On the first Monday night in June, Michelle Chikaonda lay awake in her apartment in West Philadelphia listening to explosions she later learned were ATMs being blown up. The next day, thousands of demonstrators marched through the city center; local officials held a press conference to denounce a group of white vigilantes who had shown up in another neighborhood with baseball bats and hammers; and Chikaonda logged on to Zoom to help a group of middle and high school students make sense of all of it.
Her after-school class, called “Conspiracy Outbreak,” focused on how to suss out reliable news from misinformation about COVID-19. Chikaonda, an essayist with a day job at the University of Pennsylvania, had agreed to teach the program for a local nonprofit, Mighty Writers, after volunteering at one of its lunch distribution sites for families after schools closed. There, she saw firsthand how much her low-income neighbors were struggling with the pandemic. “It honestly made me angry, how vulnerable so many Americans are,” says Chikaonda.
When she was growing up in Malawi, people spoke about the United States as a place without problems; during one visit home as an adult, a friend jokingly asked her whether Americans even died. For the 35-year-old writer, the coronavirus put an end to the last of those illusions. “I wanted to be able to be a part of meaning-making in the middle of this,” she says. “Being able to influence this small group of students, but really being a part of the larger conversation about how we understand what is happening around us.”
Mighty Writers has run classes on fake news before, but the pandemic presented a whole new realm of misinformation to explore. In each weekly class, between five and 10 kids from 6th through 12th grade call into the Zoom meeting from their apartments, stoops, or yards. Each class begins with announcements and a warmup exercise, like talking about what you’d bring if you knew you were about to be teleported to a deserted island. Jared, a quiet boy with a worried expression, responded that in an ideal situation, he would never get into a teleportation machine.
Then they dig into some aspect of coronavirus news, from masks to Bill Gates’ funding for vaccines. Whatever the topic, Chikaonda urges the students to think about how they really know what they think they know. Did they see it in the news? Did they hear it from a parent? Or from a paranoia-prone cousin? “My project isn’t really to tell them what’s true,” she says. “The most important thing to me, is that whatever you believe, you have reasons, and good ways of finding out why you believe it.”
For its first five weeks, her class focused on the coronavirus, but then the national conversation began to shift. When a viral cell phone video from New York’s Central Park showed a white woman making a false 911 report about a black birdwatcher, Chikaonda dedicated a class to evidence: Why it was important, and how they could use it to protect themselves. The students, all of whom are kids of color, wrote about times when they’d needed evidence to prove their innocence.
Jared, who preferred not to speak aloud in class, wrote a note in the chat about how he’d used video footage to prove his brother, not he, had broken a window at home. “That is awesome,” Chikaonda declared. Another shared about how a classmate vouched for him when a teacher was convinced he’d copied someone else’s work. “I’m gonna call that eyewitness testimony,” she responded.
The evening after that class, Chikaonda read about how George Floyd had been killed by a police officer in Minneapolis. By the next week’s video call, an uprising against racism and police brutality had ripped though the heart of Philadelphia. Distinguishing true and false information was harder than ever as videos of chanting crowds, tear gas, and looting saturated social media. Police departments and other authorities churned out inaccurate or misleading claims, such as the false statements by Minnesota officials that the people responsible for property destruction at Minneapolis protests had come from outside the state.
“I know this has been a particularly complicated week,” Chikaonda said at the start of the next class. “I’ve been thinking a lot, this week, about how folks are using social media to both communicate with each other, and to tie themselves to each other.” Some students kept their cameras turned off and stayed quiet.
Chikaonda asked her class to think of hashtags to describe how they were feeling. One girl wrote #Haven’tSeentTheSunInDays. A new student picked #quarantine and #bored. Marlowe, a precocious 12-year-old with a fountain of curly hair, chose #meme, #Reddit, and #skateboard. “All I’ve been doing pretty much the past week has just been looking at memes,” he cheerfully told the class. But recently, he said, he’d spotted what looked like a convoy driving past his house. “Two SWAT team vans, and a bunch of police cars behind it,” he said. “I was looking at the numbers on them, and where they were from. They were all from different places. That’s when I looked it up, and heard the news [of the protests].”
“Where did you get your news from?” asked Chikaonda.
“I found something on ABC,” Marlowe recalled. Later, he’d seen pictures of his old neighborhood at the center of the protests and thought, Wow, this is pretty bad. Other kids who live outside the city center had followed along on Instagram. Nouriya, who joins the class from her family’s home in Senegal, explained that her friends had been posting black squares on their feeds. “I did not do it because I didn’t really understand exactly why,” she said. “I don’t understand the concept.”
