Countering Conspiracy Theories and Extremism | Facing History & Ourselves
Facing History & Ourselves
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Lesson

Countering Conspiracy Theories and Extremism

Students consider the risks that conspiracy theories and extremism pose to individuals and society, their relationship to the Internet and social media, and what draws people to these ways of thinking and behaving.

Duration

Two 50-min class periods

Language

English — UK

Published

This resource is intended for educators in the United Kingdom.

Overview

About This Lesson

This is the sixth lesson in a unit designed to help teachers have conversations with students about media literacy in a critical, reflective and constructive way. Use these lessons to help students reflect on the changing media and information landscape; understand how this landscape impacts individuals, communities and society; and consider how they can thoughtfully and responsibly engage with content they encounter online and in print. This learning can also help them become conscientious content creators. Supporting students to develop as critical consumers and creators of information is vital for their well-being, their relationships and our democracy.

This lesson teaches students about the risks that conspiracy theories and extremism pose to individuals and society, what draws people to these ways of thinking and behaving, and the role the Internet and social media play in exposing people to conspiratorial and extremist content. 

Conspiracy theories are beliefs that allege secret, powerful groups control the world, mislead the public and/or are behind significant events. They are a form of misinformation, disinformation and/or mal-information, and are easily spread on the Internet and social media. These theories are central to the beliefs of all extremist movements in existence today, 1 and can serve as a recruitment tool for extremism, functioning as a form of propaganda, and exploiting people’s sense of injustice and any confusion they might have about the world. 

The changing information landscape has made it easier to find and disseminate conspiracy theories and extremist content, and for people to be radicalised online. Teaching students about conspiracy theories and extremism is therefore a vital part of media literacy education. 

In the first part of the lesson, students reflect on what guides their behaviour and worldviews, and explore what conspiracy theories are, why people believe in them, how they spread and their impacts. They then consider how they can respond to conspiracy theories. In the second part of the lesson, students consider the relationship between conspiracy theories and extremism, learn more about what extremism is and what makes people susceptible to extremist thought and becoming radicalised. They also consider how being part of an extremist group fulfils social, psychological and emotional needs, and what can be done to help people step back from extremism. 

We recommend that you revisit your classroom contract before teaching this lesson. If you do not have a class contract, you can use our contracting guidelines for creating a classroom contract or another procedure you have used in the past.

How can developing our media literacy support our well-being, our relationships and our democracy?

  • What are conspiracy theories, why do they spread and what are their impacts?  
  • What is extremism, what leads to people joining extremist movements, and how can they be supported to leave?
  • To understand what conspiracy theories are, why and how they spread, and how they impact society.
  • To understand what extremism is, why people join extremist groups and what can be done to counter extremism.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-min class periods and includes the following student materials:

  • 1 PowerPoint
  • 4 handouts

Conspiracy theories are beliefs that allege secret, powerful groups control the world, mislead the public and/or are behind significant events. Some conspiracy theories claim famous people who died, like Elvis and Tupac, are still alive; others that events, such as the moon landing and the sinking of the Titanic, were faked; and others that the world is not as we know it: the earth is flat and global warming is a hoax. At the more offensive end, some theories fuel hatred and distrust towards certain groups in society, notably Jews and Muslims, scapegoating them for problems. There are theories, for example, that allege Jews and Muslims are behind global issues, such as COVID-19, 1 and are intentionally trying to wipe out the white populations of Western countries. 2

Research has shown that large numbers of people believe in some kind of conspiracy theory. 3  Part of this is because human brains have evolved to be able to see patterns: recognising patterns, such as which plants to eat, how to hunt prey and how to identify threats, is necessary for learning, decision making and survival. 4 Stories are a form of pattern. 5  They have narrative structures (beginning, middle and end), recognisable characters (like villains and heroes), and demonstrate cause and effect (why something happens and what the outcome is). When we recognise patterns, our brain releases dopamine, a feel-good hormone, to facilitate the learning process and help us to remember information. 6 However, this dopamine reward can mean that humans see patterns where none exist and try to attach meaning to coincidences. 7

