QAnon and anti-vaxxers brainwashed kids stuck at home during pandemic

Seventh-grade Alabama teacher Sarah Wildes relies on a tool called Checkology to teach her students to spot real messages and misinformation.

Courtesy Sarah Wildes

When Sarah Wildes, a seventh-grade teacher in Alabama, was asked by a student about the mass confusion surrounding the 2020 US presidential election results, she knew she had a big job ahead of her.

“I have to be careful, but I pointed out that we knew,” said Wildes, a science and technology teacher at Sparkman Middle School in the small town of Toney. “There are facts. There were committees reviewing the election. The numbers tell us a truth, but the bubbles on social media confuse us about that truth.”

Wildes and teachers across the country face an annoying and evolving challenge as the new school year begins, and students are returning to the classroom after an approximately 18-month hiatus from normal face-to-face learning. Since the last full classroom gathering, an entire industry of misinformation has exploded online, spreading conspiracy theories on everything from allegedly stealing the presidential election Joe Biden won to the spread of microchips in Covid-19 vaccines.

It’s bad enough that kids are exposed to dangerous falsehoods in their favorite social media apps like Facebook, YouTube, and TikTok. An equally big problem is that while many students are stuck at home during the pandemic, their days of virtual school have been disrupted by screaming parents who fell deep into the internet’s darkest rabbit holes.

About 15 percent of Americans believe QAnon’s conspiracy theories, according to a May report by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute and Interfaith Youth Core. QAnon believers were largely responsible for spreading “Stop the Steal” content on social media and supporting the lie that former President Donald Trump won the election.

According to an academic study published in May, 22% of Americans identify themselves as anti-Vaxxers, although scientists and public health officials agree on the extreme effectiveness and importance of Covid-19 vaccines.

For children who have not fully developed their critical thinking skills, fundamental truths are skewed by the combination of misinformation on social media and a growing number of betrayed and radicalized parents.

“They were at home consuming this information without really being able to get out of their own bladder since they were in quarantine,” said Wildes. “They were hungry for guidance on how to navigate all the things they saw.”

In addition to taking care of the standard curriculum and trying to make up for lost class time, Wildes takes responsibility for helping students filter out misinformation and find reliable news sources. It draws on the News Literacy Project (NLP), a Washington, DC nonprofit that last year developed Checkology, an online tool for educators to help students identify and dispel misinformation.

Checkology teaches students about the different types of misinformation they may encounter, the role of the press in democracy, understanding bias in the news, and how people get caught up in conspiracies. Since its launch in May 2016, Checkology has enrolled more than 1.3 million students and nearly 36,300 teachers.

“The pandemic, the elections, social justice issues – people are looking for information and educators need support to deal with this disinformation,” said Shaelynn Farnsworth, NLP director of educators for the network.

Find a Reddit community

Other online communities provide opportunities for the children of conspiracy theorists to network and share their experiences. And also for detoxification.

Mobius, a 17-year-old who lives on the west coast, said his mother was an anti-Vaxx who took the QAnon path. Mobius, who asked us not to use his real name to protect his family ties, said his mother was talking about coronavirus as biological warfare and believes the government is trying to profit from vaccines. He said 90% of their information comes from Facebook or TikTok.

In July, most of Mobius’ family was infected with Covid-19 after his mother contracted the virus and did not go into quarantine. She even traveled by plane while she was ill, Mobius said, adding that he was the only one in the family who got vaccinated and avoids infection.

He said his mother would not let his siblings get the vaccine and that he missed several vaccinations in his childhood.

Mobius posted about his experience on QAnonCasualties, a Reddit group that says it provides “support, resources, and a place to let off steam” for people who have friends or loved ones who have “been welcomed by QAnon.” The group was founded in July 2019 and has 186,000 members. It’s inundated with stories similar to the Mobius experience.

A woman wearing a needle during a vaccine protest against mandatory coronavirus disease (COVID-19) held outside New York City Hall in New York on August 16, 2021.

