Renee Hobbs, professor of communication studies and founder and director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island, leads the conversation on media literacy and propaganda.
FASKIANOS: Thank you, and welcome to today’s session of the Winter/Spring 2023 CFR Academic Webinar series. I am Irina Faskianos, vice president of the National Program and Outreach here at CFR.
Today’s discussion is on the record, and the video and transcript will be available on our website, CFR.org/academic. As always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.
We are delighted to have Renee Hobbs with us to talk about media literacy and propaganda. Professor Hobbs is founder and director of the Media Education Lab and professor of communication studies at the University of Rhode Island. Through community and global service as a researcher, teacher, advocate, and media professional she has worked to advance the quality of digital and media literacy education in the United States and around the world. She is a founding coeditor of the Journal of Media Literacy Education, an open-access peer-reviewed journal that advances scholarship in the field. She’s authored twelve books on media literacy, published over a hundred-fifty articles in scholarly and professional journals, and she was awarded in 2018 the Research Excellence Award from the University of Rhode Island.
So, Renee, I can think of no one better to talk to us about this topic, very important topic, that you’ve been researching and advocating on for over thirty years. So, let’s start by defining media literacy and propaganda and why it is so critical for all of us to deepen our understanding of these topics.
HOBBS: So happy to be here, Irina. Thank you so much for the opportunity and the invitation to a dialogue.
I’ll take about—I’ll take about ten minutes and talk about media literacy defining and propaganda defining, and then we can have a robust and vigorous exchange of ideas. I’m looking forward to questions and comments from everyone who’s joining us today.
Why don’t we start with the phrase media literacy because media literacy is best described as an expanded conceptualization of literacy. So just as we think about literacy as reading and writing, speaking and listening, media literacy includes critical analysis of media and media production.
So to be an effective citizen in an information age, reading and writing and speaking and listening is no longer enough. One has to be skillful at critically analyzing all the different forms and formats and genres that messages now come to us in, and one has to be effective in communicating using media, using digital platforms.
So media literacy is literacy for the twenty-first century. Now, media literacy is sometimes taught in schools and often taught in the home but maybe not taught enough. The best evidence we have in the United States is that about one in three American students gets some exposure to media literacy in their elementary or secondary years, and because of deep investment in media literacy by the European Union, the European Commission, and quite a lot of research work happening in the twenty-eight member states, there is a robust and global community of media literacy educators and they come from very different backgrounds and fields.
They come from psychology, they come from sociology, they come from journalism, they come from education, they come from the humanities, even the fields of art and design. So to be media literate actually includes, if you think about it, a lot of different competencies, not just the ability to fact check, and media literacy isn’t just about news and information because we use media for all kinds of purposes, right, as media inform, entertain, and persuade us. And so media literacy considers media in all its complex functions as part of daily life.
OK. So how about the term “propaganda”?
Irina, this is a much harder word to define and, actually, some people have quibbled with me about my definition of propaganda. But my definition of propaganda is rooted in a deep understanding of the way the term has been used over, well, 400 years now.
In its original formulation propaganda was spreading the Gospel, the good news, as the Catholic Church tried to spread its messages about faith to people around the world. In the twentieth century the term began to be understood as a way to unify people. Propaganda was a way to build consensus for decision making, especially in democratic societies.
And then, of course, during the middle of the twentieth century it took a darker turn as we recognized how Nazi propaganda was used to lead to genocide, right, to destroy—to attempt to destroy and to create mass murder. So the word propaganda is kind of loaded with that twentieth century history.
But, yet, when we lived through the pandemic—here you are. You lived through it, didn’t you? (Laughs.) You lived through the pandemic because you got exposed to what I would call beneficial propaganda—propaganda that told you to wear a mask, propaganda that told you to get vaccinated, propaganda that said use social distancing.
So to understand propaganda and all its complexities we could say propaganda is communication designed to influence behavior, attitudes, and values, and propaganda is a form of mass communication, right.
So it isn’t persuasion that just happens, you know, you and me deciding, you know, should we go for pizza or Chinese for dinner tonight, right. I’ll try to persuade you. You try to persuade me. When we do it to large numbers of people and we use mediated symbols we’re engaging in propaganda.
So propaganda is a really important concept. Its meaning is situational and contextual, which is why when I work with students I often talk about how our understanding of propaganda is inflected by our cultural histories.
So, for instance, when I’m working with educators in Croatia, having had a long history of influence in the Soviet and, you know, in the communist era, their understanding of propaganda is inflected by the exposure to state-disseminated messages. And so the meaning of propaganda in your country and your cultural context might differ.