Research also suggests that people believe in conspiracy theories to satisfy psychological needs. They need to understand the world; to feel safe and in control; to have a sense of belonging; and to feel like they are superior (the sense of knowing something others don’t can increase people’s self-esteem). 8 Conspiracy theories gain prominence during times of crisis, highlighting how people seek them out when concerned to feel a sense of control (although evidence suggests that consuming conspiracy theories actually makes people feel more uncertain and less powerful, so it has the opposite of the intended effect). 9

Belief in one theory can lead to belief in others as conspiracy theories tend to have a common structure: they feature an ‘other’, a victim, a powerful group that is behind the conspiracy, a hidden agenda, and cover-up. This makes it easier for people to believe more than one conspiracy as this structure can shape how they view the world. 10

Social media platforms, such as YouTube and TikTok, also push conspiracy theory content in a bid to maximise user watch time and keep users online for as long as possible to make more money. 11 Public figures who promote conspiracy theories can also make money on these platforms (and others), and by selling merchandise, books and speaking at events. 12 This means people and companies have an economic incentive for encouraging people to create and engage with content about conspiracy theories. Once people engage with one conspiracy theory online, it increases their chances of encountering others due to the way algorithms work and of diving further down the ‘rabbit hole’. 

It can be difficult for people to stop believing in conspiracy theories once they have taken root. Confirmation bias, which leads people to seek out information that aligns with their beliefs and reject information that does not, can prevent people from questioning theories and accepting evidence that disproves them. 13 Believers often claim that any evidence is proof of the conspiracy theory. Moreover, echo chambers (and the way algorithms work) on social media make it more difficult for people to be exposed to information that challenges their views. 

Conspiracy theories also impact people on an emotional level: they are stories people turn to when they feel anger and distress, and the fact they contain clear villains and revolve around seeming injustice can create a sense of outrage that means people do not engage with their content critically and rationally. They can also counteract a sense of loneliness as people become part of a community of believers, connecting with others. These emotional factors can make it hard for people to stop believing in them. 14

While some conspiracy theories appear harmless, the underlying sense that the world is controlled by a secret group is harmful as it can create distrust in public institutions and make people turn away from the democratic process: people who believe in conspiracy theories are less likely to vote. 15 Such beliefs can therefore stop people from engaging in society and resolving societal problems. 

Conspiracy theories have also been shown to fuel prejudice against minority groups in general, not just those named by a conspiracy theory, 16 and can push people towards violence, crime and extremism. 17 Moreover, such theories can make the targets of conspiracy theories feel threatened and anxious, and less able to interact with those from outside their group, so they subsequently withdraw into their community. 18 This reduces the chance of people mixing with, understanding and empathising with those from different social groups. Conspiracy theories therefore divide society in multiple ways. 

It is also important to have empathy for those who have been sucked down a ‘rabbit hole’ of conspiracy theories, and to understand that they are probably invested emotionally in what they believe. It is worth listening to believers, and asking them questions about their beliefs to build understanding, rather than suggesting they are foolish. 19 It can also help to look for common ground, suggest looking at evidence together and help them think about what they can control. 20

Conspiracy theories are also central to the beliefs of all extremist movements in existence today. 21 Conspiracy theories can serve as a recruitment tool for extremism, functioning as a form of propaganda, and exploiting people’s sense of injustice and any confusion they might have about the world. Conspiracy theories can be used by extremists to attack people seen as belonging to out-groups, to suggest in-groups are victims, to discredit democratic and reasonable ways of challenging power and to encourage acts of violence. 22

The changing information landscape has made it easier to find and disseminate conspiracy theories and extremist content, and for people to be radicalised online. Understanding what leads people to extremism is therefore important. 

The UK government has identified push and pull factors that lead people towards extremism and radicalisation. 23 Push factors include isolation, a lack of a sense of belonging and/or purpose, and having real or perceived grievances. Pull factors used by extremist groups to gain new recruits include the offer of a sense of community, making people feel special and encouraging ideas of supremacy. 

