Along with 300 other educators, activists and policymakers from across the United States and around the world, I participated in the National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) conference in Washington DC this past week. What was my highlight of the NAMLE conference? It came from a statement made by Kevin F. Kane, public policy manager for Twitter, who spoke about his sense of urgency about bringing media literacy competencies to all voters as we approach the 2020 U.S. Presidential election. This sense of urgency resonated with me as I reflected on how woefully underprepared American teachers are for this election cycle. This has been a topic continually on my mind as my new book on propaganda education moves into production (it’s forthcoming from W.W. Norton in early 2020).
In research I conducted for the book, I learned that teachers simply don’t have the knowledge, resources and tools needed to teach about the many new forms of election propaganda. For example, when analyzing the rhetoric of political campaign advertising, teachers and students need to take a close look at bots and trolls, whose coordinated campaigns can spread messages carefully designed to divide and attack.
Just days ago, after the Democratic debates this past week, spam Twitter accounts spread the idea that presidential candidate Kamala Harris is not black. This disturbing and problematic narrative got amplified by mainstream media outlets which dutifully reported on the online controversy and delivered the message to a wider audience.
Because such forms of expressive conflict can move from the living room to the classroom, teachers have good reasons for deep concern. During and after the 2016 Presidential election, American educators observed substantial increases in hate speech, some of which was targeted at black and Latino students, as well as Jewish and Muslim students. The most common forms of hateful expression were swastikas, the n-word, “build the wall” and various versions of “Go back to Mexico.” Indeed, the largest number of reports about hate speech in American schools occurred on a single day in K-12 schools: November 9, 2016—the day after the Presidential election. Another highlight of the NAMLE conference was seeing Cory Collins from Teaching Tolerance in action for a session on addressing online hate speech with digital literacy.
Today’s high school and college students also need to learn about how social media outlets are using personalization to deliver targeted political messages using propaganda techniques that activate strong emotion, simplify information, appeal to audience values, and attack opponents.
During the 2016 election, election firms like Cambridge Analytica championed strategies for identifying personality characteristics that might influence voting behavior. They created a psychological model to predict the personalities of Americans and used personality criteria to develop nuanced ads to align with people’s personalities as measured by a questionnaire. For example, on the topic of gun control, fear-based ads have positioned the idea that owning a gun is a type of “insurance policy” in case of a burglary. For people with high levels of neuroticism, this message may have emotional resonance that affects their voting behavior.
Election propaganda targets people on all kinds of variables they might not be aware that they are identified with. During the 2016 election, Facebook even allowed advertisers to target audiences with terms like “Jew haters.” In the days just before the election, the Trump campaign deployed social media posts specifically designed to discourage black voters from participating in the election.
Teaching about Election Interference
We’re still reeling from the findings of the Mueller Report. Educators may wonder how (or whether) they will teach about the history of Russian election interference in 2016. Some California legislators want to make sure that when schools update their history textbooks, they include a lesson about how Russian hackers interfered with the presidential election. In 2018, California Assemblyman Marc Levine asked the state to adopt new high school history curricula, noting that high school students need to learn about that threat because it was an overt attack on American democracy.
But educators still don’t yet know exactly how to best examine this topic with young learners. Right now, only C-SPAN Classroom has created a lesson on election interference for high school teachers to use in the classroom. It will take considerable trial and error to figure out what works with different learners. Why? Obviously, American educators’ own beliefs and attitudes about Russia and Trump will affect how, what (and whether) they teach their students about this historically-unprecedented event. Looking at the news today, I wonder: How will teachers characterize the chummy and playful relationship between President Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin as they share a joke about “election meddling?”
Understanding the function of humor as propaganda is more important than ever before. In my NAMLE workshop, I showed examples of how I activate my students’ intellectual curiosity by using memes. I have found that the study of propaganda can wake up their interest in topics that they might not have thought would interest them.
