Renee Hobbs, director of the Media Education Lab at University of Rhode Island, discusses the need for propaganda education in our classrooms to help navigate complex digital media.
Think that propaganda is an outdated thing of the past? Well, think again. Propaganda is everywhere -- in the news, entertainment, politics, education, social media and more. Renee Hobbs, a media literacy expert, says it's vital that adults and children better understand how to identify and analyze propaganda. Hobbs, the director of URI's Media Education Lab, and the author of "Mind Over Media," is leading the way in what propaganda education looks like in our classrooms. She shares the history of propaganda education in America, and some of the ways pedagogy can incorporate lessons on propaganda in almost every subject today.
Jill Anderson: I'm Jill Anderson, this is The Harvard EdCast.
Most of us hear the word propaganda and don't think about it as a modern occurrence. Professor Renee Hobbs says we encounter propaganda at least once an hour in the news, entertainment, social media, and more. She is an expert in digital and media literacy who's been studying propaganda for decades. She believes learning to identify and understand propaganda is crucial for our democracy and also in navigating the overwhelming digital world we live. Yet, propaganda is often missing from school curriculums or is taught in outdated ways. I wanted to know more about propaganda education, but first, I asked Renee what propaganda is today and how we encounter it.
Renee Hobbs: Many different forms of expression that your listeners encounter every single day can be understood as propaganda, even though we might use words like clickbait, sponsored content, memes, social media posts, personalized search, and many other practices. The definition of propaganda changes as society changes. I like to think about propaganda's essential elements as having to do with intentional and strategic influence of public opinion. That's a really broad definition, but it really fits the contemporary era where propaganda can be found in news and journalism, in advertising and public relations, in government, in entertainment, in information, and even in education.
Jill Anderson: Our society and our world and our technology are really good at creating intentional and non-intentional things that we cannot even differentiate what's real and what's not.
Renee Hobbs: Yeah, it turns out that we've known for a long time that you can bypass people's critical thinking by activating strong emotions and responding to audience's deepest hopes, fears, and dreams by simplifying information. In fact, simplifying information has kind of become essential in an age where there's so much information. To break through the clutter, you have to have a snappy headline, it has to be shorter. Concision is a value of journalism as you know, but those are also practices that can lead to the bypassing of critical thinking. In some ways, we now encounter a lot of different messages where our feelings are activated, where we think we know what the story is because it's got a simple headline and it somehow appeals to our core values so we accept it, but we don't engage in the practice of critically analyzing it. My work in propaganda is in relation to my passionate efforts to bring media literacy education into American elementary and secondary schools.
Jill Anderson: Tell me a little bit about how learning about propaganda is a way to navigate this complex media environment that we're all engaging in.
Renee Hobbs: One of the claims I make is the idea that propaganda is in the eye of the beholder, that you might see that funny comedy, the interview about the goofy journalists who are sent out to assassinate a world leader, you might see that as entertainment, but when I watch it, I see something that looks darkly, darkly like a form of imperialistic propaganda. To me, it looks awfully devious to have the good guys go out and commit a political assassination, even if it's done in a very, very humorous way.
When you start to learn about propaganda, you inevitably realize the value and the importance of multiperspectival thinking. The ability to think about a topic from a range of different points of view turns out to be incredibly powerful, to activate intellectual curiosity, to promote reasoning, to encourage genuine value judgements. But multiperspectival thinking is hard. Looking at propaganda creates these fun ways to recognize that messages can be understood in many different ways, there's no one right answer. That's partly why I think it's so exciting to study propaganda with students because the discovery that it's the active interpretation that creates the meaning, well, that's a huge aha for studying anything. Literature, science, mathematics, philosophy, the arts, everything hinges on that in some ways.
Jill Anderson: Where are we in terms of how, and if, this is actually being taught in schools?
Renee Hobbs: Well, here comes the bad news, Jill. I started doing my work in propaganda in 2007 when I had a consultancy with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. They had a special exhibit at that time called The State of Deception, it was about the history of Nazi propaganda. They wanted to help people make connections between the past historical propaganda of the 20th century Germany and bring it into contemporary times.
That inquiry led me to ask the same question that you just posed to me, where is propaganda taught in American public schools? What I learned is that it's only taught in history class and it's only taught in the context of Nazi Germany. Sometimes, if you go to a very good school, you'll get a study of propaganda in the context of learning about World War II, but that's it. It's only studied as a historical topic.
That led me to wonder, well, why is propaganda not studied in English language arts, because it used to be. I discovered that back in the 1930s, English teachers were indeed teaching about propaganda, during the 1930s, as antisemitism was rising in the United States and as radio personalities were on the radio saying all manner of idiotic things, dangerous and idiotic things. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis, in 1937, spent over a million dollars in 1930s money, with support from businessman, Edward Filene of Filene's Department Store. This was a really influential effort as this lesson plans and curriculum materials were brought into thousands and thousands of American high schools.