In Brazil, Irina, the word propaganda just means advertising, right, and advertising is a type of propaganda. Diplomacy can be a form of propaganda. The actions of government, politicians, can be a form of propaganda, but so can entertainment function as propaganda and so can education.
So propaganda is a really rich concept. Why is it important? Why is it important that we use media literacy skills like asking critical questions about media with propaganda?
Well, because propaganda tries to influence us by bypassing our critical thinking and the best way that propaganda has tried to change our behavior and influence our attitudes is by activating strong emotions, simplifying information, appealing to our deepest hopes, fears, and dreams, and attacking opponents, and these four mechanisms of propaganda can be used responsibly or irresponsibly.
So we are vulnerable to the terrible side of propaganda if we aren’t vigilant.
FASKIANOS: Fascinating. So in terms of the literacy how are you teaching this? Are you teaching students how to discern between the propaganda that is the good propaganda and, I mean, what—how do you make that distinction?
HOBBS: Got it. So students—propaganda—there’s a bunch of big ideas about propaganda that are really useful to understand. One is propaganda is in the eye of the beholder. So I don’t try—I don’t tell students what’s propaganda and what’s information, right. I encourage students to engage in a process of asking critical questions to come to their own conclusions about that.
And just want to show you one tool I use, Irina, in my teaching, I call it the media literacy smart phone. I’m going to show it to you a little bit so you can see it. The smart phone has some buttons on it that invite you to ask these questions like this one. Reality check—what is accurate or inaccurate about this message? That’s a good question to ask when you’re trying to determine whether something is harmful or beneficial propaganda.
Or how about this one? Public gain or private good—who’s making money from this message? Answer that question and you can often gain insight on the difference between harmful propaganda and beneficial propaganda.
Or how about this one? What’s left out? You know, the best way to spot propaganda is to notice what’s missing, right, because all media messages have a point of view, right. All media messages are selective and incomplete. So to identify the point of view of a media message notice what’s missing, what’s not being said, what’s left out.
There’s the values check button, the read between the lines button, the stereotype alert button. Propaganda often uses stereotypes to create in groups and out groups. If you’re in the in group propaganda feels really good—(laughter)—and if you’re in the out group you are being painted as an enemy, a villain, a dangerous person. Solution’s too easy. And record—save for later, you know, with the world we live in where we’re constantly swiping, clicking, we’re devoting only a few seconds to media messages because we’re moving so fast through so many of them.
This button reminds us that we actually have to make choices about what to pay attention to, what to allocate our attention to, and that means we sometimes have to slow down, right. So learning to allocate your attention and decide which messages deserve your attention and which messages don’t, these are all media literacy competencies.
So we aren’t telling people what to think, right. We aren’t—we aren’t naming that’s misinformation, that’s malinformation. We don’t do any of that. What we do is invite people to ask critical questions like who’s the author and what’s the purpose? What techniques are used to attract and hold your attention? How might different people interpret this message differently? What’s omitted? What are the values presented?
We want people to think for themselves because media literacy is a literacy practice and when people have these habits of mind built in, when they use them automatically when they’re reading the news, when they’re being persuaded, when they’re being entertained, then this goes back to the Enlightenment, Irina. We trust that people can differentiate between quality and junk, right, when they put the cognitive effort, when they’re effortful and strategic. And this kind of work can’t be done by yourself. It has to be done with others.
I mean, think about that question, how might different people interpret the message differently. This is why discussion and dialogue are so critically important to analyzing propaganda and to developing media literacy competencies.
FASKIANOS: Great. Fascinating.
Let’s go to questions to the group. We already have a few in the chat. You can also raise your hand and I will go back and forth between. If you do write your question in the chat or the Q&A box, please tell us who you are.
So I’m going to go to the first question from Andrew Jones, who’s an assistant professor of communications at Davis & Elkins College in Virginia. Would you draw a distinction between propaganda and public relations or do you see the two terms as interchangeable?
HOBBS: Ha ha, great question. Of course, I’ve had vigorous discussions about this in—with my students and with my colleagues. In 1928, Edward Bernays wrote a book called Propaganda and it became a classic in the field of communication. He very quickly recognized that the term propaganda was so negatively loaded that he changed the name to Public Relations.
So the grandfather of public relations understood that the word propaganda and public relations are, I would say, kissing cousins. So I don’t generally differentiate because I like—I think there’s a lot of utility to using the word propaganda in its big tent meaning, right.
