Do you think of “Saturday Night Live” as propaganda? What about those commercials of sad-looking puppies in cages that can’t be helped “without your support”?
At Mind Over Media, a crowdsourced online collection of media messaging, you can explore these and other examples of contemporary propaganda. Users can comment on how they perceive the messaging and rate it on a scale of “beneficial” to “harmful.”
This project is one of many online tools for teaching critical thinking in media consumption that internationally renowned digital and media literacy education expert Renee Hobbs has produced.
Hobbs is a professor of communication and education and director of the Media Education Lab at the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island. There, she co-directs the Graduate Certificate in Digital Literacy, a blended learning program that attracts educators and media professionals from across the country. She has authored several academic books about digital learning and media literacy. Her latest, “Create to Learn: An Introduction to Digital Literacy,” is available for pre-order.
At a time when the line between news and propaganda seems to be increasingly blurred, we asked Hobbs about ways to recognize and combat the propaganda that seems to be coming at us from all sides.
Emily Green: First, a personal question: What is it about the pursuit of media literacy that attracted you?
Renee Hobbs: I have a complex love-hate relationship with print, sound, visual and digital media. I’ve always found that I enjoy a movie more if I get the chance to talk about it with others. That’s also true for listening to music, watching TV and especially reading a newspaper. I believe that when people use media intentionally and purposefully, they get more pleasure from it – and they have higher expectations for what they consume and create. When I come across really well-produced websites, blog posts, videos or news, I am deeply appreciative. But then there’s all that dreck that drenches us with its superficiality and sensationalism. Ultimately, we have to have higher expectations of our media system in order for it to meet our culture’s real needs.
E.G.: Earlier this month, you were the keynote speaker at a United Nations Alliance of Civilizations event titled “Media and Information Literacy: Educational Strategies for the Prevention of Violent Extremism.” This branch of the U.N. was launched in December 2015 to counter xenophobia, racism and narratives of hatred in the media. I wanted to ask you about your thoughts on media literacy worldwide, gleaned from this conference or through other channels. Are you seeing any notable trends in propaganda? Are there any major differences in the way different populations consume media, and is there anything unique about the fake news phenomenon we are seeing in the U.S.?
R.H.: Propaganda is on the rise around the world. There’s a big increase in the amount of “positive propaganda,” which is created by nonprofit organizations and governments and activists to address issues of social, political and economic concern, including issues like xenophobia, racism, poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, violent extremism, LGBTQ rights and more. Today, all over the world, people are using media on their mobile devices, and this means they are a bit more distracted and distractible. It’s challenging to read deeply if you’re using media “in between” doing other things. This practice tends to reinforce the use of media to reinforce our existing beliefs, to amuse and to entertain, rather than to learn new things or take social action. The term “fake news” has been co-opted beyond all recognition here in the U.S., but in its original formulation, the planting of false news stories as a means of disinformation has been growing all over the world, particularly in Eastern Europe where a campaign to destabilize people’s generally positive views of Western democracies is used to justify oppressive authoritarian governments. What’s unique in the U.S. is that our president has called The New York Times (arguably the best newspaper in the world) a form of fake news, even as he appears to be getting his policy briefings from “Fox and Friends.”
E.G.: In New Mexico, lawmakers have introduced a bill to hold a hearing where they would decide how to best teach media literacy in the classroom. Are American public schools currently doing a good job of teaching children how to decipher news from propaganda?
R.H.: Teachers and school leaders don’t get much exposure to media literacy as part of their teacher education programs, so many school districts are still not aware of the importance of integrating media literacy into the K-12 curriculum. Because there are 15,000 school districts, though, there is tremendous diversity and there is a lot of experimentation going on in schools all over the country. Through publications (available online) like The Journal of Media Literacy Education and national membership organizations like the National Association for Media Literacy Education, educators are sharing “what works,” and this helps build a knowledge base that helps people who are just beginning to explore this field.
I’ve been generally surprised by students who find TMZ.com to be a reliable source of celebrity news – and who lack awareness of how publicists are deeply involved in the shaping of celebrity news – are also by those who are unaware that RT is funded by the Russian government. Its pro-Russian bias seems obvious to me, but lots of students don’t recognize it.
E.G.: You’ve studied media literacy education in Turkey. What can the U.S. learn from Turkey’s program and other media literacy programs in other countries?
