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Did Biden Really Steal The Election? Students Learn How To Debunk Conspiracy Theories In This Course

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Trump supporters attend an election fraud rally in December 2020 in Washington, D.C. Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images
Text saying: Uncommon Courses, from The Conversation

Uncommon Courses is an occasional series from The Conversation U.S. highlighting unconventional approaches to teaching.

Title of course:

Debunking conspiracy theories

What prompted the idea for the course?

I am interested in how people internalize or learn about political beliefs they go on to adopt. This interest coincided with my concerns about the seeming ease with which some far-right conservatives and supporters of former President Donald Trump peddled patently bogus conspiracies about election fraud in 2020.

One of the outcomes of these schemes was Trump supporters’ attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Sadly, the belief that the 2020 presidential election was fraudulent, even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, has remained one core element of the Trump 2024 campaign. I remembered the work of historian Richard Hofstadter, who coined the term the “paranoid style” in politics in a Harper’s Magazine essay in 1964. His main idea was that some politicians were using fear and a paranoid style of thinking to sway voters. They refused to accept the current state of society and wanted to make it appear that there was a looming threat to the country.

Hofstadter’s work was prompted by the actions of an extreme right-wing movement called the John Birch Society. I had a feeling of déjà vu with Trump.

What does the course explore?

A black and white leaflet says 'Does history repeat itself' and shows a photo of John F Kennedy. It has text comparing the deaths of Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln.
A 1970 conspiracy theory handout lists the similarities with the killing of John F. Kennedy and the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

What’s the real truth about the moon landing? Who really killed JFK? These are just some of the questions we explore in this course. My goal is to balance the serious with the absurd.

I want students to identify the root causes of the conspiracy, use vetted sources and learn to be good consumers of online information.

I also want to train students in the practice of critical analysis. The American Psychological Association has shown that people who practice conspiratorial thinking are more likely to seek simple solutions to complex problems and experience feelings of fear and isolation.

We begin the course examining what we can learn from both political science and psychology. We look at the long history of hoaxes, frauds and deliberate conspiracies in American history, stretching back to the Illuminati, anti-Catholicism and antisemitism.

What is old is new again. The idea that a mysterious group like the Illuminati is secretly in control of the world has not gone away. False beliefs about various groups such as Catholics and Jews are, sadly, recycled again and again.

The course also covers the current conspiracy theories about Taylor Swift. This includes the false belief that the outcome of the February 2024 Super Bowl was predetermined so that the Kansas City Chiefs would win, and Swift, the girlfriend of Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, would announce her support for President Joe Biden.

My course also explores much more serious threats, like QAnon – a dangerous movement that falsely believes secret government operatives are running child sex rings.

We also take a look at topics like UFOs, aliens, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster.

Why is this course relevant now?

In the current age of political polarization, it is critical that I do all I can to equip future leaders and citizens with the tools they need to suss out fact from distraction and outright fiction.

What’s a critical lesson from the course?

My hope is that my students leave the course with the confidence that they need to not only recognize but to openly combat disinformation. We live in an age of oversaturation of information. My students are digital natives. They rarely receive information from traditional media outlets like newspapers. When one considers the wealth of disinformation on the internet, or the prospect that TikTok is their primary source of news, it is critical that students are educated about how to evaluate information.

What materials does the course feature?

I use a number of resources in this class, including magazine articles, academic papers, books and websites that give people tools to recognize false information.

Our reading list includes the books “A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America,” “Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America” and “The Paranoid Style in American Politics and other essays”.

What will the course prepare students to do?

My students will feel some discomfort at times confronting their own biases and preconceived notions.

The idea is that my course will prepare students to question and then determine the veracity of patently false information. My students will also be prepared to recognize that most conspiracies are born from conditions of stress and the fear of the other.

The Conversation

David Cason does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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Shadow War No More: Hostilities Between Israel And Iran Have Strayed Into Direct Warfare – Is There Any Going Back?

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Israel’s air defense system intercepted nearly all missiles fired from Iran on April 13, 2024. AP Photo/Tomer Neuberg

For decades, Iran and Israel have been engaged in a “shadow war.”