Extremist movements can offer people answers and a sense of belonging. When people join them, they become part of a social community, which is evolutionarily important for humans: working with others and fitting in was necessary for survival. These communities tend to operate online, in chat rooms, on message boards and on social media platforms – the Internet has been shown to facilitate violent extremism. 24 These online networks then help people meet with those who share similar views in-person. 

Once people form friendships and relationships, their extremist and conspiratorial beliefs tend to become more fixed and a core part of their identity. This can make it very difficult to challenge their beliefs because doing so can threaten their sense of self and their place in the social group. 25 This social aspect also leads people to commit harm to prove their place within extremist communities, leading to copy-cat acts of violence, and is a reason why some terrorists now live-stream their murder rampages and/or write manifestos that they share online. 26

Leaving an extremist group can also be very difficult as people fear being attacked by the community they leave behind and of not being accepted in wider society because of having held extremist ideas. 27

How to respond to extremism and extremists is an important and debated issue. Some people advocate for tougher policing, sentencing and surveillance, although there are issues about how such punitive approaches impact people’s civil liberties and freedom of expression. 28 Others advocate for empathetic approaches that seek dialogue with those drawn to extremism and the offer of support to help them step back from hate. 29 The organisation Life After Hate, for example, seeks to connect former members of the far-right and white supremacists to those who remain within extremist groups to help them extract themselves and see that there is an alternative. 

Helping people understand what risk factors draw people towards extremism is an important first step.

Preparing to Teach

A Note to Teachers

Before teaching this lesson, please review the following information to help guide your preparation process.

This lesson, in both the activities and the possible extensions, contains a broad selection of videos and content that you can share with your students. Please review anything before you choose to share it to ensure it is appropriate for your class.

Please note, the Understanding Conspiracy Theories handouts reference conspiracy theories that target Muslims and Jews. For support on discussing antisemitism and Islamophobia, please see our units Discussing Contemporary Antisemitism in the Classroom and Discussing Contemporary Islamophobia in the Classroom.

This lesson has two 50-minute parts. In Part I, students learn about conspiracy theories, why they spread and impacts. In Part II, they explore the topic of extremism, reflecting on what leads to people joining extremist movements and how they can be supported to leave. While we encourage teachers to teach both parts, if you are pushed for time teaching this unit, then just teach Part I.

Depending on your students’ prior knowledge, you may need to provide them with the following definitions before or during the lesson. Consider adding the following terms to your Word Wall:

  • Conspiracy theories (noun): Beliefs that allege secret, powerful groups control the world, mislead the public and are behind significant events. 
  • Extremism (noun): Holding extreme or radical political or religious views. In the UK, extremism is regarded as opposing the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and respect and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs.
  • Radicalisation (noun): When someone is persuaded to support extremist beliefs. 
  • Terrorism (noun): The use of violence, especially against civilians, to achieve political or religious aims.

Each lesson in this unit includes a PowerPoint of student-facing slides. The PowerPoints are intended to be used alongside, and not instead of, the lesson plans because the latter include important rationales and context that teachers should familiarise themselves with before teaching each lesson. The PowerPoints include basic content and student-facing prompts from the lesson plans but are minimally designed because we expect teachers to adapt them to fit the needs of their students and class.

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Lesson Plans

Part I Activities

Inform students that, in today’s lesson, they will be discussing conspiracy theories, what they are and why people believe in them. First, invite students to respond to the following prompts: 

  • On a scale of 1–5, 1 being strongly agree and 5 strongly disagree, how far do you agree with the following statements?
     
    1. I look for patterns in the world around me.
    2. I do not believe in or spread rumours.  
    3. I approach information with an open mind. 
    4. I do not believe in coincidences or chance (everything can be explained). 
    5. I like to have a sense of control over my life. 
    6. I trust public institutions and the government. 

For students who finish quickly, you might wish to share the questions:

  • How are these statements related to conspiracy theories? 
  • How are they related to the media and information landscape? 

To gauge student responses to the statements, you might do a Barometer activity or invite students to share how they voted for each statement using the Fist-to-Five strategy.

