Rational Irrationality: Conspiratorial Thinking and Memes

November 1, 2023

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Rational Irrationality: Conspiratorial Thinking and Memes

By Dan Panneton, FSWC Director of Allyship and Community Engagement

We are living at a time when many people believe in conspiracies. Research by Abacus Data from 2022 reveals that nearly half of Canadians think that “big events are controlled by small groups secretly working against us,” and over 40% believe that “much of our lives is controlled by plots hatched in secret places.” Fringe ideas are becoming more mainstream, and memes are a key vehicle transmitting these conspiratorial narratives to the general public.

The meme above illustrates how conspiracy theories can be transmitted to students. The example simultaneously denies and celebrates the Holocaust, which are two contradictory and irrational ideas. However, their comfortable coexistence in this meme provides insight into what may be motivating young students to go down the proverbial ‘rabbit hole’ and embrace both specific conspiracy theories and general conspiratorial thinking.

Humour is a key strategy in normalizing conspiratorial statements. It’s not surprising that such a narrative would appear in a meme. For several years now, individuals and groups with extreme right-wing politics have utilized internet memes to make their hateful beliefs more palatable to mainstream audiences – this was the signature strategy of the “Alt-Right.” Memes provide the propagandist with the excuse of plausible deniability, that what they are putting out into the world is simply distasteful humour, tapping into a form of ironic, often transgressive humour that is already popular both among young people in real life and online. This dynamic is clearly at work in the meme example, which is intended to illicit a shocked yet bemused reaction.

Students would likely come across the wolf meme through private chats, or on platforms meant to entertain and engage, such as Reddit or Tik Tok. The wolf meme is meant to illicit an amused reaction, which both smooths over the dissonance between the two contradictory positions and introduces students to extreme, hateful ideas in a “safe” format.

So how should a teacher respond to a student sharing a meme like this? Some say that the answer to emergent conspiratorial thinking is to address concerns and claims with reason, logic, and common sense. Unfortunately, that approach is often ineffective, as it assumes that conspiratorial thinking is grounded in rational ideas. It is not. The foundation of conspiratorial thinking is like the meme, inherently irrational and contradictory.

However, what IS rational are the human desires that drive individuals to start entertaining individual conspiratorial beliefs. The desire to feel smart and important, the seductive lure of secret or forbidden knowledge, alienation from mainstream society and sources of information, and the thrill of playing with the taboo are all significant factors in radicalization. Identifying these root causes can be a difficult and delicate task, but it is essential to address budding conspiratorial thinking.

If you have students who are sharing content like the wolf meme, it’s important to recognize that fact checking is likely insufficient. It’s important to try and recognize where specifically students are coming across such hate material, why they might be interested in such spaces, and what needs or desires are being met through the sharing of these memes.

In short, when it comes to conspiratorial thinking, it’s important to focus on the cause, rather than the symptoms.

Additional Resources:

·       Anti-Hate Network’s Anti-Hate Toolkit: https://www.antihate.school/introduction_toolkit

·       Book: “Walking Away from Hate: Our Journey Through Extremism” by Jeanette and Lauren Manning: https://www.tidewaterpress.ca/walking-away-from-hate/

·       Teacher Guide: https://www.tidewaterpress.ca/confronting-hate-teachers-resource-guide/

·       Parent Guide:  https://www.tidewaterpress.ca/confronting-hate-parents-resource-guide/