Many of the concepts that were introduced in the 1930s are the same concepts that are used in high schools today. For instance, if you look at an example of propaganda and you identify it as a glittering generality, or if you say, "Oh, it looks like they want everybody to do it. Everybody's doing it, so you should too," that's called the bandwagon effect. Well, those concepts are 70 years old and they were designed for radio, to analyze radio and news media.
That led me to wonder what happened. It turned out that right around the time of the 1990s, there was a little bit of attention to persuasive genres, studying persuasive genres in English class, but then along came the Common Core State Standards. The Common Core State Standards shifted the way English teachers thought about the relationship between logos, pathos, and ethos. The Common Core Standards redefined persuasion as argumentation and said that the only legitimate form of persuasion to study in schools was the logical kind, the one with reasoning and evidence and arguments. The other kind of persuasion, the one that activated strong feelings, the one that tapped into your deepest hopes, fears and dreams, the one that attacks opponents, well, that's not the kind of persuasive content you study in schools. Common Core State Standards redefined what counts as persuasion, and therefore, only a very narrow band of persuasive texts were studied.
A scholar named David Fleming wrote a really powerful essay tracing this historical trajectory in a publication for English educators. I found it very compelling because, essentially, conflating argumentation and propaganda, conflating argumentation as the only form of persuasive discourse leaves kids at a real disadvantage, given that most of the persuasive messaging they encounter in the world outside of school, well, it isn't logical at all. It's emotional, it's based on the credibility and character of the speaker. So kids end up with a real deficit in their understanding right now.
Jill Anderson: Are you actually seeing some restoration of this back into the curriculum in places or-
Renee Hobbs: Oh, absolutely. In fact, one of the most important moves happened in the National Council of Teachers of English, the national membership organization for English educators with more than 25,000 members. In 2019, they issued a really important resolution. It was called the Resolution on English Education for Critical Literacy in Politics. This is a formal statement approved by the NCTE membership that says, unfortunately, this post-truth society, which is characterized by the routine use of political lying, where we come to accept as routine lies that are not condemned, if we're living in a society where that's our reality, then we need to be able to interrogate the new types of texts that are circulating in culture. They offer a set of resolutions that suggest that students be able to learn to analyze and evaluate sophisticated persuasive techniques in all texts, genres, and types of media, and that they resist attempts to influence discussion through falsehoods or through stereotypes or attempts to shame or silence, that they recognize what are the forms of deliberative dialogue that promote democratic practice and what are the forms of communication and expression that shut them down.
This, I think, is issuing in a little bit of a call to action as English teachers take up the challenge. Of course it is a challenge, Jill, because, well, bringing controversial texts into the classroom for discussion can be challenging for teachers, in this culture where some teachers have gotten criticized for bringing in the New York Times. Imagine that. It takes courage and good pedagogical strategy to teach about propaganda in the climate of polarization that we are now living in.
Jill Anderson: For a lot of teachers, I imagine it's challenging to know how to handle this. Also, you have the challenge of adults struggling themselves with navigating these issues as well. What do you recommend for teachers who are feeling a little bit scared to do this on how to take those steps without maybe losing their jobs.
Renee Hobbs: Right.
Jill Anderson: Or getting that angry letter from a parent or email or something.
Renee Hobbs: Right. There are 70 stories in this book of educators that I've interviewed or met or read about their work who are doing propaganda education in really simple and innovative ways. Like the art teacher at Charlemont Academy, who has her students create lithograph posters as they learn to create propaganda as a means to begin thinking about how propaganda works, why it works, what its visual appeal is, and how it persuades. Or the school library media specialist from Deerfield, Massachusetts, who introduces teaching about propaganda by using one of the Mo Willems books, Pigeon Wants a Puppy. Pigeon is so trying to get a puppy that sometimes he persuades with facts and sometimes he persuades with feelings. Even young children, as young as five or six years old, can understand the different ways that people try to influence each other to get what they want.
Jill Anderson: As a parent, it's hard for me to imagine introducing some of these concepts to a young child. What can parents and caregivers do at home to help teach their children about this?
Renee Hobbs: I think basic media literacy education is a perfect way to engage in these practices in the home. We generally say to parents, "Look, there are so many opportunities to have conversations about who is the author of this message, what is their purpose," when we're playing a game, when we're reading a picture book, when we're checking out the Facebook feed, and when we're talking with grandma on the Zoom. Who's the author, what's the purpose tends to be a really great way to help kids understand that messages are created by people who have motives and purposes.
It's harder and harder for parents to engage in co-viewing practices because kids now have their own devices very early, we're all in a very hyper specialized way, but the idea of reflecting on our pleasures and noticing what attracts and holds our attention. Even young children can begin to say, "I like this game because it does X, Y, and Z." A kid who can come up with a sentence like that is more media literate than a kid who says, "I like it because it's funny." The idea of helping kids build the practice of reasoning about one's pleasures and choices and preferences, this is a very simple way to introduce media literacy in the home. Jill, I'm guessing that you do that all the time with your kid, right?
