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Confronting conspiracy theories and educating young people

Professor Shelly Tochluk, PhD, discusses her latest publication, a guide for parents to prevent radicalization in young people

July 26, 2022

The mass shooting at a Buffalo, New York, supermarket on May 14, in which 10 Black people were killed and three other people were injured, was the latest attack in the U.S. motivated by white nationalist and far-right-wing ideology. It highlighted a long-standing concern among experts and authorities about the violent power of racist extremism in the country.

The guide is a resource for parents, caregivers, and any adult committed to interrupting the flow of bigoted ideas and conspiracy theories.
The guide is a resource for parents, caregivers, and any adult committed to interrupting the flow of bigoted ideas and conspiracy theories.

Shelly Tochluk, PhD, professor of education at Mount Saint Mary’s University, has been researching white skin privilege, white nationalist movements and the rise of conspiracy theories for more than a decade. The third edition of her first book was released last week, “Witnessing Whiteness: The Journey into Racial Awareness and Antiracist Action” (2022). In this new edition, professor Tochluk offers a comprehensive exploration of what white people experience when learning about race and it leads readers through a self-reflective process that creates clarity about today's challenging and often contradicting messages about how to be antiracist.

This year, she also published “Confronting Conspiracy Theories and Organized Bigotry at Home. A Guide for Parents and Caregivers,” which offers a toolkit for parents on recognizing and preventing radicalization in young people.

Co-authored by Christine Saxman and published by the Western States Center, the guide includes background information about some of the most prevalent bigoted and antidemocracy  ideologies and conspiracy theories, and it provides a framework and guidance on how to communicate with young people to counter bigotry and radicalized behavior.

Tochluk, who has also written “But I Just Don't See It! Making White Superiority Visible(2013), is dedicated to fostering anti-racism within the white community. In this interview, she discusses some of the factors behind the rise of white nationalist movements and conspiracy ideas, the important role that parents and caregivers play in stopping the proliferation of bigotry and what we can do as society to confront anti-democracy movements.

 

  • How did this publication come to fruition?

My colleague, Christine Saxman, and I began focusing on the rise of hate groups in the fall of 2017. In 2018 and 2019, we offered workshops at the White Privilege Conference to warn others that this issue needed attention. In spring 2019, we learned of the Western States Center  and its publication, “Confronting White Nationalism in Schools.” We thought it was extremely important and began sharing it whenever each of us offered workshops or presentations.

In Summer 2019, I became acquainted with Joanna Schroeder who had a Twitter thread about hate groups targeting white boys go viral and was doing interviews for media outlets like CNN.

That fall, Christine and I attended the WSC’s conference and learned about how the group developed their toolkit. Following that conference, I reached out to the executive director of the organization, Eric K. Ward, to propose that their toolkit could use a companion, a guide that offered specific language (like sentences starters and questions) for parents and teachers to help them talk to young people and interrupt the recruitment into hate.

In late 2019, Christine and I drafted the Caregiver’s Guide and submitted the initial draft to WSC. However, when the pandemic hit, the project was paused. In the fall of 2020, we reconvened to consider if the guide as written was still relevant. Much had shifted in that year, particularly the convergence of conspiracy theories and hate group formations. We were now looking at a broader, more complex infiltration of bigotry and anti-democracy sentiment into mainstream discourse. With WSC’s approval, Christine and I revised the draft Guide in late 2020. Throughout the rest of 2021, WSC had their researchers review and refine the introductory pages using their expertise. The Caregiver’s Guide was released in spring 2022.

 

  • Shelly Tochluk, PhD, is professor of education at Mount Saint Mary's University and has published several publications focusing on issues of race.
    Shelly Tochluk, PhD, is professor of education at Mount Saint Mary's University and has published several publications focusing on issues of race.
    As the guide notes, in the last few years there has been a rise in violence and other activity from white nationalist and other anti-democracy groups. What are some of the reasons that explain this growth of these conspiracy theories and anti-democratic movements?

There are many contributing factors that explain the convergence and expanded reach of conspiracy theories and anti-democracy movements over the last few years. Some include: 1) an already large foundation of bigoted and conspiracy-minded content existing online; 2) political figures who gained power and remained in power even after openly spreading hate-filled and conspiracy-minded speech against immigrants, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, liberals, etc.; 3) media platforms’ algorithms that amplify and suggest more extreme content to users; 4) media echo-chambers that allow people to only pay attention to what they already believe; 5) the pandemic that pushed many into even more time spent online than usual; and 6) the use of fear and nativist sentiments by many politicians and media personalities that tell people that their basic freedoms and country are at risk.