Tell students that some people seek to explain what is happening in the world by believing in conspiracy theories. Most teenagers have heard the phrase ‘conspiracy theory’, but they might struggle to articulate a definition. 

Tell students that to help them reflect on their understanding of conspiracy theories, they will create a concept map: a visual representation of the concept using words, phrases, questions, the space on the page, lines, and arrows.

Lead students through the steps of the Concept Maps teaching strategy, first generating a list of words, phrases, and ideas they associate with conspiracy theories, and then representing the relationship between their ideas on the page using spacing, lines, arrows, colour, and sizing.

Next, have students share their concept maps in a Think, Pair, Share. Invite them to revise their maps by adding new information they learnt from their ‘pair, shares’ that extends or challenges their thinking.

You might then facilitate a discussion in which students share ideas from their maps with the class.

Then, provide students with the following definition of conspiracy theory, inviting them to add it to their concept maps: 

Conspiracy theories (noun): Beliefs that allege secret, powerful groups control the world, mislead the public and are behind significant events. 

It is also worth explaining that conspiracy theories are a form of misinformation, disinformation and/or mal-information, and that they are easily spread on the Internet and social media.

Next, explain to students that they will learn more about why people believe in conspiracy theories and the impact they have on society. 

Distribute the handout Understanding Conspiracy Theories (Developing / Intermediate / Advanced). Either ask students to read it independently or in groups, if they are reading different versions, or read it as a class. After reading, check for students’ comprehension.

Then, ask students to respond to the following questions in small groups or pairs: 

  1. What causes people to believe in conspiracy theories? 
  2. How might the Internet and social media facilitate the spread of conspiracy theories? 
  3. Why is it difficult for people to stop believing in conspiracy theories?  
  4. What impact do conspiracy theories have on individuals who consume them? On minority groups? On society? 
  5. In which ways can conspiratorial thinking be helpful?
  6. What can you do to avoid falling for conspiracy theories? 
  7. How can you engage with people who believe in conspiracy theories? 

Lead a short class discussion inviting students to share their views, and then give them the opportunity to add information they learnt to their Concept Maps.

Explain to students that it is reasonable, and can even be helpful, to be sceptical about  the world; however, people need to be able to walk a line between questioning things and mistrusting everything and everyone.

Share the following tips with students:

  • Understand the choice is not between being ignorant and believing in conspiracy theories (that is a false dichotomy/dilemma), you can choose to be intelligently sceptical. 1
  • If you start believing in a conspiracy theory, engage in some self-reflection. Where did you hear about it? What about the theory is appealing to you? 
  • Do research and engage with different perspectives. Do not just look up evidence that proves the theory, search for evidence that disproves it to and evaluate what you learn.
  • Be aware of how believing in a conspiracy theory impacts you – What needs do you have that it is satisfying? What emotions does it provoke in you? 
  • Ask yourself, how would you feel if you learnt the theory was false? Don’t let your feelings or a desire to be right overpower your ability to accept evidence and the truth.

You might also choose to show students the PBS NewsHour video I believed in conspiracy theories, until this one pushed me over the edge (6:22).

After students have read the tips and/or watched the video, ask them to respond to the following questions: 

  1. Why is it helpful to:
    • Reflect on how you came to believe/hear about a theory?
    • Do research that engages with different perspectives? 
    • Consider why you were drawn to a conspiracy theory and how it impacts you? 
  2. What other ways can you challenge your thinking? 
  3. Are there any other tips that you would add to this list? 
  4. How, if at all, will what you have learnt in this lesson impact how you engage with conspiracy theories? 

Then, invite students to share their ideas using the Think, Pair, Share activity. 

Part II Activities

Inform students that in this lesson they will be discussing extremism, which is the holding of extreme or radical political or religious views. 

