When a Conspiracy Theorist Walks in During a Global Pandemic: Academic Integrity and the Chimera of Conspiracy Theory

Topics: Blog, Research

I met my first conspiracy theorist in March 2020 as a result of the global pandemic. The Conspiracy Theory derives from a 2010 Alex Jones claim about Bill Gates. This conspiracy theory is noted as False on Snopes. I was unsettled by this conversation with an adult who could willingly and uncritically accept conspiracy theory as truth and expect an audience to approach this false narrative without critical thinking. I watched Conspiracy Theory videos; I watched John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight videos on Conspiracy Theories and Alex Jones. I researched: I began to piece together why both conspiracy theory and academic integrity hold together and fall apart.

What impressed me was that the conspiracy theorist knew the conspiracy theory and recited it chapter and verse; there was no mention of the origin or timing or evidence related to this conspiracy theory. It is a sticky idea as conspiracy theory (C. Heath and D. Heath, 2007). Immediately, I thought about the passionate intensity of the conspiracy theorist and, secretly, hoped students at my institution could recite parts of our Academic Integrity Policy with similar and uncanny accuracy.

Additionally, this conspiracy theory works by language codes (conspiracy theory frameworks) that are successful. One form of success: “Conspiracy theories may promise to make people feel safer as a form of cheater detection, in which dangerous and untrustworthy individuals are recognized and the threat they posed is reduced or neutralized” K. M. Douglas, R. M. Sutton, A. Cichocka (2017) who are summarizing research by Bost and Prunier. (p. 539). I wished that students viewed the Academic Integrity Policy as “cheater detection,” a protection from students who harm the campus community by academic misconduct.

I examined the ways students approach the Academic Integrity Policy. It sits on a webpage; there is no context provided for the policy. It does not prime students to read the Academic Integrity Policy analytically. One reason is the length of the Academic Integrity Policy. A misstep might be that the accumulation of details within the Academic Integrity Policy reads as battle scars.

I appraised how the fail rate of academic integrity policies (students self-report academic misconduct) is a contrast of those who affirm the value of academic integrity policies. Is there a connection between fail rates in academic integrity and conspiracy theories? “So far, therefore, empirical research suggests that conspiracy theories serve to erode social capital and may, if anything, frustrate people’s need to see themselves as valuable members of morally decent collectives.” (Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A., 2017, p. 540) I reflected on the ways the Academic Integrity Policy similarly thwarts community trust and moves students away from “morally decent collectives,” at least at times.

Is there brevity in Academic Integrity? “To begin, when policy information is easier to understand, citizens display a greater willingness to comply with policy requests (Porumbescu, Lindeman, Ceka, & Cucciniello, 2017). Further, individuals exposed to less detailed information, such as messages shared on social media, have higher levels of trust in government than do those exposed to more detailed information, such as messages, shared on government Websites (Porumbescu, 2016).” (Connolly, J. M., Uscinski, J. E., Klofstad, C. A., & West, J. P., 2019, p. 472). Perhaps, each college/university needs two distinct Academic Integrity Policies: one that is tweetable and one that is the big juicy.

Essential Watchable Research:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fNS4lecOaAc (Last Week Tonight)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0b_eHBZLM6U (Last Week Tonight)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WyGq6cjcc3Q (Last Week Tonight)


Readable References:

Connolly, J. M., Uscinski, J. E., Klofstad, C. A., & West, J. P. (2019). Communicating to the Public in the Era of Conspiracy Theory. Public Integrity, 21(5), 469–476. https://doi-org.ezcvcc.vccs.edu/10.1080/10999922.2019.1603045

Douglas, K. M., Sutton, R. M., & Cichocka, A. (2017). The psychology of conspiracy theories. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 26(6), 538–542. https://doi-org.ezcvcc.vccs.edu/10.1177/0963721417718261

Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2007). Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (First ed.). New York, NY: Random House.

About the Author
Russ Wood is an Assistant Professor of English and the primary author of Southwest Virginia Community College's Academic Integrity Policy.