The debate over "critical race theory" in schools is a right wing troll campaign. Too often, writers, media outlets and even many Democratic elected officials and progressive campaigners respond to trolls by taking the bait, attempting to factcheck right wingers who don't care about facts. But by provoking these responses, the right shifts media coverage in their direction, using their propaganda power to hijack millions of other people's time and attention.
Here's why we should stop falling for the troll and some thoughts on if and how to respond.
For the Right, Ambiguity is Strategic
Writers, journalists and communications professionals like me love thinking about words and how they're defined. So most of us know that "critical race theory" literally refers to the academic study of race and the law. In the hands of conservatives, however, the term has become a "floating signifier" referring to any attempts to educate people about race. Importantly, conservative media's ability to scaremonger about the term to their core audience makes that audience immune to the correctives and earnest explainers I keep seeing in more liberal-leaning outlets. Like "political correctness," "cancel culture," or "climate alarmism" these terms are never precisely defined because they are meant to give conservatives maximum flexibility in what they can attack, whether it's a corporate diversity training or a U.S. history curriculum.
Finally, the ambiguity creates a chilling effect when it's translated into legislation.
This is similar to bills that targeted evolution and climate in science classrooms, as well as the Dickey Amendment, which banned the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from conducting research that might be used to advocate for gun control (as if any researcher can perfectly predict how research will be used!). When laws define what is banned so broadly or confusingly, public employees often decide it's easier to skip the topic entirely rather than run afoul of the law.
This is Astroturf
As reporters dig into groups pushing anti-anti-racism bills and agitating at board of education meetings, they're starting to uncover more evidence of astroturfing campaigns. For instance, Rick Berman, a notorious hack for polluters and various other corporate interests, is behind an alleged group of concerned parents in New York.
Similarly, it turned out that a Black parent criticizing anti-racist education in Illinois promoted by the Daily Caller is a prominent conservative Youtuber and brother of right wing activist Candace Owens. Shocker.
But even without such evidence, one can easily see the history of this particular right wing panic because the conservative Manhattan Institute's Chris Rufo, the main person pushing "anti-CRT" documents online, is quite open about his strategy.
Rufo, too, used to work at the Discovery Institute, which popularized "teaching the controversy" about evolution and attempted to rebrand creationism as "intelligent design."
Broadly, these organizations have connections to the religious right and anti-union private school advocates like the DeVos family. I also wouldn't be surprised if some of this is connected to keeping conservative voters engaged with otherwise sleepy board of education elections.
Do We Have A Clear Way to Counter?
We Make the Future has an excellent guide for how to respond to these attacks without taking the bait. Rather than argue about the meaning of "critical race theory," for instance, or pointing out that it's clearly not being taught to fifth graders, the guide suggests focusing on honesty and accuracy in history education and the value of teaching students the truth as they think about their futures.
My own experience with fighting scientific censorship at federal agencies also makes me sympathetic to responses from teachers unions and the American Civil Liberties Union, which have focused on how these attacks censor teachers.
But as a communications professional, I'm often at a loss as to how to respond tactically to messages that exist largely in a right wing ecosystem. We have very limited ability to influence people in such systems. Instead, fighting misinformation often has to follow an inoculation strategy: helping mainstream outlets understand where these attacks are coming from and why. But even that has its limits: for trolls, ANY attention, even critical attention is a weapon. And for conservative trolls, in particular, critical coverage in mainstream media outlets is another selling point for their base.
For more powerful political leaders with big platforms, engaging in this debate at all can exacerbate it, giving right wing media outlets more grist for the trolling mill. But when Republican state legislators and governors are actually passing laws, the people being affected obviously have to respond. So it's on the movement broadly to support unions and racial justice groups fighting these efforts locally and nationally, but to do so in ways that don't involve taking the troll.
As with many other cases, I look at this as an infrastructure problem. Do we have an army of well-supported, unionized teachers running for local board of education positions? Do we have our own alternative media that can explain how this astroturf campaign is run and point listeners to constructive things to do to support teachers and advocates working to advance accurate education about race in America? Do we have robust state legislative networks with model legislation for protecting teachers and advancing history and civics education about race?
All that takes time, energy and money. But without those investments, I fear we're going to waste a lot more time getting trolled.