March 10, 2024 - 8:00am

A Labour government will use maths and history lessons to help tackle the threat of fake news and conspiracy theories among young people, the Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson said this week. “Critical thinking” will be embedded “throughout the curriculum”, in an effort to prepare young people for a world of “fake news, of international relations slowly chilling, of our security threatened by bots and lies as well as tanks and planes”.

Speaking to an education conference, she suggested that maths lessons could be a means to examine how conspiracy theorists or political actors manipulate statistics. Meanwhile history lessons could draw on the manipulation of propaganda totalitarian governments have used in the past, encouraging students “to look at the purpose of messages and what perspective that is coming from”. Maths teachers will reportedly be expected to give examples of “plausible-looking but egregiously manipulated figures from conspiracy theorists, or political actors such as Russian bots”, and teach how to pick them apart.

Ahead of an election year full of alarmism about the threat of AI-generated disinformation, soundbites about turning children into sensible and discerning young citizens may herald the likely New Labour Restoration. But, behind the headlines, there is an ongoing debate around the extent to which the population is indeed susceptible to such fake news. At present there is disagreement among researchers as to what the definition of “disinformation” widely used in research that has fuelled post-2016 alarmism actually means. For all their apparent expertise, disinformation specialists are arguably just as susceptible to politicised bias as they might be in more traditional forms of journalism.

Research has suggested that accusations of foreign interference via “bots” and organised disinformation campaigns are broadly unfounded, but still the paranoia persists. A notable recent panic involved suggestions that TikTok was driving increased levels of Holocaust denial among young people, with one in five supposedly thinking the massacre of millions of Jews during the Second World War never happened. Yet a revised survey criticising the opt-in polling which generated those headlines has put the number among under-30s closer to 3%.

Other researchers have argued that, contrary to alarmist headlines and other flawed polling, certain conspiracy theories, particularly around climate change, are in fact falling out of favour; a 2021 YouGov poll demonstrated that Britain has some of the lowest rates of belief in conspiracy theories in the world.

Phillipson has insisted that it Labour’s initiative is not a means to encourage “young people to view the world in a certain way”, but reorienting subjects which to some extent already teach these skills towards tackling the threat of conspiratorial thinking will undoubtedly involve politicised decisions around how to frame the issue. The questions which have to be asked include: which examples of “disinformation” will be used, what their adjacent conspiracies are, and why young people need to be wary about them.

Tempting as it may be to bring the extreme populist horrors of QAnon, Alex Jones and the “Great Reset” into the classroom to frame the seriousness of the issue, efforts to do so risk amplifying the precise disinformation they intend to tackle. A widely criticised BBC Verify survey in partnership with King’s College London made this mistake when it appeared to be polling people on conspiracy theories they had never actually heard of.

As the original commission into teaching young people about fake news in schools acknowledged, most schoolchildren, like the British population at large, still get their news from mainstream broadcasters. Labour plans will shift the emphasis away from the ongoing crisis of trust in British media, turning the classroom into the latest front line in the “information wars”. Forget the children: this will bring with it a whole set of debates that continue to divide the adults.

Fred Skulthorp is a writer living in England. His Substack is Bad Apocalypse