Jill Anderson: I have to say yes, of course.
Renee Hobbs: Yes, because as a trained media professional, you've internalized media literacy. Of course you think about the purpose, the author, and the point of view, but not everybody does.
Jill Anderson: I mean, on some level we do at home. I think we do a lot of discussions about commercials in my house, even though in a lot of ways it's always subtly there in some way, advertising.
Renee Hobbs: I'm so glad you're talking about that, Jill, because in fact, that is the best way to introduce propaganda education to young children. Learning about advertising is a developmentally-appropriate set of knowledge and skills for children in the elementary grades. You don't want to introduce young children to disinformation and harmful propaganda, but you sure do want to help them recognize how advertising persuades, right?
Jill Anderson: Right.
Renee Hobbs: You also want to talk about how activists use images and symbols and emotional appeals to persuade. I mean, Greta Thunberg is perhaps the most famous teenage propagandist of all time and she's brilliant at it, but let's be clear, it's a form of beneficial propaganda. Her efforts to hold us grown-ups accountable to the devastation of our ecological destruction is argued beautifully as she uses reasoning and evidence and facts, but as she uses the power of emotional appeals and her character, she's a very effective propagandist. I think right now, many young people who are looking to make change, make a difference, fix some of the many, many issues and challenges we face in society, I think they well understand the value of positive propaganda to address those big social challenges.
Jill Anderson: I'm glad you mentioned her as an example, because I think a lot of us, myself included, come from that lens of looking at propaganda solely as a bad thing because a lot of us learn it that way. You have said that this is propaganda doesn't have to be something that's negative.
Renee Hobbs: Propaganda is an essential part of the democratic process. Propaganda is how citizens use the power of communication and information to make a difference in the world. We couldn't have free and fair elections if we didn't have election propaganda, because people make decisions about who their leaders are based on logos, ethos, and pathos. Once you open up your thinking beyond thinking of propaganda as a smear word, you discover how relevant it is to every aspect of our social, political, cultural, educational lives.
Jill Anderson: But I think there's so many people right now looking at the world, thinking we've got all these threats of fake news that get thrown out there and growing conspiracies, and we're very divided. Propaganda education is one way to help us better understand that and maybe close the divide?
Renee Hobbs: Propaganda is both the cause and the cure for what ails us in society. Propaganda has helped to widen the polarization and the strategy of attacking opponents is really good at that, right?
Jill Anderson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Renee Hobbs: You create an us versus them feeling, you reinforce tribalism, and all of a sudden people see each other as enemies to be feared. But propaganda is also the only way that we come together as a society. It's the one way that we are induced to act together. Good propaganda can help us recognize the similarities that exist between us, the common values that bind us together as a people, and the deeper truths, the emotional and moral truths, that all human beings share.
The original meaning of the word propaganda, remember, is in spreading the gospel of love and forgiveness. We're going to need a heck of a lot of love and forgiveness if we're going to move forward. The cure for polarization is going to have to involve a great bit of critical thinking and an awful lot of love and forgiveness, because the way love and forgiveness come into cure us from this disease of polarization is if I'm willing to acknowledge that my understanding of the world is selective and incomplete, I don't have the whole story. I can't state for certain what is capital T truth, and I'm not going to find it through fact checking or experts or any of that. It's going to be a collaborative enterprise. I'm going to need a little help from my friends. The intellectual humility of acknowledging that we need each other to come to consensus, it's actually really liberating.
Jill Anderson: Yeah, and it sounds like everybody could benefit from having some propaganda education because this is only going to probably get more complex as media continues to evolve.
Renee Hobbs: Yeah, and at the same time, I would say that the pedagogies for teaching propaganda are not brand new pedagogies that you've never heard of, right?
Jill Anderson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Renee Hobbs: It's basically this practice of being metacognitive about how you interpret messages and being mindful and strategic in reflecting on the meaning making that you're doing. The pedagogies are very familiar, they're inquiry-oriented, they're rooted in reflection and meaning making, so it's not that hard to include them, to layer them into your science class. If you're studying the environment, you should darn well be studying environmental propaganda. If you're studying literature, you should be looking at language as propaganda. If you're studying art, Banksy is a must. You have to study art as propaganda.
Propaganda fits across the curriculum everywhere, with pedagogies that are familiar to teachers. All those great teachers that I found who were doing it made me realize that if we change our attitude about propaganda, we can in fact have a big influence in bringing media literacy competencies to all Americans.
Jill Anderson: Professor Renee Hobbs is the founder and director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island. She's the author of numerous books about media literacy, including Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age.
I'm Jill Anderson. This is The Harvard EdCast, produced by the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Thanks for listening.