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3 years after Parkland, only education can battle resurgent conspiracy theories

If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.

That’s what QAnon adherents are trying to do with their conspiracy theories about pedophile cults and satanic worship — claims so outlandish as to seem laughable, except that, for some people, they have become enshrined as truth.

One of those true believers is sitting in Congress. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a freshman Republican representing Georgia’s 14th Congressional district, has quickly become well-known nationwide. One of former President Trump’s most unflinching supporters in Congress, she also subscribes to some of the world’s most vile conspiracy theories, including deeply antisemitic ones — or at least she did until last week, if you believe her unapologetic apology. (“I was allowed to believe things that weren’t true,” she said.)

Among the most disturbing facts to come to light about Greene since she was sworn into Congress are her false claims that the school shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., which occurred three years ago on Sunday, was staged. In a now-viral video that gave me chills, she harassed David Hogg, a survivor of that shooting, on a street outside the House office buildings; she had posted the footage on YouTube.

Greene has been stripped of her committee assignments. But that motion won’t address the rapid spread of conspiracy theories that drove her ascent. What will?

The answer is education.

Every year, some 240 Stoneman Douglas students engage with iWitness, an interactive Holocaust education curriculum for middle and high schools developed by the USC Shoah Foundation, of which I am executive director. Ivy Schamis, a longtime social studies educator, was using the iWitness platform in one of Douglas High’s Holocaust courses when the gunman opened fire three years ago Sunday. Two of Schamis’s students were murdered. A bullet pierced a laptop open to the USC Shoah Foundation’s platform.

I recently reached out to ask Schamis about Greene. Was she surprised by the Congresswoman’s views? Was she worried?

Surprised — no. Worried — yes.

She noted that the lessons she was teaching on the day of the shooting are directly connected to what’s happening today, to Greene’s conspiracy theories.

“The kids hadn’t even heard the word ‘propaganda’ before my course,” she said. “It was their first time recognizing how powerful it is in changing people’s minds.”

“We teach the kids that you can’t sit idly by,” Schamis continued. “It’s hard to stand up, but you can’t be complicit. You have to do the right thing.”

She was teaching her students about Elie Wiesel, she said, when the shooter stormed into her classroom. She was teaching them how to speak up for others, how to recognize propaganda and counteract hate. How to be an “upstander” instead of a bystander.

Most of the Parkland students who led the March for Our Lives in Washington — attended by nearly a million people in 2018 — are alumni of the course. When you spend a year teaching students about the Holocaust, Schamis found, they stand up for their values. They fight hateful lies.

“It just gets worse and worse,” David Hogg tweeted when the video of Greene harassing him on a Washington street was released earlier this month. But the video serves a purpose, like all histories do: It reminds us of what happened, of what can happen, of the truth.

When you can see history, it cannot be denied.

Stephen D. Smith is Finci-Viterbi Executive Director of the USC Shoah Foundation.

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