Falling short of direct military confrontation, this conflict has been characterized by war through other means – through proxies, cyber attacks, economic sanctions and fiery rhetoric.

Events over the last few weeks in the Middle East have, however, changed the nature of this conflict. First, Israel – it is widely presumed – broke diplomatic norms by bombing an Iranian mission in Syria. The operation, in which 12 individuals were killed – including seven officials from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corp Quds Force – ratcheted up the stakes.

It also crossed a new threshold. Never before had that many Quds Force or other Iranian military officials been killed in a single attack by Iran’s adversaries. Almost immediately, rhetoric from leaders in Tehran indicated Iran would respond swiftly and dramatically.

Then, on April 13, 2024, Iran responded by crossing a line it had, to date, not crossed: launching a direct attack on Israeli soil.

Iran’s attack against Israel was also qualitatively and quantitatively different than anything Tehran had directly attempted before. Israel Defense Forces spokesperson Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said that it consisted of at least 170 drones, 30 cruise missiles and 120 surface-to-surface missiles. The attack was launched from positions in Iran, Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

In physical terms, the barrage caused little damage. Hagari said that 99% of the projectiles sent by Iran were intercepted by air and missile defenses, and that only one person was injured. For now, it appears that Tehran is content with its own response; the Iranian Mission to the United Nations posted a message on social media following the attack indicating that the operation had concluded.

But as an expert on national security and the Middle East, I believe the Iranian attack was not about inflicting physical damage on Israel. It was more about Iran attempting to restore deterrence with Israel following the Damascus incident and showing strength to its domestic audience. In so doing, Tehran’s leaders are also conveying the message that should Israel conduct more aggressive actions against Iranian interests, they are willing to escalate.

Friends, then longtime foes

Iran and Israel have been adversaries virtually since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, when the Shah of Iran fled the country to be replaced by a theocracy. New leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini broke the former regime’s ties with Israel and quickly adopted a strident anti-Israel agenda both in words and policy.

In the decades since, Israel and Iran have inflicted harm on the other’s interests in both the physical and virtual worlds. This has included major terrorist attacks backed by Iran against Israeli interests in Argentina in 1992 and 1994, Tehran’s backing of Hezbollah’s grinding insurgency against Israel in southern Lebanon, and the major operational support provided to Hamas that in part enabled the attacks on Oct. 7, 2023.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials have blamed Israel for the killing of senior military officials and scientists related to Iran’s nuclear program in Iran or elsewhere in the region.

The lack of open acknowledgment by Israel of the killings was to create the illusion of plausible deniability and implant doubt about who was actually responsible.

In recent years, Iran has relied heavily on its “axis of resistance” – militant groups in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza that share some of Tehran’s goals, notably in regard to countering Israel and weakening U.S. influence in the region. In the monthslong conflict sparked by the Oct. 7 attack, Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen and the Islamic Resistance in Iraq network have repeatedly attacked Israeli and U.S. interests.

‘A clear message’

So what comes next? A lot will depend on how Israel and the U.S. respond.

Officially, U.S. President Joe Biden has stated that in repelling the Iran missiles and drones, Israel had sent “a clear message to its foes that they cannot effectively threaten [its] security.”

But there are reports that Biden has warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Israel should “take the win” and could not rely on the U.S. supporting any offensive operations against Iran.

Men and women sit around a table in a room.
President Joe Biden and his national security team discussing Iran’s attack on April 13, 2024.
Adam Schultz/The White House via AP

A number of factors will determine whether Iran and Israel continue to launch more attacks against each other out in the open, or revert to shadow warfare.

These include how each side reads domestic sentiment. Netanyahu is already facing pressure based on his handling of the war in Gaza and previous domestic concerns regarding attempts to influence the Israeli Supreme Court, among other matters.

Likewise, inside Iran, the United Nations reports that two years after major public protests inside the country based on socio-economic conditions, the regime in Iran continues to ruthlessly suppress dissent.