R.H.: Turkey is a hot mess right now with more than 40,000 educators, journalists and judges in jail, accused of conspiracy. It seems like as democratic values really started to take hold in that country – including the rise of the internet, a free(r) press, freedom of speech and a wider variety of educational opportunities – the authoritarian forces got nervous of losing power. Many of the educators who pioneered media literacy education in Turkey – like my Media Education Lab colleague Sait Tuzel – are now in jail or have lost their jobs. The lessons from Turkey suggest that politicians and other political leaders are indeed aware of media literacy’s revolutionary potential and feared its spread, since genuine critical thinking is a threat to authoritarian regimes.
E.G.: “The Brainwashing of My Dad” is a documentary in which a woman explores how listening to right-wing talk radio and watching Fox News may have changed her dad’s beliefs and personality. He became angry and non-receptive to all other news sources. She met many others who had friends and relatives this had also happened to. Here at Street Roots, we were talking about this movie, as we interviewed its director a while back, and as it turned out, many of us also had an older relative who was engrossed in Fox News or right-wing talk radio and had changed, not positively, because of it.
Let’s say you have an older relative who exclusively watches Fox News. This person is convinced that all other forms of mainstream media news are fake or misleading, and that only Fox News “tells it like it is.” How would you help someone like this to see the error of his or her ways without putting them on the defensive?
R.H.: I have a little problem with the premise because of your use of the term “error of their ways.” People are entitled to their interpretations of right-wing radio and television, and right-wingers are entitled to see the dominance of liberal journalists and the New York Times in particular as the “problem” that they aim to correct. Media literacy educators respect different interpretations of media messages. That’s a key concept.
The documentary also problematically uses the language of brainwashing, with words like “deprogramming,” with inaccurate uses of the term, implying that people do not have control over their behavior and attitudes.
The rise of Fox News and right-wing media in general is linked to changes in American demographics: As people get older, they get more fearful of loss and death. They feel nostalgic for times past and worry that what (little) they have will be taken away. Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and their ilk exploit these natural fears. Fear is the easiest emotion to exploit. To address this, with my relative, I would watch or listen and stop whenever I notice language that creates anger or fear. By noticing the patterns in how the emotion of anger or fear is activated, we can discuss: Who benefits from people becoming angry? Fearful? How realistic are these fears? What could be some intended consequences of making people feel fearful or angry? Awareness of the constructed nature of media in activating emotion helps build people’s resistance to it, because it encourages them to substitute critical thinking for just feeling or reacting. This technique is even good for knee-jerk, crunchy granola Portland liberals. They are also susceptible to emotionally arousing messages that activate anger and fear.
E.G.: What about a Facebook friend you might have, who is always sharing bogus stories in their thread. What advice would you give this person on how to check the validity of an unfamiliar source – let’s say a website – before sharing the stories it publishes?
R.H.: People should unfriend or reduce the status of friends who share poor-quality content, and it’s wise to explain your rationale, explaining, “When you share content that is untrustworthy, it wastes my time, and it reflects badly on you.” For people who share content that runs counter to your existing ideology, you should thank them for helping you get out of the filter bubble, but also take the time to comment on what they shared and offer your own critical interpretation. Friends help friends by sharing our interpretations – and as I mentioned in the opening, sharing interpretations is pleasurable (even when we have different responses) and helps us to grow as human beings. Asking questions is a good response to these friends: Why did you like this? What value do you see in it? It’s better to engage people in a genuine way than simply trying to persuade them against their beliefs.
E.G.: I also wanted to ask you about what you have called “dynamic content.” Can you tell our readers what this is and how media consumers can avoid having a limited perspective because of it?
R.H.: Perhaps you mean my writing about learning to recognize sponsored content, which is also called native advertising. These are the posts on your Facebook or other websites, like Salon, Slate, CNN, that sometimes say, “Recommended” or “You Should See This.” People may not be aware that this particular content is coming to them dynamically, customized by the platform and based on the content of their emails, the keywords they use in searching, and their posts on social media. Because they are highly customized and likely to appeal to your current interests, people may be less critical of such content – and such content is generally disguised marketing and public relations content, gussied up with a listicle or celebrity photo.
Email staff writer Emily Green at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GreenWrites.
Online platforms for learning media literacy
Renee Hobbs was a founding partner or creator of these online tools you can use to learn about or teach media literacy: