Ethan Lindenberger testifies during a Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, March 5, 2019, to examine vaccines, focusing on preventable disease outbreaks.
Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Photo: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

How should colleges respond to cults of misinformation?

Matthew Boedy, an assistant professor of rhetoric and composition at the University of North Georgia, examines the role of higher education in the face of what he calls “cults of misinformation.”

As an example, Boedy cites this week’s U.S. Senate hearing on vaccinations and public health in which a teen testified about rejecting his parents’ anti-vaccination beliefs. After researching the importance of vaccines, the teen chose to catch on his missing inoculations. 

He told the Senate his mother’s opposition was fed by  anti-vaccine groups online and on social media. She relied on them rather than on credible health sources.

By Matthew Boedy

If you haven’t seen it, I recommend watching a video clip of the teenager who testified to Congress about vaccinations Tuesday. 

Here is a Washington Post summary: “An 18-year-old from Ohio who famously inoculated himself against his mother’s wishes in December says he attributes his mother’s anti-vaccine ideology to a single source: Facebook.” [As a side note, Georgia Sen. Johnny Isakson plays a starring role in the hearing.]

This is not a post about vaccinations. They work and you should get them. This is also not a post about how Facebook helps spread false information. The Post has done a fine job exploring that

This post is about how we process the vast amounts of misinformation in our lives circulating within Facebook groups, trusted friends, and conspiracy theorists on the internet. And how I as a professor of writing might make a dent in that problem. 

First, let me state the problem of “fake news” here is not merely affecting the uneducated, the naïve, or the easily duped among us. A college degree won’t cure people. 

I have a friend who has a bachelor’s degree. But her Facebook feed is littered with videos supporting a flat earth, arguments against sun tan lotion, and a really scary post on how “the powers that are and have been for a long time have used their power and control to create history as they want us to see it and believe it.”

This problem also affects those who aim to correct it. A recent NPR story described those Facebook who employs to censor posts who repeatedly have to watch conspiracy theory videos and consistently try to apply Facebook rules on whether to allow them to remain posted. 

The emotional toll of that job is striking: “the majority of the employees… started to believe some of the conspiracy theories they reviewed.” The reporter on the story, which originally appeared in The Verge, said he “spoke to one man who told me that he no longer believes that 9/11 was a terrorist attack. I talked to someone else who said they had begun to question the reality of the Holocaust."

Where might a college writing instructor begin with this problem? 

In first-year writing courses across the country, we aim to teach many things. But one course objective that seems most pressing in our era is what is commonly called information literacy. That is an academic phrase for “the capacity to understand, assess, evaluate, and apply information to solve problems or answer questions,” as one writer in the Chronicle of Higher Education defined it in 2018. 

To use a vaccination metaphor, we teachers of such a skill are in the business of inoculating students against the virus of false and misleading information. We provide them with abilities that (hopefully) stave off trusting Facebook posts for information on a very important topic like vaccinations. 

I offer students many websites and handouts that describe what credible sources are and how to distinguish them from the ones that only seem that way. One of my colleagues even limits the sources students can use in a paper to a set he defines to make sure students use credible sources. 

But that may not be enough. Now, I have not had a student argue for our “flat” earth or an anti-vaccination conspiracy. That isn’t my point. My point is that today it seems we are debating the notion of credibility itself. 

In other words, how do I convince my friend her Facebook posts aren’t true? Or how do you convince someone determined to believe a lie? 

Some have built up tolerance to “it,” the “it” being concepts of credibility I teach – use sources from experts, use academic not commercial sources, use peer-reviewed sources, not idiosyncratic or individually bolstered ones. 

But in her own deluded way, my friend is following the advice I give students. She just sees credibility different. What the rest of the world sees as conspiracy, she sees as truth. 

The vaccination metaphor breaks down here. There is another metaphor that helps: the cult. In this frame we don’t vaccinate against a disease but have to “de-brief” from brainwashing. In that theory, only survivors can change those still on the inside. See Cohen, Michael. 

You are probably thinking, “OK. Yes. A few of my friends are like that. But surely most of the nation is not.”
True. But I think a change in how we see higher education can make sure fewer and fewer don’t fall into the cults of misinformation. 

I want to suggest higher education is not about an assortment of courses, but an intricate web of learning experiences that build on each other and designed toward one goal. 

That goal is not merely receiving information or even applying skills but about developing critical (as in needed and leaning toward criticism) thinking and a prudent judgement about issues and also about sources that do not announce their intent or effect directly. 

That brings me to my last topic: President Trump’s recent comments about a proposed executive order on campus speech. Trump said he would sign an order defunding any college or university that refuses to protect the First Amendment. 

All well and good, but his supporters, particularly free speech “advocates” like Charlie Kirk, see this differently. 

Kirk wrote an op-ed for Fox News that implied Trump’s order should force professors to change what they teach. Kirk wrote: “From the 1960s forward, the people who are hostile to free markets and First Principles have been using the ‘academic setting’ of the college campus where ideas are ‘freely exchanged’ to promote only one point of view and to attempt to silence and eradicate the other.”

To be clear, Kirk is not talking about what happens outside the classroom in a quad at a table. Kirk and others like him have been there for a while. I welcome them all. 

However, neither is Kirk only trying to change the content of the “liberal” professor’s lectures, however misguided he is on that. 

Kirk is using a call to ideological “balance” as cover to attack the judgment formed from education. He says that if conservative ideas are allowed on campus, his side would win. And that claim shows his deep misunderstanding of the purpose of college. Higher education is not about victory. It is about judgment.

When those who have studied, who have been credentialed by others who have studied, who have written and spoken and concluded about a tradition of ideas, when those people are attacked for their judgment, we face a crisis of academic credibility. When those people who have judged some ideas better than others and so profess that opinion on a syllabus or in a lecture, when their judgment is attacked, we face a crisis of academic freedom. Credibility and freedom are cornerstones of judgment. You can’t have one without the other. 

These crises have fostered Facebook groups filled with parents who refuse vaccinations. 

How can we solve the larger credibility problem? 

We have to continue to make the case that a political conservative could benefit from a “liberal” education. Or why a STEM student could benefit from a humanities course. And vice versa.

It is not about one set of ideas winning over the other. It is about the process of forming judgment. Yes, people then use that judgment to form opinions. But education has to be about a process or we grow further divided and some of us will go further down rabbit holes. 

There is another model for education beyond the vaccination or de-briefing metaphor. It’s about creating what some in the past called wisdom. But what others today call literacy. I try to teach that.  

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.