Apart from domestic considerations, both Iran and Israel will also weigh the risks of more open confrontation against their current operational capabilities. Here, it seems clear that neither Iran nor Israel can decisively win a prolonged military campaign against each other.

Israel’s powerful military certainly has the ability to launch air and missile strikes against Iranian interests in the region, as they have already demonstrated in Syria and Lebanon for many years. And Israel probably could do the same for a short period of time directly into Iran.

But Israel would face major challenges in sustaining a prolonged combined arms campaign in Iran, including the relatively small size of the Israel Defense Forces compared with Iran’s military, and the physical distance between both countries. Israel has openly conducted military exercises for years that seem more focused on simulating air strikes and perhaps special operations raids against a smaller number of targets inside Iran, like nuclear facilities.

Moreover, launching a new front by directly attacking Iran risks diverting Israeli resources away from more immediate threats in Gaza, the West Bank and its northern border with Lebanon.

Of course, Israel has fought and won wars with its regional adversaries in the past.

But the conflicts Israel fought against its Arab neighbors in 1967 and 1973 took place in a different military age and prior to the development of drone warfare, cyber operations and support to Iranian-backed proxies and partners in Israel’s immediate neighborhood.

Wary of further escalation

A similar type of campaign against Iran would be unlike anything Israel has faced. Israel would no doubt find it difficult to achieve its objectives without a high-level of support from the United States, and probably Arab countries like Jordan and Egypt. And there is no indication that such backing would be forthcoming.

Iran, too, will be wary of further escalation. Tehran demonstrated on April 13 that it possesses a large – and perhaps growing – inventory of ballistic missiles, drones and cruise missiles.

However, the accuracy and effectiveness of many of these platforms remains in question – as evidenced by the seeming ease in which most were shot down. The Israeli and U.S. air and missile defense network in the region continues to prove reliable in that regard.

Given the realities and risks, I believe it seems more likely that Iran will seek to revert back to its unconventional warfare strategy of supporting its proxy axis of resistance. Overt attacks, such as the one carried out on April 13, may be reserved for signaling resolve and demonstrating strength to its domestic audience.

The danger is now that war has come out of the shadows, it may be hard to put it back there.

The Conversation

Javed Ali does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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‘I’m Not Black, I’m O.J.’: What O.J. Simpson’s Life Showed About Transcending Race And Being Trapped By It

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O.J. Simpson listens to testimony during his 1995 trial, in which he was acquitted of murder charges. David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images

It’s still unclear when – or if – O.J. Simpson actually said the words that rapper Jay-Z attributed to him in his 2017 Grammy-nominated song “The Story of O.J.”

But the words stuck and came to symbolize the complicated relationship the Black community had with Simpson, who died on April 11, 2024, from complications of prostate cancer. He was 76 years old.

“I’m not black, I’m O.J.,” Jay-Z wrote.

Indeed, O.J. did transcend race. He had the life of the rich and famous that many Black and white people could only dream of. In the early 1990s, the former professional football player and Hollywood actor was earning US$55,000 per month and had a net worth of nearly $11 million, according to court records.

But it all came crashing down on June 12, 1994, after the vicious killing of his former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman.

Simpson was charged in both murders and during the trial became the epitome of Black, male toxicity. Though acquitted – in large part because of the Los Angeles Police Department’s racist history of police brutality – his trial exposed the racial divisions within America and the deep-seated resentment that many Black people had for the U.S. criminal justice system.

As a scholar of ethnic studies, I followed the case of O.J. Simpson as it unfolded and understood the jubilation that many Black people felt after his acquittal. I also understood that jubilation was more about the fairness of the criminal justice system than it ever was about O.J.

The rise of a Black media star

During the early 1960s, Orenthal James Simpson was a cultural hero for millions of Black boys and girls who saw him dominate college football as a star running back for the University of Southern California. He led the team to a national championship in 1968 and earned a Heisman Trophy, the sport’s highest award.