So we—what we don’t want to do is just have propaganda be used as a smear word. That’s the term Neil Postman talked about when he said, you know, that’s a shortcut to critical thinking, right. By labeling something propaganda or, i.e., bad now you don’t have to think about it. Now you don’t have to ask critical questions, right.
So we want people to—we want to do whatever we can to make people think. So advertising can be a form of propaganda, right, and education can be a form of propaganda and entertainment can be a form of propaganda, and to determine whether you think it’s propaganda or not you really have to look very carefully at the form, the context, the audience, the purpose.
You have to really look at the whole rhetorical situation, make that determination yourself. What do you think? Is propaganda and public relations the same or are they different?
FASKIANOS: OK. People are not raising their hand but they’re writing their questions. So the next question is from Chip Pitts, who’s a lecturer at Stanford University, and it kind of follows on to what we were just talking about, to distinguish between propaganda and truth or falsity if that distinguish is important.
HOBBS: Oh, that’s a great question. This goes back to the earliest definitions of the term propaganda when it has long been recognized even at the very beginning of the First—when the First World War happened and propaganda really was becoming a tool used by governments, right, recognized that propaganda works best when it uses truth, right.
So propaganda can use truthful information, half-truths, or lies and, of course Goebbels was famous for saying that the best propaganda is truthful, right. (Laughs.) So propaganda can be truthful and very, very dangerous, right. Very harmful.
And so I think it’s important to recognize that propagandists use—can use truth, half-truths, or lies.
FASKIANOS: Yeah. So how do you, though, distinguish or have people, if you’re not telling people—you know, you’re teaching students how to think critically, which is so important. But as we saw with January 6 there is a subset of people who do not call it an insurrection.
FASKIANOS: You know, so we do have different groups that have—are using a different basis—set of facts. So what do you do in that case?
HOBBS: So media literacy is really rooted in this idea that we are co-learners in the search for truth and that none of us have a handle on it completely and we all need each other to apprise the complexity of what’s going on in the world.
So dialogue and discussion becomes a really central pedagogy of media literacy with this idea that we want to engage with each other with—from a position of intellectual humility. When I come into the classroom and I decide you can only call it an insurrection and if you call it a riot there’s something wrong with you, then I’ve created an in group and an out group, haven’t I? And I’ve set up a hierarchy that says if you agree with me you’re right and if you don’t agree with me you’re wrong. I can’t really have a discussion, can I?
That discussion is going to be false or artificial. It’s going to be stilted. Some people are going to be silenced in a discussion where I set the terms of what truth is, and that’s the very phenomenon we’re trying to fight against, right.
But if I come in with these critical questions and put you in the position of having to say how are they grabbing my attention, what is true, what seems accurate and inaccurate, how are stereotypes being used, right, then you have to engage in some genuine thinking.
And so teachers take—in that position don’t take—choose to take—choose not to take the position of an authority telling people what to think but, really, as a co-learner guiding with critical questions for students to come to their own conclusions about that.
FASKIANOS: Mmm hmm. That’s great. All right.
So we do have a raised hand. I’m going to go to Beverly Lindsay. And, Beverly, if you could tell us who you are—I know who you are, but for the group.
Q: I’m Beverly Lindsay, University of California multi-campus.
I spent a number of years working in the Department of State, in particular the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, and I’m still doing some funded programs from them. And years afterwards I was able to speak with the late Secretary of State Dean Rusk. I wasn’t in the State Department when he was there so we’re talking about a more recent period.
One of the statements that he made to me was the best propaganda has no propagandistic values. Years later when I was an international dean at a former university the executive vice president and the provost said to me, because this is a university wide program, that getting a Fulbright was simply propaganda in developing countries.
So you had two different views from two knowledgeable people. How would you think we might think about those type of responses now? He valued the—if you got a Fulbright to Oxford?
HOBBS: I really love this question, Beverly, and I actually do—I do something on this with my students as we look at the Voice of America, right, and we look at, well, this is journalism, right, and it’s journalism that’s designed to bring diverse perspectives on world issues to people in countries where they may not have this kind of journalism and, at the same time, there is a distinctly American ideology to this kind of journalism, right.
And so there’s a very interesting way in which maybe both of those ideas, maybe both of those frames that you just presented to us, maybe both of them are true, right. And I feel like it’s quite liberating to acknowledge that there’s some truth in both of those ideas, right, that the best diplomacy doesn’t have a propaganda intent and that soft power in whatever form it takes is strategic and intentional and it’s designed to accomplish a policy objective.