Take, for example, this meme about Putin and Ukraine. Memes require contextual knowledge to be understood. What does it mean, I ask my students: Ukraine? Mykraine? What background knowledge is needed for this meme to make sense? When learning about the Cold War conflict, students understand that although the Soviet Union and the United States never fought one another directly on a battlefield, they took sides through proxies as other countries, including Korea, the Czech Republic, Poland, and other countries struggled with implementing either democracy or communism. Since the end of the Cold War, as Russia lost global influence, many hoped that Russia would gradually turn toward the West and become aligned with European interests. But when three former countries controlled by Russia were invited to join NATO in 1999, Russia grew fearful of Western influence; these fears expanded as the U.S. waged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. When Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, ultimately annexing the Crimean peninsula, this began a “New Cold War” period.
Memes that seem to trivialize the invasion of Ukraine —by using humor to reframe the incident as unimportant — may enable people to overlook Russia’s growing efforts to re-assert dominance in Eastern Europe. Thus, memes may reshape public opinion without people’s conscious awareness.
Learning How to Access and Analyze Election Propaganda
This fall, I will be helping my students to check on the propaganda strategies being used by political candidates as part of the election process. Of course, we will be engaging with election propaganda at the Mind Over Media website, a crowdsourced gallery of contemporary propaganda where people can rate, comment on and upload examples for educational use. I’ll be modeling the use of lesson plans for learning about propaganda with teachers at the University of Rhode Island’s Summer Institute in Digital Literacy.
We will also be exploring Facebook’s Ad Library, which was created in response to Congressional pressure in 2018, which offers increased transparency on microtargeting by offering a comprehensive, searchable collection of all ads currently running on Facebook or Instagram. At the website, people can access all active ads, even ones that may not have been shown to them because they weren’t part of an advertiser’s intended audience. This important resource provides fascinating and evidence for both students and educators who are exploring any number of contemporary social or political issues.
But Ad Library has some important limitations for educators. For example, when you search for political ads, you won’t see the videos or photos that were included, see how advertisers are targeting users, or see data on likes and shares. One journalist explains, “Candidates, regulators, and the public have less information about political ads on Facebook than TV, radio, and other media, which don’t use the same surveillance or targeting technology as Facebook. Yet those simpler formats are required by law to disclose their ad buyers and list them in a public file.” Clearly, we have a long way to go in providing resources that help educators teach about contemporary election propaganda.
When Students Create Propaganda
Should students learn to create propaganda? At the NAMLE conference, one of the most interesting conversations occurred among educators who joined the International Roundtable conversation about teaching contemporary propaganda with Professor Silke Grafe of the University of Wuerzburg, who described her efforts to teach nearly 100 German teachers how to teach about contemporary propaganda in a project supported by the US. Consulate in Bavaria.
When Silke showed an example of student-produced propaganda created by a 10th grader, a rich conversation erupted as American educators at NAMLE debated whether (or not) they would consider giving students the opportunity to create propaganda.
Some educators were adamant that such an activity was too dangerous and carried too many risks. Others seemed enthusiastic about the idea, even recognizing that when students create public-service advertising (PSA’s) they are creating a form of contemporary propaganda.
Using Propaganda Responsibly
As I see it, learning to create propaganda is part of the process of civic education.
Democracy is not supposed to be a spectator sport, but but for many of us, it is. I’ll admit that I haven’t been that well-informed on the new policies recently established by social media platforms to control and limit political communication online.
For example, when I helped to organize a rally in my community earlier this summer as part of Act to Defend Democracy, I wanted to advertise the event beyond my own friend network by creating a Facebook ad. I have created Facebook ads to promote the Summer Institute and other education events, so of course I am familiar with the process.
But can you imagine my surprise when my ad was rejected by Facebook? I learned that the company now has special policies in place for political advertising and that my invitation to attend this rally was considered a form of political advertising. In order to advertise my event, I was asked to submit my mailing address to prove that I was a resident and also provide a digital copy of my passport in a format acceptable to Facebook. Of course, I understood these well-meaning efforts were designed to limit foreign influence in the political process.