First, invite students to respond to the following prompts:

Conspiracy theories are central to the beliefs of all extremist movements in existence today. 1 Conspiracy theories can serve as a recruitment tool for extremism, functioning as a form of propaganda, and exploiting people’s sense of injustice and any confusion they might have about the world. Conspiracy theories can be used by extremists to attack people seen as belonging to out-groups, to suggest in-groups are victims, to discredit democratic and reasonable ways of challenging power and to encourage acts of violence. 2
 

  1. Why might appealing to a sense of injustice encourage people to adopt extreme views? You might wish to think about how something unjust happening has made you feel.
  2. How can extremists use conspiracy theories? What impact might this have? 
  3. Can you think of any conspiracy theories that have been used to encourage extreme views? 
  4. What types of extremism are you aware of? 

Once students have finished reflecting, invite them to share their thoughts in a short class discussion.

  • 1Jigsaw, ‘7 Insights From Interviewing Conspiracy Theory Believers’, Medium, 17 March 2021 (accessed 23 December 2023).
  • 2For example, many far-right extremists believe in the ‘Great Replacement’ theory, which alleges that the white populations of Western countries are being replaced by immigrants from Africa, the Middle East and/or Latin America, and will eventually be wiped out. This theory attacks Jews, Muslims and/or any perceived as immigrants as the out-group, presents white people as the victimised in-group, and suggests traditional means of using power do not work because governments allow immigration (politicians and supporters of political parties are also targeted). Far-right terrorists believing in this theory have murdered people around the world. Far right extremism, however, is not the only threat. Both Islamist extremism and incel and misogynist extremism have taken lives.

Next, explain to students that they will be reflecting further on what extremism is, why people become extremists and the consequences of this. 

Share the following definitions with students:

  • Extremism (noun): Holding extreme or radical political or religious views. In the UK, extremism is regarded as opposing the fundamental British values of democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and respect and tolerance for different faiths and beliefs.
  • Radicalisation (noun): When someone is persuaded to support extremist beliefs. 
  • Terrorism (noun): The use of violence, especially against civilians, to achieve political or religious aims.

Then, play the video Let's Discuss: Extreme Right-Wing (Educate Against Hate, 4:36), explaining that it is looking at far-right extremism, but that much of the information it outlines is relevant to many different types of extremism. 

Pre-watching the video, show students the following questions so that they are primed to answer them after watching. 

  1. What kinds of hatred do extremist groups promote? Why? 
  2. What methods do extremists use to spread their ideas and recruit people? 
    • How can social media and/or the internet be used to enhance or facilitate these methods?
  3. Why might extremist groups intentionally try to find people who are having difficult times?  
  4. What are the possible consequences of extremism?
  5. How can we counter extremism? 

Once students have responded to the questions, lead a short class discussion, inviting students to share their answers.

If you have time and would like your students to reflect further on how the Internet is impacting extremism, you might also choose to share the clip 4:18–8:13 of the video Incels: how online extremism is changing (The Economist).

Next, explain to students that in addition to the information landscape, psychological and emotional needs can push people towards extremism: these are known as ‘risk factors’. Divide students into groups and distribute the handout The Risk Factors of Extremism. Ask them to cut along the dotted lines and group the options into push factors and pull factors. 

Explain that push factors are factors that can push an individual towards extremist groups, and pull factors are used by extremist groups to attract individuals to them.

Alternatively, you might project the jumbled list (which is on slide 16 of the PowerPoint Countering Conspiracy Theories and Extremism) and ask them to copy down the factors in their books under the headings push factors and pull factors. 

After they have organised the risk factors, ask them to discuss the following questions in their groups:

  1. What are the differences between push and pull factors? 
  2. How can these risk factors be used by those trying to recruit extremists/promote an extremist narrative?
  3. Which extremist movements, if any, have you seen draw in members using push and/or pull factors? 
  4. What can be done to counter these risk factors? 
  5. What roles can individuals, schools and communities play? 

Once students have grouped the factors and discussed some or all of the questions, share the answers with them on slide 18 of the PowerPoint Countering Conspiracy Theories and Extremism, and lead a short class discussion to debrief the activity and questions.