FASKIANOS: Great. So I’m going to take the next question written. Oh, Beverly has raised her hand. So I think there’s a follow-on before I go to the next one.
Beverly, do you want to follow up? You’re still muted.
Q: Sorry. If someone has a Fulbright to University College London or Oxford or one of the redbrick universities in the United Kingdom why would that not be propaganda in one country and not in another? Are we assuming that the people in England are more sophisticated?
HOBBS: Hmm. I like—I can’t speak to the specifics of that situation but I do think that one of the reasons why we say that propaganda is in the eye of the beholder is that meaning is not in texts. Meaning is in people, right. So as we humans try to use symbols to communicate and express ourselves, right, there’s slippage—(laughs)—right, between the meaning I’m encoding as I’m using language and words right now, right, and the meaning that you’re interpreting, because I’m making my choices based on my cultural context and you’re making meaning based on your cultural context.
So that humility, the humility of recognizing that we’re imperfect meaning makers, let’s be in a position where, again, both points of view might have validity, and one of the pedagogies that we try to emphasize in media literacy is listening with genuine curiosity and asking good faith questions with genuine curiosity is more generative of learning than asking questions or using questioning as a mechanism of attack, right.
And so we can see in our public discourse right now that we all are—we all have learned very well, right, how to weaponize information, right—(laughs)—how to use it for powerful purposes. But when we’re talking about education we adapt this stance of being open to the multiple interpretations that exist in any given context. So that’s the only way I can respond to that question.
FASKIANOS: So I’m going to go next to Asha Rangappa, who’s a senior lecturer at Yale.
It seems that the question is source and intention, not truth. Russia can say something that is true, but if they do it by covering up that they are the source of that content—black propaganda—with the intention of causing division and chaos, that’s still propaganda. So can you talk about how Russia is using propaganda in the war—in their war with Ukraine?
HOBBS: Oh, absolutely. What a great question and thank you so much for pointing out a very, very important—there’s two really important ideas in your question that I want to just underline and amplify.
One is that to be critical thinkers about propaganda the first question we want to ask is who’s the author and what’s the purpose. So many propagandists try to disguise that authorship, right, and there are so many ways to do that.
It’s so easy to disguise your identity. You can use a technique called astroturfing, which is you can set up a nonprofit organization, give it a little bit of money, and it sends out the message, right, and you, the company or government, whatever you are, you have some distance from it.
There’s, of course, sponsored content. It looks like it’s news but it’s really funded. It’s really propaganda. It’s really a form of—it’s an influence operation. So the first thing we want to try to do whenever we can is figure out who made the message and what is the purpose, and that’s why your second point is so, so important and I want to amplify this idea, this question about intentionality—what’s the author’s purpose.
But there’s something complicated about that, too, which is that intentionality is fundamentally unknowable. (Laughs.) I mean, we can make inferences about intentionality. But that’s what they are. They’re inferences.
Now, that being said, of course, we definitely see the very many and very creative ways that Russia has been active in creating and stoking and leveraging in groups and out groups to deepen divisiveness in this country and all around the world and in Ukraine and well before even the invasion of Crimea.
The Ukrainians were very much tuned into this and some of the best work happening in media literacy education was happening in Ukraine even before Crimea because they were so clearly aware of how propaganda was being used to create division between Ukrainians.
So this is partly why one of the things we want to help students recognize is how in group and out group identities can be amplified or weaponized through the power of language, right, the words we use to describe others, right, through the power of symbols and metaphors, and this goes all the way back to George Orwell in the 1930s, who wrote brilliantly about propaganda, and said basically every time humans open their mouths they’re persuading, right—(laughs)—by the very word you choose, right.
Irina, you chose insurrection. I chose riot. In the very choice of language we’ve got a point of view there, right.
FASKIANOS: Mmm hmm.
HOBBS: As we have, like, heightened consciousness about that then that really helps us recognize the very subtle forms that propaganda can take, and I think in the case of the Russian propaganda we see some brilliantly devious and terrible ways that propaganda was used to divide Americans and to polarize, and the polarization that we’re now experiencing in our country was created intentionally and strategically and is still being created intentionally and specifically by a whole bunch of different actions, not actors, not just foreign agents, I might add.
FASKIANOS: OK. So I am going to Holley Hansen, who is a teaching assistant professor and director of undergraduate studies at Oklahoma State University, asks even if people are able to teach media literacy techniques to people how do you counter the impact of the algorithms in social media, especially when they seem to reward extremist messages?
