetorical effect. But this doesn’t mean that the more far-out conspiracy theories aren’t somewhat similar in cognitive underpinnings, for example:
1. The Queen of England and Barak Obama are just two of many reptilian overlords running the world.
2. Jet streams are chemical suppressants designed to mollify the global masses, or ‘Chem-trails’. (They apparently don’t affect the reptilian race who are currently in power)
3. An elite cabal of Paedophiles are plotting global domination from a pizzeria in Washington (I’m unsure as to their reptilian credentials).
4. Covid 19 is fake (which quickly evolved to Covid 19 is a biological manmade output. I’ve heard nothing of the reptilians’ role in this)
5. 5G caused Covid 19 (a sub theory of 5G is lethal and the watchdog, ICNIRP, has been bought out by big business)
6. Covid 19 restrictions are a test case for authoritarianism and we’re being misled by governments.
7. The World Health Organisation is a corrupt, insidious part of the authoritarian plan.
8. Vaccines cause autism (created by the discredited ex-doctor Andrew Wakefield)
9. Black people are less intelligent than white people (The resurgence, via Sam Harris amongst others, of an idea made popular by Charles Murray in his 1994 book, The Bell Curve)
10. Human-caused climate change is a hoax.
I have created this list, loosely, in a debatable order of least socially damaging to most socially damaging: 1 being the least damaging and 10 being the most. Although that said, in the USA the paedophile-elite-in-the-Washington-pizzeria narrative was widely believed and is one of many nebulous parts to the vague and dogmatic realm of Q-Anon conspiracy theories of which supporters of Donald Trump accept and perpetuate. Q-Anon is a discourse that also supported, and was supported by certain areas in the narrative surrounding Donald Trump’s presidency which was itself damaging on many levels. Also, a further real, and almost very damaging, outcome to ‘pizzagate’ was the action of a lone gunman who opened fire on the pizzeria in Washington. No one was hurt.
But what is the relevance of conspiracy theories? Why is tackling them important? Surely they are just outlandish nonsense to be ignored. They should be. But yet they are growing in influence to the point that Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Q-Anon conspiracy advocate has recently been elected to Congress in the USA.
Jair Bolsonaro the leader of Brazil announced that NGOs and environmental groups are the ones setting fire to the rainforests of Brazil.
Sam Harris, a popular academic and podcaster has on two occasions recently aired and broadly supported the hypothesis that underpins Charles Murray’s (1994) ideas that IQ attainment is affected by genetic factors specifically associated with race. (See interview with Charles Murray and Debate with Ezra Klein)
Over a thousand protestors marched against wearing masks for Covid protection in Dublin city centre with thousands more believing that the government and the WHO are intentionally misleading us (to what end nobody knows).
A key point to all this in the current context of Covid19, as highlighted by research carried out by van Prooijen & Jostmann, (2013) is that “belief in conspiracy theories is stronger under conditions of uncertainty”. Covid 19 has apparently provided those conditions. And under those conditions, it is becoming more and more important for the sake of our personal, societal, and environmental health to create meanings, narratives and discourses carefully, compassionately, and ethically.
Language and Discourse
An amazing thing about language and meaning creation is that you can say anything about anything, literally! The only thing holding you back is your imagination as highlighted by my earlier Far Side conspiracy (sorry). On the basis of this linguistic capacity, we have been gifted with such beautiful stories as Alice in Wonderland, Where the Wild Things Are, Dune, Annihilation, The Road, and The Name of the Wind, to name just a few of incredible narratives at the more fictional end of fiction.
These stories are rich and beautiful and hold much meaning for how we might guide our lives in a philosophical sense. But for all their metaphorical relevance and for all the meaningful analogies, parallels, and comparisons we might draw to our own lived experiences, they are fundamentally works of fiction.
