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Anatomy of a Class: Conspiracy course shines light on rumors, misinformation

April 3, 2018 at 10:28 am
By Thomas Rozwadowski

What are students learning at Carleton? We’ll regularly check the course list and pick the brains of beloved Carleton professors to find out why they've decided to teach a specific class in a given term. Today’s lesson: POSC 210: Misinformation, Political Rumors, and Conspiracy Theories.

Carleton students are eager to learn about the political psychology behind conspiracy theories. That’s a fact.

Christina Farhart’s winter term class, Misinformation, Political Rumors, and Conspiracy Theories, filled immediately: 25 on the first day of registration. Her wait list ballooned to 38.

“And these are students from all disciplines, not just political science. I think it was a strong signal that students are looking for ways to process and understand contemporary events,” says Farhart, an assistant professor of political science in her first year at Carleton.

So let’s start with the obvious: How much of the class was about the 2016 U.S. Presidential election? Not as much as you might think. Turns out misinformation, disinformation, and political propaganda have been around for awhile, Farhart says. In fact, the class has its origins in a pre-election course Farhart taught in fall 2015 with Dr. Joanne Miller while finishing her PhD at the University of Minnesota. Her research follows two main pathways: Political participation—why and how people engage/disengage—and impact—the consequences of misinformation, conspiracy theories, and political rumors.

NOT JUST POLITICS

Yet while political in name and nature, the class was also designed to integrate work from psychology, sociology, history, journalism, and mass communication studies. Farhart set the table early with some historical framework, starting with Richard Hofstadter’s “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” His 1965 essay points to rhetoric from the anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820s, the anti-Catholic movement of the 1890s, and proponents of McCarthyism in the early 1950s as examples that served to evoke a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.”

“It’s a tool politicians have used forever—just go back to World War I and World War II and the use of propaganda in wartime,” Farhart says. “One thing we talked about in class was the ebb and flow of conspiracy theories (through the 2014 research of political scientists Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent). It doesn’t just depend on the political environment, but also who is in power. Those out of power tend to create conspiracy theories about those in power. It is one way that they deal with political losses.”

Which is why Farhart also had a bit of fun with a favorite class tagline: “Conspiracy theories are for losers.” It’s a convenient summation for how the mind can distort or process a result it doesn’t like, though Farhart also says that the same phenomenon exists outside the realm of politics. People seek answers and closure in times of personal uncertainty—even from misguided or flagrant sources—which can help explain conspiracy theories centered on real events like the 9/11 attacks.

Social media (and people who profit off peddling conspiracies on the Internet) also help “fake news” spread faster than ever. The bigger question, as it applies to contemporary politics in academia, is why people hold onto misinformed beliefs even in the face of mounting evidence to the contrary?

“The topic is obviously salient right now, but I more so wanted students to understand that we all, to some extent, have biases we’re not always aware of,” Farhart says. “They influence how we operate, how we interact with each other, how we interact on social media—and I wanted them to confront that from the very first writing assignment.”

The second week exercise had students complete a survey about attitudes toward genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), then embark on their own informational search. Farhart instructed them to keep a diary of what sources they used for research and why those outlets were chosen. When they took the same GMO survey after the research, most students found that their beliefs became stronger and more certain, leading to a paper confronting those results. It’s motivated reasoning, Farhart says, or the processing of information that conforms to already held beliefs.

“We talk a lot about the echo chambers that exist around us. But how do we create our own echo chambers? How are we evaluating the information that we’re interacting with?” Farhart says, citing social media algorithms as one way the public is shown curated information they’ll already agree with or approve of.

“It’s good for us to be reminded of that, because some of us only want to hear one side. And conflict and disagreement make us uncomfortable, right? It takes energy to process conflicting sides. It’s so much easier to just run with misinformation that aligns with or confirms our previous beliefs.”

HOW OTHERS THINK

In a recent class, Farhart walked students through her own research with colleagues at Minnesota and her alma mater Colorado State. Polling and research her team has conducted shows that conservatives are more likely to endorse “conservative” conspiracy theories (ones that impugn liberals) and liberals are more likely to endorse “liberal” conspiracy theories (ones that make conservatives look bad). Beyond this, other research in the course illustrated that some people, even if paid to give the correct answers about a political topic, will choose to give inaccurate ones that are aligned with partisan objectives.

“That’s mind-boggling, right? But it’s what we’re motivated to do,” Farhart says.

Not on her watch. One of the main objectives was spelled out front and center in the syllabus: “The aim is not to teach you what to think about politics, but how to think about the ways that we and others think about politics.” Given its early popularity, Farhart plans to offer the course next academic year.

“I wanted to create a space for students to gain greater meaning of the contemporary political environment. But I hope more than anything that students walked away with a sense that this has happened before. Maybe not always in same way, but that at least there’s a framework to help them understand why fake news, why propaganda, why misinformation can be attractive and easy to share,” Farhart says.

“This isn’t something we just want academics to be thinking about, either. We all need to think about our responsibilities as citizens and consumers of information.”