HOBBS: Yeah. Great question, and this is absolutely huge. It’s why the media literacy community is really working hard on a concept we call algorithm literacy, right, which is understanding how increasingly the messages that are in your media environment are tailored in ways that reinforce your prejudices, reinforce your beliefs.
There’s a lot of really cool activities that you can do with this. We have—there’s lesson plans and materials, resources, on the—on our website at MediaEducationLab.com. But, you know, my Google is not your Google and my Facebook is not your Facebook.
So one activity that I always do at the beginning of every semester with my students is I have them—we have some—certain keywords that we might use. Like, we might put in country names like Finland, Slovenia, the Philippines, and now take a screenshot of what comes up on your Google, and my students—within the group of thirty students my students will have different results on Google and then they’ll be able to sort of unpack how their Google has been trained by them, right, algorithmically to present them with some results and to deny them some other results.
This is a big a-ha for students and I think for all of us we’re—it’s so easy for us not to be aware. Again, we tend not to notice what we don’t see, right. So we aren’t even aware often of how our—how algorithmic bias is influencing our worldview. That’s another reason why media literacy educators insist on using dialogue and discussion and why increasingly educators are bringing people together using the power of Zoom technology from different regions of the country, different states.
So my colleague Wes Fryer in Oklahoma is working with middle school students in New Jersey to bring Oklahoma middle school students and New Jersey middle school students together to have dialogue and discussion because we—the algorithmic biases are not—they are not just limited to individuals. They also exist within community context and cultural milieus as well.
FASKIANOS: Fantastic. Let’s go to Serena Newberry, who’s raised—has a raised hand.
Q: Hello. I’m Serena Newberry. I’m a Schwarzman scholar at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
And somewhat building upon the previous question on Russia-Ukraine propaganda in addition to the critical thinking questions that you mentioned earlier, how would we go about separating propaganda attached to existing institutions, be it an organization or a country, when there is bias attached to that nation or institution?
For example, you mentioned that the author changed the name of the book Propaganda to Public Relations because rather than trying to convince people of using their critical thinking skills that word had so many negative connotations attached to it. So how do we go about that when trying to move forward in foreign relations and building bridges in other ways?
HOBBS: Yeah. That’s a really great question and I’ll tell you my China story.
I had the opportunity to go teach students media literacy in China on several occasions now and the word propaganda is very complicated in that country, right. (Laughs.)
And so we came to the conclusion that understanding media messages in all their many forms was something that required people to evaluate different levels of—different levels of trust and trustworthiness and that whether—what you called it was less important. What the label is was less important than the reasoning process that you use to make sense of it.
In China it’s called moral education, right, and it’s done in schools and it’s a way to create patriotic values, to disseminate patriotic values, and in the United States when I got taught I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States that was also a form of moral education, patriotic education as it were, right.
And so I wouldn’t call that propaganda but I could see how someone might. And so I think it doesn’t matter what we call it. It matters that—what reasoning process and what evidence we use, what critical thinking skills we activate, in a dialogue and discussion.
FASKIANOS: So, John Gentry, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, has a question that also got an up vote—two up votes.
As I’m sure you know, the Soviets and then the Russians developed sophisticated propaganda mechanisms by what they called disinformation and active measures. They developed a doctrine known as reflective control designed to induce targets to make ostensibly independent decisions consistent with their interests.
How do you propose that targets identify and defend against such devices?
HOBBS: Wow. Yeah. That’s really a hard question because what is powerful about that framing is the way in which it is systemic, right, and that framing actually is really useful in understanding why people don’t act in their own best interest—(laughs)—right, sometimes—why sometimes people don’t act in their own best interests, right.
So I—what I appreciate about that observation, and this is—you’re acknowledging the way that sociologists have recognized that when propaganda is used in that way, systemic—in that systemic way it becomes actually really difficult or maybe even impossible for individuals to kind of work their way out of it or through it.
I think Jacques Ellul he defined—his framing for that—he called it sociological propaganda because of his sense that you couldn’t see the forest for the trees. So I think both the Russian framing of active measures and the way in which a whole worldview can be cultivated, right, that creates reality for people, and I think that’s partly why we value—we so much value freedom of speech and free markets as ways to protect us from the kind of abuses of power that are possible in more totalitarian or autocratic societies.
I think that’s why we so—we’re seeing countries, you know, sort of recognize and resist autocratic policies that allow one view of reality to be promulgated and all other interpretations of reality to be denied.
FASKIANOS: Mmm hmm. OK. So let’s go to Raj Bhala, who has raised hand.
Q: Thank you, and thank you for this wonderful presentation. So thought provoking.
