Parents Talk Back by Aisha Sultan

Was Helen Keller a Fraud? Countering Misinformation

A Hollywood screenwriter shared a startling discovery on Twitter after a conversation with his teenage nephews and nieces: They claimed Helen Keller was either a fraud or that she never existed at all.

This absurd belief apparently arose from a meme that spread widely on TikTok, a video-sharing social media channel popular with teens.

“They believe people around (Keller) ‘pumped her up’ and wrote the book for her,” Daniel Kunka posted this week, referring to Keller’s autobiography in the exchange with his younger family members. “And apparently 15 million others on TikTok feel the same way.” He added that his nieces and nephews are “bright and well-intentioned.”

“This isn’t from lack of education or empathy,” Kunka said. “This is more about how groupthink can travel through social media like a virus until it suddenly just becomes the truth, I think.”

We’ve all seen this disturbing phenomenon become commonplace in recent years. There are still millions who believe that former President Barack Obama wasn’t born in America, or that he is a Muslim. Or that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Or that Sandy Hook was staged. Or that Donald Trump actually won the last presidential election.

But in the case of each of these lies, there are people who stand to benefit by duping others.

The Helen Keller lie strikes closer to the “flat-Earth” variety of conspiracy. Why would anyone want to spread such an easily disprovable, silly lie that doesn’t appear to benefit any particular person or ideology?

Isabella Lahoue wrote a post outing herself as a member of Gen Z who doubts Keller’s existence. She wrote that she considers the inspiring historical figure to be an “urban legend.” Lahoue attempted to explain why many in her generation share this mistaken belief.

“Maybe we don’t believe in her because we’re growing up in a world of fake news. We know the power of manipulation and lies in the media, and we’re losing faith in the sources everyone once trusted,” she wrote. “There’s too much data and too many lies circulating for us to process and believe it all.”

Bad actors have capitalized on social media as a fertile ground to spread lies and chaos.

The most perplexing thing about the rising tide of fact-deniers is that no amount of evidence can sway them. They can discount video footage, phone calls, historical records, data and science that is contrary to what they have seen on YouTube, TikTok, Reddit or far-right sources like the OAN Network.

A longtime reader once told me, “Jesus Christ himself could say Obama was a Christian, and I wouldn’t believe it.”

While it can be tempting to write off such beliefs with horrified amusement, the pandemic has driven home the deadly consequences of misinformation. COVID anti-maskers, those calling the virus a hoax or claiming it’s caused by 5G cell networks have influenced the behavior of millions, contributing to the deaths of 357,000 people in America.

The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review published a study in August investigating the spread of COVID misinformation on social media, and how content moderation by these sites can help contain the spread. The study found that mainstream sources like Fox News and the New York Post actually do more to spread conspiracy theories than alternative sources, because social media platforms filtered far fewer conspiracy posts from mainstream sites. The platforms were too slow to react to the magnitude of misinformation being spread, the researchers found.

As soon as we learn that misinformation campaigns are gaining traction on these sites, that’s when parents, educators and tech companies must act to correct it.

Helen Keller said, “Some people don’t like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions; conclusions are not always pleasant.”

Imagine the conclusions she would have drawn from her social media erasure.