Sadly, I was not able to get these tasks done in time to use Facebook ads to promote my event. I did not know that such restrictions had been put in place. As a result, I was not able to fully exploit the power of social media for civic activism. If I had been successful with this process, the event might have drawn one hundred people or more. (Without Facebook advertising, a smaller group of people still showed up and our rally inspired us to keep working. We used Twitter to let people know about the event after it had concluded.) As educators themselves take on the role of activists and change agents, they are better able to demonstrate to learners the online social media practices actually involved in civic participation.
Taking Time to Teach about Propaganda
Educators and public policy officials may be beginning to feel a little guilty that they have not paid more attention to propaganda. Many social studies teachers have noted how difficult it was to teach about the 2016 Presidential election. Since the U.S. presidential election in 2016, the National Council of Teachers of English and a number of professional organizations responsible for teaching writing, composition and speech have reaffirmed their commitment to teaching the responsible use of language as a form of social power. They affirm the importance of:
- promoting pedagogy and scholarly curricula in English and related subjects that instruct students in civic and critical literacy, going beyond basic reading comprehension to the thinking skills that enable students to analyze and evaluate sophisticated persuasive techniques in all texts, genres, and types of media, current and yet to be imagined and
- supporting classroom practices that examine and question uses of language in order to discern inhumane, misinformative, or dishonest discourse and arguments;
- prioritizing research and pedagogies that encourage students to become “critical thinkers, consumers, and creators who advocate for and actively contribute to a better world”
- providing resources to mitigate the effect of new technologies and platforms that accelerate and destabilize our information environment;
- supporting the integration of reliable, balanced, and credible news sources within classroom practices at all levels of education;
- resisting attempts to influence civic discussion through falsehoods, unwarranted doubts, prejudicial or stereotypical ideas, attempts to shame or silence, or other techniques that deteriorate the quality of public deliberation; and
- modeling civic literacy and conversation by creating a supportive environment where students can have an informed discussion and engage with current events and civic issues while staying mindful and critical of the difference between the intent and impact of their language.
I’ve encountered many teachers who assert that an emphasis on sound reasoning and the use of evidence is the only way to find truth. They think that when students are simply made aware of high-quality journalism, they will turn away from junk news. Some teachers seem to believe that by teaching reasoning and the evaluation of evidence, students will prefer fact-based evidence over emotional appeals. Some even claim that through their efforts, learners can become immune to propaganda. But teaching argumentation, fact-checking and credibility evaluation, while valuable, is not the entire pedagogical solution. In fact, when educators only focus on the use of facts, reasoning, and evidence, they are missing the point.
People are far more influenced by emotion than cognition. Through the study of propaganda, students learn about how activating emotion and attacking opponents functions in ways that bypass critical thinking. Learning to recognize the many new forms of contemporary propaganda must be an essential part of American public education and media literacy educators have the knowledge, skills and drive to advance this work.
Time to Scale Up
There’s never been a more important time to teach about propaganda. The careful and systematic study of election propaganda must be a priority for the 2019-2020 school year and beyond. How could this process be accelerated and scaled up?
- Engage support from the platform companies and other media companies which now disseminate political advertising and political expression in a wide variety of forms
- Enroll the talents of political campaign consultants and marketers in the process to help “pull back the curtain” on how campaign strategies are designed to influence public opinion
- Convene a diverse blue-ribbon group of educational experts to develop a wide variety of resources, webinars, seminars and learning experiences for teachers across the K-16 spectrum
- Develop a public service multimedia campaign to engage community support for teaching the about election propaganda as part of civic education
- Develop a PSA campaign and website to helps Americans recognize propaganda techniques designed to bypass critical thinking
- Develop a cadre of celebrities, political and educational leaders, YouTubers, business leaders, superintendents and school board officials who support the initiative and are engaged to discuss the topic with various audiences and constituents
- Document the process, debrief, and learn from experience. Do it again.
The National Association for Media Literacy Education could play a key role in such efforts but it will take speedy and timely action, along with the mobilization of a diverse and multidisciplinary community to move forward. We’re just beginning to learn about the kinds of instructional practices that map onto the understanding the complex political realities we experience in the American political campaign process today. But we must accelerate these efforts to reach a generation of adults, children and young people as they develop competencies needed for becoming responsible and self-governing citizens.