A Black man stands next to a white woman as they pose for a photograph.
O.J. Simpson and his wife Nicole Brown Simpson attend a party in New York City in 1993.
Rose Hartman/Getty Images

Simpson went on to have a spectacular professional football career before turning his star power to Hollywood movies and commercials, the most memorable of which saw him running through an airports to get a Hertz rental car.

Tragic fall

All of that stardom made Simpson’s arrest on June 17, 1994, even more bizarre.

I recall watching the slow-moving chase of the white Ford Bronco in which Simpson fled, followed by dozens of police cars on a Los Angeles highway. Inside the Bronco, Simpson held a gun to his head.

Given his behavior, Simpson appeared to be guilty in the court of public opinion. But during the trial, defense attorney Johnnie Cochran was able to shift the focus of the case away from Simpson’s erratic behavior and to the racist behavior of the Los Angeles Police Department.

A photograph of a Black man taken by the Los Angeles police.
O.J. Simpson following his arrest in Los Angeles on June 17, 1994.
Kypros/Getty Images

In what was dubbed by media analysts “the trial of the century,” Cochran was able to create reasonable doubt in the minds of the jury after he detailed the numerous forensic mistakes that Los Angeles police made in handling evidence in the case. Cochran’s defense ended with Simpson trying on a pair of gloves that prosecutors claimed were used in the murders.

“If they don’t fit, you must acquit,” Cochran told the jury.

They didn’t fit.

The Simpson trial came at a time when police brutality in Los Angeles had become the subject of national media attention after the March 1991 beating of Rodney King by four Los Angeles police officers. A year later, on April 29, 1992, a jury found the four officers not guilty, and that verdict triggered days of riots in Los Angeles.

In my view, this backdrop was partly the reason why Black people saw Simpson as yet another Black man falsely charged with – and often lynched for – a crime involving a white woman.

No longer a symbol of the American dream, O.J. became the black face of domestic violence and a tragic lesson on the flaws of the U.S. criminal justice system.

The Conversation

Rodney Coates does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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A Monumental Case, Unfolding In A Court Of Law And A Court Of Public Opinion – Trump Goes On Trial

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Former President Donald Trump stands trial on April 15, 2024. Yuki Iwamura//AFP via Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump’s New York trial on charges related to paying hush money to an adult film star begins on April 15, 2024. The Conversation U.S. asked Tim Bakken, a former New York prosecutor and now a legal scholar teaching at West Point, and Karrin Vasby Anderson, a political communication expert at Colorado State University, to set the scene from each of their perspectives.

It will be a “monumental drama” inside and outside the courtroom, said Bakken. Anderson adds, “It’s not just what happens inside the courtroom, but how we manage it outside the courtroom, that will be equally consequential for us as a nation.”

Bakken: The scene is very dramatic: A former president is on trial, for the first time. Trump is facing relatively minor charges that are not complex, and the evidence should not require a complex presentation. But the aura surrounding the introduction of the evidence has rarely occurred in world or U.S. history. And that’s not an overstatement.

Trump has been charged with over 30 counts of filing a false document. There’s just one basic charge: that he filed a false document and enlisted other people in his organization to help him file the false document to conceal the fact that he had paid money to Stormy Daniels to urge her not to speak up about his relationship with her.

A gray-haired man in a dress shirt and tie, sitting in a study.
Juan M. Merchan, the judge who will preside over Donald Trump’s hush money trial.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Anderson: The rhetorical scene is complicated. Let’s break it into three separate scenes.

The first is sort of inside the courtroom, where there’s a modicum of moderation, particularly from Trump’s lawyers when speaking on his behalf. They speak of him as if he is like any other former U.S. president. There’s no recognition of the ways in which Trump has not conducted himself like past U.S. presidents, both in office and after leaving the White House.

The second stage is how Trump interacts with the judicial system in nonjudicial, nondemocratic ways. He’s doing a lot of communication outside of the courtroom, and that’s going to influence the way that we understand the case as it is unfolding.

One of the reasons why Trump has been subjected to a number of gag orders is because his rhetoric outside the courtroom appears to be trying to potentially intimidate jurors. If it’s not outright intimidation, then he’s openly trying to cast doubt by spreading misinformation and false information about the people who are involved in the case, including judges and their families.