Inform students that it can be very difficult to step back from extremist movements. Then, read or share the following text with students: 

Extremist movements can offer people answers and a sense of belonging. When people join them, they become part of a social community, which is evolutionarily important for humans: working with others and fitting in was necessary for survival. These communities tend to operate online, in chat rooms, on message boards and on social media platforms – the Internet has been shown to facilitate violent extremism. 1 These online networks then help people meet with those who share similar views in-person. 

Once people form friendships and relationships, their extremist and conspiratorial beliefs tend to become more fixed and a core part of their identity. This can make it very difficult to challenge their beliefs because doing so can threaten their sense of self and their place in the social group. 2 This social aspect also leads people to commit harm to prove their place within extremist communities, leading to copy-cat acts of violence, and is a reason why some terrorists now live-stream their murder rampages and/or write manifestos that they share online. 3

Leaving an extremist group can also be very difficult as people fear being attacked by the community they leave behind and of not being accepted in wider society because of having held extremist ideas. 4

Then, invite them to reflect on the following questions in pairs:

  1. Why is having a sense of belonging and being part of a community important for people? 
  2. How can friendships and relationships shape what people think and what they do?
    • What experience do you have of ‘peer pressure’? Or of acting a certain way to fit in?
  3. Why can it be difficult to leave extremist movements? 
    • How are these difficulties related to some of the identified risk factors? 

Next, explain to students that many organisations, some of which are supported by former extremists, argue for the need to engage extremists in dialogue, 5  to build empathy 6 and help them have a sense of belonging outside of extremist circles. Share students one or more of the following videos with students:

Then, invite them to consider these questions: 

  1. What can help people step away from extremism? 
  2. How can cultivating a sense of belonging help people step back from hateful ideas? 
  3. How does what you learnt in the video(s) connect to, extend or challenge your knowledge on extremism?

Finally, if there is time, invite students to respond to the following questions in their journals

  1. How has what you have learnt in this lesson shaped your understanding of extremism? 
  2. What have you learnt about the relationship between the Internet and social media and extremism? 
  3. How, if at all, will this learning impact you in school and the world beyond school?

Extension Activities

Share one or more of the following resources with students, inviting them to add to their concept maps and/or to consider how the content they view connects, extends or challenges what they have already learnt:

You might also wish to share some or all of the content from the Common Sense lesson Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Appealing?, including the activity on Debunking Conspiracy Theories.

Please note, watch the video Why Are Conspiracy Theories So Popular mentioned in the lesson here (the link in the lesson takes you to the wrong video).

To help students reflect on how to discuss conspiracy theories with people who believe in them, share some or all of the following articles and invite students to summarise what they have learnt by creating their own advice article and/or poster. 

To build empathy and understanding in students for those who become engaged in conspiracy theories and extremism, share some or more of the following content and invite students to reflect on the reasons why people adopted these beliefs and what can help people come back out of the ‘rabbit hole’. 

Teach students about the different types of extremism. You might choose to do this by sharing one or more of the following resources (please review them all before you decide to share any of them) or by giving students some extremism types and asking them to do some research: 

Then, ask students to pick a type of extremism to focus on and to create an iceberg diagram, highlighting all of the factors and ideas that push/pull people towards this extremism. 

Once students have done this, have them share their diagrams in small groups and discuss what can be done to counter different types of extremism, comparing and contrasting the possible approaches needed. 

Explain to students that the fears of extremism and extremist acts of terrorism have led to governments monitoring their citizens. While this is done in the name of safety and security, it has also meant that governments spying on citizens has become normalised and people are under more surveillance than ever before. This raises serious issues about individual freedoms, the right to privacy and the freedom of expression.

Share one or more of the following resources with students and invite them to note down ideas about the risks and benefits of state surveillance to counter extremism and terrorism before initiating a class debate. You might then ask students to reflect on other possible ways to counter extremism. 

Materials and Downloads

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Facing History & Ourselves is designed for educators who want to help students explore identity, think critically, grow emotionally, act ethically, and participate in civic life. It’s hard work, so we’ve developed some go-to professional learning opportunities to help you along the way.

Using the strategies from Facing History is almost like an awakening.
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