The QAnon conspiracies. The Electoral College confusion. At some point in September, it became too much for Sharon McMahon, a former high school government teacher.
So she posted an explainer to her Instagram account @SharonSaysSo. "Hello friends," she began with a big smile. "Welcome to my nonpartisan government education video. I'm Sharon McMahon, longtime government teacher.
"Let's learn about the Electoral College."
Up until then, the Duluth photographer's most popular posts featured hand-holding couples and bundled babies. But people appreciated the lesson, so McMahon filmed another, then another. In plain language and silly accents, she broke down misinformation, explained elections and advocated for accuracy. ("Facts don't require your approval," became one mantra.)
A teacher, yes, but your favorite teacher. The fun one.
Some 500,000 people now look to McMahon for nonpartisan political news and simplified government processes. That number has been swelling in recent weeks as McMahon has appeared on CNN and, on Monday night, "The Daily Show with Trevor Noah." Replying to her followers' questions — many basic, some complex — McMahon keeps her own political beliefs private, a tactic she learned in the classroom.
"A good teacher leaves the class wondering what their personal views are," McMahon said recently during a Zoom interview from her home office. "Because the goal is not to try to convince people to think like me, but to try to get them to have an educated opinion themselves.
"But you can't have an educated opinion if you have no education."
This work has become her vocation. McMahon is hosting online "Government for Grownups" courses. She's in talks to write a book. And this spring, she'll launch her own podcast.
Among other topics, it will address the question that McMahon is asked most often: How do we talk to the other side, especially when the other side is Aunt Barb?
At 3 p.m. on Saturday, McMahon appeared on-screen for "The Constitution 101," her live online course, bopping to the "Hamilton" soundtrack. "Hey!" she said, laughing and gesticulating. "Everything is broken."
She asked for attendees' patience as she fixed the Zoom room and, for a few minutes, disappeared. The crowd seemed unperturbed, introducing themselves in the chat.
"While we're waiting, would love to know how YOU found Sharon?" someone asked, and dozens of people replied. A few had heard her on a podcast. Some saw her on the news. But most often, they'd learned about McMahon from a friend or relative. Someone they trust.
"Came for the government," one woman wrote, "stayed for the whales."
McMahon, 43, organizes her stories into topics including "impeachment," "conspiracies" and "U.S. Constitution" — but also "animals" and "narwhals," which she loves.
A day on McMahon's Instagram account often begins with headlines, most focused on government and politics. She reads a broad range of news sources each morning to put these together. "I'm not just going to copy and paste headlines from four websites," she said. Then, she might focus on a topic that gets a lot of interest and questions, with videos of her breaking it down.
During the impeachment trial she clarified the process, explaining how it's much different from how we expect a trial to play out today. "The language doesn't match," she said in one video. "I get that."
Then she might open up her question box: "How can I help?"
Her followers reply with queries about the headlines: "I'm confused. If more people voted for it, why was he found not guilty?" ("They needed a two-thirds majority.") About the "facts" they're seeing in their feeds: "Why does Q think the U.S. is a corporation with two constitutions?" ("Because Q was *literally* started as a joke on a message board that specialized in memes and trolling ... ") About how Minnesotans survive the cold. "How do your pipes not freeze up there?" ("Building codes require insulation to withstand the temperatures.")
So many folks asked about her makeup, which is always on-point, that McMahon did a short eye shadow tutorial, shrugging her shoulders the whole time.
During "The Constitution 101," which cost $10 a person, she covered how the Constitution came to be, the rights afforded by it and the tensions inherent in it. She used slides but kept her tone conversational, with references to "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and "The Real Housewives of New York." Attendees, most of them women, peppered her with questions about the amendments, the courts, conspiracy theories.
McMahon didn't pause, answering question after question, hour after hour, until suddenly, it was 7:30 p.m.
Born to teach
A Duluth native, McMahon was "born a teacher," she said. A vivid memory: As a 10-year-old, she organized a cooking class for her younger sister.
"Mind you, I did not know how to cook." But that did not deter her. She checked out cookbooks and made charts with terms like "julienne" and "dice."
McMahon began teaching for real in St. Paul, moved to California, then taught high school for more than a decade in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., finding her niche in government and law. It was there that she learned the power of a Minnesota accent.
"I will tell you, there is nothing that high school students on the East Coast find more funny than a Minnesota accent," she said. "Turn that on full force and they would pay attention."
Even when she wasn't a teacher — she had a yarn-dyeing business, then launched Three Irish Girls Photography — she taught, hosting workshops and coaching people on new techniques.
But she had not planned to become America's (not boring) Government Teacher, the moniker on her Instagram account.
"I truly had no idea that this was going to be popular," she said. "Once I realized that, in fact, this actually is very important to people, this is something that people have been looking for ...
"It really feels like an alignment of everything that I love to do."
Last year, Erin Schrett found herself believing in conspiracy theories. Her dad, a big supporter of President Donald Trump, and friends kept sharing links that led her down a strange path where Satanists were eating babies.
Schrett, 29, couldn't believe this was going on. "I was losing my mind over this." She fell further and further.
Then McMahon helped pull her out.
Her Instagram posts dismantled the conspiracies with facts. Schrett, of Buffalo, N.Y., came to realize what's true — and what isn't. She appreciated how McMahon felt like "a real person" and submitted a few questions, back before her McMahon became Insta-famous.
"If you follow her, you can see she's not judgmental," Schrett said. "She doesn't judge why you don't know something."
Schrett has been learning more, checking out some of the sites McMahon has mentioned, including allsides.com. Recently, in a group chat, one friend told Schrett that she "loved how I always had the answers ... that I always do the research.
"I attribute that to Sharon."
Trust and empathy
McMahon's account is a reminder: Most people trust teachers. A Gallup poll shows that Americans consistently rank teachers among the most trusted professions, right after nurses and doctors. In 2020, 75% of those polled rated grade school teachers' honesty and ethics very high or high. Journalists rank in the bottom half of the list.
And members of Congress? They tie car salespeople for last.
On podcasts and radio programs, interviewers ask: How, when the political divide feels so wide, can you talk to friends and family who think differently than you?
McMahon often begins by empathizing: "You're not alone."
First, "listen to understand — instead of listening to respond," McMahon said via Zoom. By asking questions and then sitting with the answers, you become more "interested in understanding where they're coming from instead of trying to prove them wrong."
"Listening to understand doesn't obligate you to agree with them," she continued, hitting on another mantra.
Before sharing your own views, McMahon said, ask, "How would it feel for you if I shared where I'm coming from on that?" Their tone will tell you how this conversation might go. If it's argumentative or defensive, "there's absolutely no point" in talking further.
"That's just how the human mind works." She got close to the camera, scrunched up her nose. "I don't make the rules."
In a way, her photography business, which is on hiatus, taught her to appreciate the other side. McMahon photographed all kinds of people — people she genuinely liked — meeting their parents and their grandparents. Then she'd connect with them on social media, realizing that they held viewpoints that differed from her own. (There are limits, of course. Racism has no place on her page.)
"We have moved into a space of political discourse where agreeing on politics is a criteria for friendship," she said. But she believes it's possible to like and respect people who hold different beliefs. "It's hard to hate people up close."
Her Instagram, too, has given her faith. She put out a call to raise money for a nonprofit campaign, RIP Medical Debt, hoping for $5,000. Instead, in a matter of days, her followers contributed $500,000.
She filmed a thank-you, sniffling, her eyes welling up. Her kids hate it when she cries online, she noted. But how could she not?
"OK, now I'm the person who blows her nose on the internet, apparently," she said. "I am blown away by very little in life, and this blows me away."
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168