A lesson on QAnon for teachers to use in class

Earlier this year, I published a lesson for teachers from the Sift to use in class to explore with students the QAnon conspiracy theory, which claims that President Trump will save the world from a “deep state” cult of pedophiles who eat children, worship the devil and run the country’s most powerful institutions.

I am republishing it now because this summer the QAnon theory has entered mainstream politics, with Trump embracing political candidates who support it.

QAnon theory was supposedly started by an anonymous person called Q who claims on social media to have a top-level security clearance to access government secrets about a left-wing conspiracy against Trump. The FBI issued a bulletin last May, warning that QAnon extremists are now considered a domestic terrorism threat.

However crazy QAnon conspiracy theory may sound, it is believed to have many followers. Facebook this month cracked down on QAnon accounts after discovering material on them had reached millions of people.

On Aug. 19 at a White House news conference, Trump praised supporters of QAnon, suggesting that they support him. “I heard that these are people that love our country,” he said.

Told by a reporter that QAnon supporters believe he is saving the world from a cult of pedophiles and cannibals, he said, he hadn’t heard that. Then he added: “But is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing? If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to put myself out there,” Trump said.

Several days earlier, Trump and Republican leaders embraced a candidate for the House from Georgia who has espoused QAnon theory and made racist statements.

Trump was asked on Aug. 14 by Associated Press reporter Jill Colvin whether he agreed with the candidate, Marjorie Taylor Greene, whom he had praised on Twitter.

“You congratulated Marjorie Taylor Greene in a tweet. You called her a future Republican star,” Jill Colvin said. “Greene has been a proponent of the QAnon conspiracy theory. She said it’s something that should be — would be worth listening to. Do you agree with her on that?”

Trump replied: “Well, she did very well in the election. She won by a lot. She was very popular. She comes from a great state, and she had a tremendous victory. So absolutely I did congratulate her.”

The following lesson on QAnon can be used by teachers and anybody else who wants to have a conversation with young people about this conspiracy and how it has entered U.S. politics.

The News Literacy Project also offers a program called Checkology, a browser-based platform [newslit.org] designed for students in grades six through 12 that helps prepare the next generation to easily identify misinformation. Checkology is now available free to all educators, school districts and parents engaged in home schooling. In addition NLP is preparing to launch a national News Literacy Educator Network in January.

The News Literacy Project was founded more than a decade ago by Alan Miller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at the Los Angeles Times and is now the leading provider of news literacy education. It creates digital curriculums and other resources, and works with educators and journalists, to teach middle school and high school students how to recognize news and information to trust — and provides them with the tools they need to be informed and engaged participants in a democracy.

Conspiracy theories about the covid-19 pandemic can be described in a variety of ways — alarming, outlandish, dangerous — but they shouldn’t be surprising.

Even the Plandemic “documentary” that suddenly swept its way across social media in May did so on a path paved with fragments of pandemic conspiracy theories that were already in circulation. But as a report by Adrienne LaFrance in the June issue of the Atlantic points out, if one theory has established conspiratorial thinking as an “acceptable” option in the modern marketplace of ideas, it’s QAnon.

At its heart is the baseless notion that President Trump is secretly working to bring about a “Great Awakening” to expose an elite cabal of child sex abusers — including prominent political figures in Washington — that has been concealed by intelligence agencies, or “the deep state.”

In many ways, QAnon is a quintessential conspiracy theory: It offers its adherents simple explanations in place of complexity, a coherent entity on which to place blame for the transgressions of modern life, and a sense of control and populist purpose.

But in other ways, it seems to have tapped into deeper veins of moral gratification: an apocalyptic vision of a renewed America that resonates deeply with evangelical Christian beliefs about the End Times. (Indeed, at least one church has been founded on QAnon belief principles.)

Whether they see QAnon as prophecy, self-described “research” or an “open source intelligence operation,” its followers have grown so numerous and pushed its rhetoric so persistently on so many fronts online, that its most anodyne permutations — vague references to a coming reckoning for immoral Washington elites — are disturbingly present in mainstream discourse.

As it has grown, QAnon has expanded to absorb other conspiracy theories, explain away its own inconsistencies and incorporate new developments, such as the covid-19 pandemic. So-called wellness influencers are spreading QAnon talking points alongside posts that tout unfounded “cures” or praise “holistic living.”

And an April 8 “Q drop” — a post, said to be by Q, on an Internet message board — had this cryptic message:

Discuss: What are the characteristics of conspiratorial thinking? How can entirely baseless conspiracy theories “feel” so right to some people? What role does evidence play in conspiracy theories? Why do you think conspiracy theories tend to arise during periods of great social and economic change? How do fear and anger contribute to the belief in conspiracy theories?

Here are most lessons from the Sift:

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