Jeenah moon | Reuters

A user post last month was from a university student who shared the fear she felt after her father showed her a video claiming Covid vaccines would render her sterile. A more recent post is from a 16-year-old girl who claims to have recently “escaped” from her abusive QAnon parents and not knowing whether to get the Covid vaccine.

“I don’t know what is real or not anymore,” she wrote on the Reddit board. “I’m scared and confused. My parents told me I was going to get blood clots, die, be dead within five years, be sterile, microchipped, government prosecuted, government controlled, etc.”

QAnon is a far-right conspiracy theory movement that emerged after the 2016 elections. Though the messages are incoherent, members often claim the world is controlled by a cabal of satanic and cannibalized elites who have conspired against former President Trump.

Mobius, who had just entered college and needed the vaccination to attend, said he began to question his family’s views when Trump took office. He was more proactive in finding the facts and turning to news sources rather than listening to his mother. He ended up on the Associated Press and the BBC as his most trusted media outlets.

Still, Mobius said, he tries to avoid talking to his mother’s family about anything remotely political. He said that his mother has not been able to spit out conspiracies since becoming ill, although her beliefs have not changed.

At QAnonCasualties, divorcees mourn the loss of decades of relationships, workers talk about quitting their jobs because of a boss’s anti-vaccination agent, and teenagers and young adults blow in despair about their parents.

Fear of “vaccine toxicity”

Another member of the Reddit group who asked to be named Vulture posted on the forum in early August looking for support and advice on how to deal with her mom.

Vulture, who is 18 years old and only felt comfortable under a pseudonym, described her mother as an anti-Vaxxer who plunged into the QAnon conspiracy in early 2020, at the start of the pandemic.

She said her mother believes 5G cell towers are harmful (a QAnon theory is that 5G is causing the coronavirus) and she doesn’t allow her kids to have WiFi at night because she is worried about the radiation. Geier said her mother got her information from Facebook, YouTube, Telegram, and even personal groups.

Vulture’s parents divorced and her mother is now married to another woman. Her mother’s wife was vaccinated earlier this year, which caused a riff in the relationship because Vulture’s mother feared she had “vaccine toxicity” and told her wife that she no longer loved her unconditionally.

Geier said her mother also threatened to throw her and her younger siblings out of the house if they get vaccinated, a threat that weighs heavily on her, especially as she prepares for her freshman year of college.

Jake A, 33, aka Yellowstone Wolf, of Phoenix, wrapped in a QAnon flag, speaks to supporters of US President Donald Trump as they protest outside the Maricopa County’s Department of Elections during the post-US presidential census in Phoenix , Arizona, on 5th, 2020.

Olivier Touron | AFP | Getty Images

While teenagers like Mobius and Vulture find like-minded people online, groups like the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) try to protect children from falling victim to hoax and disinformation.

Last year, PERIL and SPLC published “A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Youth Radicalization” to help adults deal with teenagers at risk of extremism and conspiracy theories.

“Radicalization is a problem for our entire society, from the innocent people it makes victims to to the family ties it breaks,” says the Führer. It has sections on how to spot warning signs, understand what drives people to extremism, and how caregivers can deal with youth at risk.

PERIL and the SPLC have also created additions to the guide for educators, consultants, coaches and mentors.

Seventh-grade Alabama teacher Sarah Wildes relies on a tool called Checkology to teach her students to spot real messages and misinformation.

Courtesy Sarah Wildes

Wildes, the school teacher in Alabama, sees a bigger role for the classroom and technologies like Checkology in combating the spread of misinformation.

“Once people start going down the rabbit hole, it’s hard to get them out,” she said.

Checkology is not dogmatic in its approach, said Wildes. Through interactive lessons, the program aims to provide children with the tools to discover what is a joke and what is an evidenced fact. NLP also puts together a weekly newsletter, The Sift, designed to help teachers impart news literacy to their students and understand why a spreading hoax or conspiracy theory is inaccurate.

Wildes said, based on the behavior she observes, that she believes many middle school students today are better equipped than adults to reject misinformation.

“I think they really enjoy being addressed in a way that blames them for their own thoughts,” she said.

SEE: Former Facebook data protection officer to fight misinformation about vaccines

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