So I’m asking you as a friendly member of the tenured professoriate like you, are we agents of propaganda, too? I have a new book coming out on the Sino-American trade war and I’ve often wondered have I fallen victim in researching and writing to propaganda from both sides. And, more generally, as you probably know from, you know, our careers, in our scholarship, in our teaching, in who we promote for tenure, the way we review their articles, are we also propagandists and even more so as universities get evermore corporatized with budget cuts?
HOBBS: Wow. What a—
FASKIANOS: And Raj is at the University of Kansas.
HOBBS: Raj, that is—thank you for asking that really, really great question, and this is a great opportunity to acknowledge the important work on propaganda done by Noam Chomsky at MIT, and in his book Manufacturing Consent he said that the information elites, and by that he meant the 20 percent of us who are knowledge workers and work in knowledge industries, he said we’re the ones who are most deeply indoctrinated into a system, an ideological system where propaganda—propagandists work their hardest on us and they don’t bother with the others because if they get us then they get the control. The control is embodied.
So I do think it’s very self-aware and reflective for all of us knowledge workers to be aware of how our own world view and understanding of the world has been shaped through communication—through communication and information—and the stance of intellectual humility is most urgent because—well, I think we’ve seen all around us the dangers of righteousness. What happens when you become too certain that your view of reality is the only view of reality, right?
Well, bad things happen, right. (Laughs.) Bad things happen when you become too sure of yourself, too righteous, because you close yourself off to other ways of knowing and other sources of information and other points of view that may be mostly false but have a glimmer of truth in them and that’s the piece of truth you actually need to solve the puzzle, moving forward.
So the problem of righteousness, the danger of righteousness, is something that everyone working in the knowledge industries needs to be aware of and the stance of intellectual humility is so hard because we’re experts, right.
So it’s one of those things that we have to call each other out on and call each other into, right. Come into a place where we can accept that we might have a piece of—we might understand a piece of this complex problem but not all of it.
And my guess is, Raj, that in your writing and in your scholarship you adopt that stance of intellectual humility and that helps your readers recognize you’re offering them something but you’re aware that you don’t have the whole story, because that’s what we do, right, and that’s how we help each other to come closer to the truth.
FASKIANOS: So I’m going to take a written question from Skyler Ruderman, who’s at University of California Santa Cruz.
How do we start investigating internal propaganda when it is so thoroughly and casually disseminated throughout American mass culture and media, for example, the Department of Defense having oversight and script rewriting authority on movie production if the producers want to use military equipment or the ways twenty years ago consent was heavily manufactured with bipartisan support for the Iraq war in the major news outlets?
These things are easily written off, much like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, as patriotic or nationalistic. So where do we start?
HOBBS: Wow. What a great—what a great question. Can I share my screen, Irina? Is that possible?
FASKIANOS: You should be able to. We’ll turn—
HOBBS: I should be able to share my screen. Let’s see.
FASKIANOS: There you go.
HOBBS: Can you see my screen right now?
FASKIANOS: We can.
HOBBS: I want to show you two resources that I think are really helpful for broadening our understanding of propaganda in just the ways that your question proposes.
One is: go explore my online learning modules on propaganda and check out propaganda in entertainment, right, or memes as propaganda, election propaganda, conspiracy theories, algorithmic personalization, and even art and activism as propaganda.
And then—let’s see if I can go back up here—and then go check out the Mind Over Media gallery. When I first started teaching about propaganda I was aware that my students live in a different media world than I do, right. I encounter some kinds of media and my students encounter different kinds of media because of what we talked about before—algorithmic personalization and this just gigantic flood of content that we get exposed to as creators and consumers.
So what I did was I created a tool that makes it possible for anyone anywhere in the world to upload examples of contemporary propaganda or what people think is examples of contemporary propaganda, and because I got some funding from the European Commission to do this work I have propaganda from a bunch of different countries and right now at the top of the list are these kinds of examples of different kinds of propaganda and, you know, some of them are really weird.
Like, for instance, this one, right. The person who uploaded this meme—the meme reads, for those of you who are not seeing the screen, remember when politics attracted the brightest and most intelligent—what the hell happened, right, and it’s got some pictures of politicians.
This person thinks this is propaganda because it attacks opponents and it attacks people who are Republican and it shows that Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington were good. However, it shows Trump as one who’s not very intellectual. And so some student uploaded this and I’m invited to rate this example, do I think this is beneficial or harmful. I think this is probably a little bit—no, I’m not sure how I feel. I’m going to be right in the middle here.