They are made up of an individual’s imagination. An imagination that has been informed by the complex multi-faceted and winding nature of their lived experience within their geographies, societies, cultures, economies, and surrounding communities, families, and friends. The stories above are inspired by cognitions, feelings, and emotions relating to a vast and colourful scale of experiences which range from far out fanciful creations of the imagination to storied experiences we hear from others’ lived realities to tangible daily experiences, phenomena, and interactions with the world around us.
And again we can create multitudes of meaning to guide us through these experiences. However, being social animals there are certain social forces and constraints which shape the type of meaning we create around our experiences.
SCARF: defining the things we need in society
A useful model for understanding these social forces is David Rock’s ‘SCARF’ (paraphrased slightly for current purposes):
Status: (the cognitive pressure to maintain or improve social status within a community)
Certainty (the cognitive pressure to mitigate cognitive dissonance)
Autonomy (the cognitive pressure for control over our own narrative)
Relatedness (the cognitive pressure to be able to relate to other narratives within a community)
Fairness (the cognitive pressure to be perceived justly and fairly)
SCARF can be regarded as a set of states which are activated through experiences that allow for the releases of ‘happy hormones’ oxytocin, dopamine, and endorphins. For the most part, many of the experiences we have are shared with others in our localities, communities, and societies, and more and more since the explosion of social media, with our global connections around the world. These experiences are shared with relatively common discourses, or manners of talking that sufficiently navigate and relate to, and make sense of the experiences in a way that fits the SCARF model. Attributing words, discourses, and narratives to these experiences attach some of the emotional states of the experiences to those words, discourses, and narratives provided they are in the relevant context. Hence the reason why well-told stories can pull so hard on our heartstrings or make you giddy with joy or anger you at the injustice.
However, the world is complicated and humans have a limited capacity for making sense of the increasingly white noise-filled, mediated perspectives on the world. These capacities are constrained by time, space, energy, memory, attention, and other cognitive and physical resources. In light of this Fiske and Taylor (2013) describe humans as being ‘cognitive misers’ that ‘adopt strategies to simplify complex problems.
We are constantly tackling thousands of cognitive balancing acts every day, continuously making conscious and unconscious (or reflexive) decisions about how important a given problem is to solve and how much energy should be expended on solving it. But, are we becoming overwhelmed? Are the white noise and information overload causing tension between the individual elements of SCARF when it comes to addressing the problems we face on a personal, social and global level?
Are we losing status if we don’t happen to have the educational social and financial capital to access certain information? Is this affecting our certainty about our own identities? Is our autonomy being stripped from us by a perception that there is an ‘elite’ within society that is making decisions for us because they are self-appointed holders of the most important information? Have we lost the capacity to be able to relate to each other because of evident widening social, economic, and informational/educational divides? And does this affect how fairly we perceive the world to operate?
Ultimately, the world is the way it is, in a physical sense. Of course, it is changing in response to the actions we are taking, and therefore it’s important that the meaning we create around our interaction with this world is compassionate, ethical, informed, and critically aware. The sea after all is the sea but the way we treat the sea reflects how it is constructed as a meaning structure, or discourse, or narrative in our heads.
This is where misinformation and conspiracies come in. They often provide simplistic easily digestible cognitive solutions to a world that is drifting further and further into a nebula of informational white noise. Everything is happening all at once, it’s happening now, and it is bombarding us through TVs, radios, computers, smartphones, and billboards. Information literacy as defined by Isabelle Courtney in the Irish Communications Review (2018) is struggling to keep up and is lacking within formal education systems.
In the past, the lack of information turned societies to Thor, Poseidon, Nyami Nyami, or Kagutsuchi to simplify phenomena that were difficult to understand and process. This process of simplifying the narrative to avoid cognitive dissonance has a modern equivalent, and it is found in conspiracy theories and misinformation.