 

  • Sadly, this is a very timely and relevant publication, given the recent mass shootings across the country. Why is it important that parents and caregivers get educated on these issues to prevent the radicalization of young people?

Parents and caregivers have an essential role to play in stopping the proliferation of hate. Kids and teens are heavily influenced by what they and their friends see and hear online and on social media. Recent studies suggest that most kids are exposed to bigoted content at some point. Young people need support to understand the manipulation underlying that content and its dangers. Those particularly at risk of indoctrination are young people who feel disconnected and isolated, who question their identity and how their lives can have purpose. Parents who are educated on these issues can recognize the early warning signs, before young people get attached to influencers and become drawn into online groups. The danger is that these groups provide connection and a sense of purpose, as warped from reality as it may be. Once people identify with those spreading bigoted or conspiracy-fueled content, it can be a challenge to pull them back out.

 

  • What’s the best way for parents and educators to recognize and prevent radicalized and bigotry behavior from teenagers?

The Caregiver’s Guide offers a framework that can help people recognize where someone might be in the indoctrination process. The key is for parents and educators to cultivate a collaborative relationship with young people to be aware of what they are accessing and then develop an ongoing conversation with them about what they see and hear and how they make sense of it.  Useful questions include: What does that mean?; Why is it funny?; What are the people who created that meme trying to suggest?; Is this something you agree with? Why?; What are you experiencing that tells you it’s valid or a good idea?

When parents and educators support young people to question the memes and messages they ingest, kids and teens become better equipped to see through the manipulation before it takes hold. This requires partnering with them to use critical thinking when considering what kind of world that online content leads toward, how it fits with their own values, and the kind of world they want to live in. Demonstrating the capacity to hold a nuanced, complex frame of mind is crucial and offers a model for how to navigate the rapid social changes we are experiencing without descending into reactive fear responses.

 

  • What can we do as society to confront conspiracy theories and hate movements?

We need to keep telling the truth and push against the various lies swirling around us. For example, as an educator, I recognize the close connection all of this has to the anti-Critical Race Theory movement. We need to challenge the fear-mongering narratives and actively speak up for programs, books and people that help us take stock of past and ongoing injustices so we can cultivate a more empathetic and equity-minded citizenry. Right now, there is an emboldened movement challenging the value of our form of democracy, and those challenging it have mobilized a highly activated segment of the population. Each of us needs to understand this and join with others to make our voices heard.

 

  • What type of research did you and your co-author conduct to write the guide and suggest approaches and recommendations to prevent or reverse this type of radicalized behavior?

Personally, I spent a year consuming every article, podcast, interview, documentary and book I could find on the various hate groups, their motivations and their tactics. I attended as many workshops and events I could where other people who study this were gathering and sharing information. For example, I learned about the stages of indoctrination by attending a UCLA gathering where this research was shared. For the details related to how parents can support their children, we depended a lot on the insight of Joanna Schroeder, the mom who has a background in media and messaging and had been doing an amazing job articulating her process with her own kids. To write the Caregiver’s Guide, I initially interviewed Joanna to get key insights. Christine and I then drafted the content, and then Joanna provided editorial support. Western States Center has a team of expert researchers who honed the guide to ensure that it reflects their deep understanding of what is currently happening.

 

  • Are you currently working on any new publications? 

Christine and I both focus on white racial identity development. We understand how confusing issues of race and antiracism can be, and we want to help well-meaning white people understand the terrain so we can avoid feeling stuck and internally conflicted. Our current writing speaks directly to how the controversial statement put forward by white nationalists on flyers and stickers, “It’s okay to be white,” can be both problematic and true at the same time. We explain how white identity is being used to manipulate people toward bigoted views as we explore how each position within the racial identity development process can make white people more or less susceptible to bigoted messages and more or less invested in antiracist messages. As we explore each developmental position and their corresponding resonant messages, we offer suggestions for how to have productive conversations with others so we can move ourselves and other white people toward a stronger anti-bias, antiracist stance.