But take a look at the results, Irina. Twenty-seven percent of the people who’ve been to the website say they thought this propaganda was beneficial, 14 percent thought it was harmful, and then most of us are in the middle here. So it turns out that, in some ways, there is an opportunity to examine the stories we tell of the past and how they shape our understanding of the present day.
I’ve been doing that through recovering how propaganda used to be taught in the 1920s and ’30s in the years leading up to World War II as American educators began to be concerned about demagogues like Father McCoughlin (sic; Coughlin) on the radio, right, and the way in which the power of the voice coming—when the voice came into your living room it was a very powerful experience. It was so intimate. It was so personal. It had such an emotional power. And we realized that every generation has to address the emotional power of propaganda because the propaganda that you carry on your digital device, right, has got its own unique ways of bypassing your critical thinking and activating your emotions in ways that can be really, really dangerous.
FASKIANOS: So what would you say about TikTok?
HOBBS: Well, I’ve been fascinated. We’ve been using TikTok a lot in our education outreach initiatives and the project that I’m working on right now is called Courageous Rhode Island. It’s a federally funded project from the Department of Homeland Security and we’re using media literacy as a violence prevention tool to address the issues of domestic extremism, right.
And so we’ve been looking at TikTok videos that on the surface seem, well, quite entertaining. But then when you spend time, actually watching it—you watch it twice, right, and you start asking those critical questions that I shared with you earlier, then you really discover it’s, like, oh my gosh, this thing actually has a white nationalism agenda or an anti-trans agenda or a(n) anti—or a misogynistic worldview or an anti-Semitic worldview. But at first viewing it just looked like fun.
So we think it’s really important to take—to help slow down our encounter with TikTok, and when adults do that with teenagers and when teenagers do that with each other and when young adults do that with people of different ages it can be a mind-blowing learning experience.
And participants who are here in this call can join us on this journey. Every two weeks we have what we call courageous conversations. The next one’s coming up on April 4 and it’s called “High Conflict.” We’re talking about the media messages that put us into conflict with each other and what we can do about them. So TikTok’s one of those medium that can incite high conflict.
FASKIANOS: I’m going to take the next question from Pyonhong Yin (ph) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Q: Hi. Can you hear me?
Q: Oh, OK. Yeah. Yeah. Thanks for your very interesting talk.
So I am a Ph.D. student in political science at the University of Illinois and I’m currently working on a paper about the propaganda during the international conflict, and I just got a question from two professors in a different field in political science and they asked me whether—or do you think propaganda is costly.
Like, so because I think during the conflict the leaders they—you know, the people—they usually make some very aggressive statements, right, and sometimes they might make some empty threats. So, to me, I think it’s costly because if they do not follow their words then, you know, the public—the majority of the people they do not trust the leaders. But, yeah, but I—yeah, so this is the—just the question. Yeah. So do you think the propaganda is costly?
HOBBS: So that’s interesting how you’re using the phrase costly, right. The idea is does—you’re asking, in a way, what are the consequences of the use of propaganda, right, and I think it’s a really important question because, remember, propaganda can be used to unify, right. So propaganda can be a vehicle that people use to create consensus in a group, right, and that’s—coming to consensus is part of the democratic process, right.
That’s how we—we come to consensus because it’s an essential way of solving problems nonviolently. But as you’re using the term costly you’re imagining a person, a propagandist, who says one thing in one context for one audience and one goal and maybe has to walk that back in a different context or at a different time period, and then that may have a cost because people may lower—the trust might be lowered, and I think that’s actually, like, a very important calculus that politicians have to consider in their use of propaganda.
So I really appreciate the idea of the kind of—almost like the mathematical or the financial metaphor that’s behind your question. There is a cost because the cost is trust can be increased or reduced, right, and from a politician’s point of view that’s currency, right. That has real value.
But we often focus on propaganda that diminishes trust. I want to make sure that we don’t forget that propaganda can increase trust, right. So it works both ways—the cost and the costliness. And you can learn more about this in my book. I’m putting up a link to my book in the chat, Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education in a Digital Age.
I think one way to interrogate the cost issues is to look at different agents of propaganda. Look, for example, at how activists use propaganda. For instance, Greta Thunberg, the world’s youngest and most important environmental propagandist, right. She’s been very skillful in using her language, her imagery, her messaging, to increase her credibility, right, and to—and she’s very aware of how at certain times certain messages might have a cost, and we can go back and look at the history of her speeches and see when she’s made some mistakes, right—when her messages had a cost, right, that weakened her credibility.