But what are the differences between the two: Conspiracy theories are broad simplistic, unverifiable, and un-disprovable ways of explaining phenomena guided by the pressure to simplify and becoming more prevalent through online community support. Misinformation has many guises but is primarily more strategic and manipulative, aimed at increasing the individuals’ benefits. Misinformation also relies on broad simplistic terms but with a specific goal: it allows receivers of information to individually enrich the content of any message with their own narratives, values, and life experiences making the misinformation relevant to them in impossibly specific ways. This is why misinformation and the strategic use of rhetoric is such powerful political tools. The kinds of tools that have resulted in the election of Donald Trump and Brexit.
This brings me to the role that development education has to play in guiding our communal information literacy.
Development Education’s Contribution to Tackling conspiracies and misinformation.
Development Education is a problem-oriented approach to education that looks at tackling the root causes of the most pressing problems currently facing the world; poverty, inequality, and climate change.
Each of these problems is complex, multifaceted, and not easily solved. Each one also exists with multitudes of perspectives, definitions, and information aimed at analysis and solutions for tackling their symptoms and causes.
Poverty, inequality, and climate change are human-caused phenomena. They do not just occur, they are not just the way they are, they do not happen naturally. They are human-caused phenomena! They are human-caused because of the way we each understand the world around us. Our understandings are informed by the hegemonic or predominant words, sentences, paragraphs, meaning structures, discourse, and narratives that surround us. The ones that we apply to oceans, rivers, mountains, and social interactions to make sense of them.
But these meanings must be created from an informed perspective if we are to have clear guidance and vision of how to take action for changing our future for the better. That’s where development education comes in.
Development education rests on four pillars: critical thinking, problem-solving, systems thinking, and active citizenship.
These four pillars are guidance for information literacy, tackling issues, understanding those issues, and taking action.
Critical Thinking is the mental activity of picking apart information, understanding what the information does as much as what it means. Who used it? What power do they have? What power does it give them? What effect will it have on the recipients and what might the consequences of that information be.
Problem-solving is what it says on the tin: looking to educate in a manner that addresses some of the more important problems currently facing the world like poverty inequality and climate change.
Systems thinking is a way of understanding how elements of the world are causally linked in consequential ways. It is summed up well in a quote by the French philosopher Micheal Foucault (1964): “People know what they do; frequently they know why they do what they do, but what they don't know is what what they do does.”
Active citizenship is the idea that we are all active in creating the changes that we want to see in the world and we must therefore make our decisions and take actions from an informed, ethical and compassionate perspective. This informed perspective ought to be guided by the three other pillars of Development Education.
Another powerful guidance tool in terms of meaning construction is The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs are a set of 17 goals that give meaning to the issues that the world is facing. There are underwritten by 169 targets and 235 indicators which provide guidance on how to approach these issues. Signed off on my 193 countries after consulting with over 8 million entities they are a globally informed narrative for defining our world and the problems we face.
Together with Development education, the SDGs are a vitally important part of the narrative guiding how we can take action.
Development education and the SDGs are essential tools for the battle against, not just conspiracy theories, which are in their infancy in terms of being problematic, but misinformation generally and misuse of information for manipulation and coercion. They are crucial for moving into a future where discourses and narratives have large swaths of populations believing that there is a bunch of ruminant, bovine, reptilian, pedophile, elites operating from a pound shop, plotting global domination, don’t take hold.
Of course, this is the extreme end of poor information literacy. But the current political, social-economic, and educational divides which exist and reflect how we interact with the world have already proven to create narratives of fear surrounding important issues such as immigration. These narratives have in turn contributed to the election of Donald Trump, and elements of the politics underlying Brexit.
Without development education, the SDGs, and information literacy, the human capacity for understanding and acting in the world are at risk of being defined and guided by those with the most social power and status. It is, therefore, more important than ever to be compassionate, get informed, and take ethical action.
Saolta has a range of Development Education tools and resources available HERE for use in various adult and community education contexts. There is also a range of programs run throughout the year including the SDG Advocate Programme and the Training of Trainers program.
Saolta is a strategic adult and community education partnership made up of Development Perspectives, Aontas, Irish Rural Link, Concern Worldwide, and the Dept of Adult and Community Education in Maynooth University.