The third scene is what Trump does on Truth Social, his social media platform, and at his rallies, which is what every authoritarian does: their rhetorical formula. They use their communication to destabilize democratic institutions, dehumanize opponents and scapegoat others. The institution that Trump is looking to destabilize with his pronouncements at rallies and on social media is the judiciary.

How can a judge keep control of a trial when all of this is happening?

Bakken: From what I’ve observed of Trump, once he enters a courtroom or is inside a legal proceeding, there doesn’t seem to be any issue in regard to misbehavior. He’s a practical person in that regard. But he goes just about as far as he can.

Anderson: Inside the courtroom, he and his lawyers are going to present him as a sort of normal, typical defendant, remarkable only in that he is a former president. When it is to his advantage to use democratic norms strategically, he will. But he doesn’t abide by them; he weaponizes them. What he’s really doing inside the courtroom is posing as someone who doesn’t need to have multiple gag orders applied.

Bakken: Everybody has fear in a criminal legal proceeding. You’re facing an institution that can imprison you. But the things that Trump is doing outside the courtroom, at least recently, seem to reflect his concern that he cannot control a proceeding. How does a person deal with the fear that emanates when somebody else has control over you? Some people are more meticulous and will crouch. Other people – there are few of these because the stakes are very high – will strike back. And that’s who Trump is. He’s learned throughout his life that the way he can survive is to strike back at people.

Anderson: Trump recently posted, in reference to the judge in his upcoming trial, “If this Partisan Hack wants to put me in the ‘clink’ for speaking the open and obvious TRUTH, I will gladly become a Modern Day Nelson Mandela – It will be my GREAT HONOR.”

Right there, he’s hedging his bets. He doesn’t want to go to jail. What he has to do is get ahead of that message and further destabilize the democratic norms, by saying essentially, “Well, if I get convicted, it’s not me getting convicted in a court of law. It’s me getting thrown in the clink like Nelson Mandela.”

A wood-paneled courtroom.
Judge Juan Merchan’s courtroom in New York.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Bakken: There are a lot of people who comment on the legal system and say exactly the same things that Trump does. Very few will accuse those people of being authoritarian.

I’m certainly not an advocate of Trump or the district attorney in this case – I’m trying to look at it neutrally. And in any number of controversial cases going back decades, we can see people arguing that the system is unfair.

Trump is on a larger stage, but he’s essentially saying the same things that 50 out of 100 people would say in downtown New York City, where his courtroom will be. They’ll say the system is rigged. I heard that, of course, as a prosecutor, and I continue to hear that on an almost daily basis from people when they comment about the legal system.

Anderson: Trump does play the victim and the martyr, saying the system is unjust and charges against him are politically motivated.

But an authoritarian doesn’t stop there. They flip it. So it goes seamlessly, both at rallies and in social media, from “Look at me, I’m like Nelson Mandela, they’re going to throw me in jail,” to “If you don’t want this terrible system to be exploiting you, you’ve got to elect me, I alone can fix it.” He pairs those two things. That’s one of the key indicators that this is not just victim rhetoric; it’s actually authoritarian rhetoric.

Since 2015, there’s been a dramatic uptick in attacks on judges. That’s a telltale sign that Trump is not just critiquing the system or even just playing the victim. He is flipping that to say, we need to fight back using these other means, and his supporters are hearing that message and they’re threatening judges.

Some last thoughts from each of you?

Bakken: The case will be a monumental drama not only inside the courtroom, but outside the courtroom. Whether the trial can go off the way trials have normally gone off is a real test of our country and our legal system. And if it does, then we can have some confidence that Trump’s extracurricular statements and admonitions have not affected the jurors.

Anderson: I hope that as people are paying attention to the trial, they see themselves as actors and participants in creating whatever culture is going to come out of this. It’s not just what happens inside the courtroom, but how we manage it outside the courtroom, that will be equally consequential for us as a nation.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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