And so I think being strategic—looking at that—looking at propagandists’ choices and the cost or the consequences or the potential impacts, very interesting strategy. So great question. Very thought-provoking question around that metaphor. Thank you.
FASKIANOS: So I’m going to take a question from Oshin Bista, who’s a graduate student at Columbia University: What are your thoughts on the tensions/overlaps between approaching information with generous curiosity and the inaccessibility of the languages of media? How do we make this form of literacy accessible?
HOBBS: Great, great question. You know, the reason why that’s such a good question is because there is a vocabulary that has to be learned, right. To critically analyze news as propaganda there’s a whole lot of words you need to know—(laughs)—right. There’s a whole lot of genres that you need to know, right, and that knowledge, for instance, about the knowledge about the economics of news. To understand propaganda as it exists in journalism you have to understand the business model of journalism, right, why likes and clicks and subscriptions and popularity are a form of currency in the business, right.
So how to make that more accessible? I think actually journalists and media professionals can go a long way and one of the groups that I’m paying special attention to are the YouTube influencers who are doing this work through messages that are entertaining and informational and persuasive.
For example, check out Tiffany Ferguson and her internet education series. She’s a twenty-three-year-old college—recent college graduate who’s been helping her audience, mostly teenage girls, I would say—helping her audience learn to critically analyze all different aspects of internet culture, right.
That is a great example of somebody who’s using their power as a communicator to help their audience be better informed and make better choices, and I feel like a lot of media professionals can play that role in society.
In fact, another good example of that is Hank and John Green, the quintessential YouTubers, right. So I think media professionals are really well poised to bring media literacy knowledge and concepts to mass audiences and that’s why they’re a vital part of the media literacy movement globally. Not just here in the United States but all over the world.
FASKIANOS: So we’re seeing in Congress, you know, Congress taking on TikTok and wanting to ban it, and Chip has—Chip Pitts of Stanford has a follow-up question: Beyond education for media literacy, what laws, regulations, norms can our government and others deploy to help control the worst harms—required content moderation, you know, applied young international human rights standards versus U.S.-style free speech, et cetera? So what is your feeling on that?
HOBBS: Yeah. Great question. Of course, we’re always—we’re often asked—some people think that media literacy is a substitute for government regulation. But we’re always very attentive to say, well, our interest is in focusing on what media consumers need to know and be able to do.
That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a role for regulation and, for example, I think one of the easy to document positive impacts of media regulation is the GDPR regulation, right, that Germany enacted. That actually—that benefited the entire world, right.
And so the question about content moderation and Section 230 and the appropriate ways to regulate social media these are complex issues that people—that we can’t solve that in two seconds and we, certainly, can’t solve it globally because we can’t.
But we can think about how different countries around the world, as they implement social media regulation, it becomes like little laboratories. Let’s—so as countries pass laws about social media let’s see what happens, right. Let’s see what the results are culturally, politically. Let’s see what the benefits of that regulation and let’s see what some of the unintended consequences might be.
So that’s the only way that we’ll design regulation that accomplishes its beneficial goals without its unintended consequences. So I’m kind of happy that states like California are regulating social media now, right. That’s awesome to see little laboratories of experimentation.
But I’m not prepared to tell you what I think the best approach to regulation is. I think we just need to be attentive to the fact that regulation will be part of the solution in minimizing the harms of communication in the public sphere.
FASKIANOS: Well, unfortunately, we have to end here because we’re out of time, and we have so many more questions and comments. I’m sorry that we could not get to you all.
We will send out the link to this webinar so you can watch it again as well as links to Renee’s book, to her community conversations. I see it, “Courageous.” I have it up on my screen now for the “High Conflict” event on April 4, and anything else, Renee, that you think. I especially love the questions that you showed us on your phone. I want to get those so I can share them with my family.
So thank you for being with us and for all of your great questions and comments. Appreciate it.
The last Academic Webinar of the semester will be on Wednesday, April 12, at 1:00 p.m. Eastern time. So please do join us for that. We’ll send out the invitation under separate cover.
And I just want to flag for you all that we have CFR-paid internships for students and fellowships for professors. If you go to CFR.org/careers you can find the information there, and you do not have to be in New York or DC. You can be remote, virtual. They’re great opportunities for students even if you are not in one of these two cities.
Please follow us at @CFR_Academic and visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for research and analysis on global issues.
Again, Renee Hobbs, thank you so much for this conversation, your research. We really appreciate it and look forward to continuing to follow the really tremendous work that you’re doing.
HOBBS: Thank you so much for the opportunity, Irina. I really enjoyed talking with everybody today. Bye now.