“I think there’s a much better way we people can make our voices be heard, rather than breaking into stores and stuff,” volunteered Andre, a high school senior from a Jamaican immigrant family. As he explained how people would now need to travel further to go shopping, a young girl with pink beads in her braids appeared behind him on his stoop, giggling and shrieking. He turned around to calm her, then rejoined the class. “We breaking into our own people’s businesses. That shit’s so crazy. And everybody forgot about COVID.”
“It’s like coronavirus disappeared,” Chikaonda nodded.
She showed the students a slideshow of intentionally false social media posts, many of which exaggerated the destructiveness of the protests. Chikaonda had pulled some of them from Twitter during the hours she’d been spending scrolling. One purported to show a children’s hospital set on fire by protesters. Another mislabeled a 2015 shipping container explosion in China as a burned police station in Minneapolis. “These images, even though they are increasingly being debunked, are nonetheless spreading like wildfire,” Chikaonda told the students. “That influences how people feel about what they’re going to do next, feel about the protests, feel about the ongoing unrest.”
Bad information, she added, was harmful because of its power to distract. “If we can’t see what’s real, then we don’t know what it is we might actually have to do,” she said. In one image she shared, MSNBC graphics had been overlaid on a frame from the zombie apocalypse movie World War Z showing plumes of smoke rising from the streets of Philadelphia. “For example, if you saw that photo, as I did, of Philadelphia theoretically being on fire in multiple locations, you might think the thing you actually need to do is leave the city.”
That had been her own conclusion, she tells me, when she first saw the phony image of her city burning. Her friends from the university, too, were scared by what they were seeing on social media. One couple asked her if she needed help getting out of her neighborhood. Chikaonda had declined; she’d read more, discovered the photo was a fake, and learned that most protests were taking place far from her apartment. “My scrolling and collecting as much information as possible as to what’s good and bad is so that I have a good answer when I say, ‘No, I’m fine,'” she says. “They also don’t fully know what to believe, you know, from their enclaves.”
Knowing what to believe can be especially hard right now. From the pandemic to the protests, the events of 2020 have offered up many compelling reasons to distrust authority—from health departments manipulating COVID-19 statistics to US Park Police lying about using tear gas on protesters, not to mention the constant stream of misinformation from the White House. Meanwhile, Chikaonda explains, communities of color have long had good reasons to look askance at official sources. “A lot of us come from regions of the world where our colonial and racial histories are chock full of white authorities coming in and telling us particular things very much for their own benefit, not really for ours,” she says. “That’s the other reason where I might still be particularly sensitive around not explicitly saying ‘You are wrong.’ Because our histories are full of it.”
Chikaonda understands the pull of conspiratorial thinking. It wasn’t until after college that she realized she didn’t need to believe in Illuminati-type power players to explain conflict in the world around her. She says she agreed to teach this class in part because she knew firsthand how conspiracies can make people feel powerless. “I really do worry that it becomes immobilizing,” she says. “No one knows what to do anymore because there’s so much convincingly conflicting information. That’s [why] you get people who say, ‘Screw it. I’m not wearing a mask, I’m having parties, I’m going to live my life as normal. Because I don’t even know what to do. And I’m suspicious of everything.'”
During class, Nouriya wanted to know whether protesters were breaking into people’s houses. Andre wondered if authorities would get the violence under control. “Or is it just getting worse?” he asked Chikaonda.
“I think it’s getting more complicated,” she said. “As more people go out on the street, day after day, there’s more police out there. With more police being drawn out there, there’s a lot more people who are looking for opportunities to do things that have nothing to do with the protests at all.” She wished she could tell Andre everything would soon be all right, she later told me. But she couldn’t be certain it was true. False hope is its own kind of misinformation.
“For the riots, I think it’s actually getting worse,” Andre said. “And another thing that they were saying, too—they say it’s the Bible. The Bible talks about all these things.”
“I’m gonna make a note of that. I have been looking at all the theories about this, and I have not seen that,” Chikaonda carefully replied.
“The Bible talks about all of this,” Andre repeated.
“I have a whole list of things here that I saw people talking about, and that I haven’t yet come across,” she said. “And what do you think?”
“I think—I think God is about to come for us.”
“Do you know what verse?” Nouriya asked curiously.