Dr. Renee Hobbs discusses the unique challenges of teaching media literacy in polarized American public schools.

Producer: David Madden
10/12/2021 • 01:55 AM EST

Dr. Renee Hobbs, founder and director of the Media Education Lab and author of Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age,  discusses the unique challenges of teaching propaganda and disinformation in American public schools and how teachers can address these subjects in an increasingly polarized environment. She highlights the importance of teachers being mindful of their internal biases and the challenge of trying not to indoctrinate students with their own worldview.

0:00: David Madden:

With us today, we have Professor Renee Hobbs. She is a professor of communication studies at the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island. She's also the author of the book, Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for Digital Age. Professor Hobbs, thank you for joining us today.

0:15: Dr. Renee Hobbs:

Happy to be here.

0:17: David Madden:

Much of your academic work focuses on media literacy. And I was just curious how that led you into the study of propaganda and social media?

0:26: Dr. Renee Hobbs:

So, I've always been interested in propaganda ever since I had the great, good fortune to meet Edward Bernays, when I was a young assistant professor, had that chance to have dinner with him. And the experience of getting to meet him and hearing him talk about his own work provided me with a different perspective on the story of Bernay's role in the early part of the 20th century. And made me really rethink some of the received wisdom that had been circulating in the academic communities about his work at that time.

But it wasn't until 2007 that I really dug into the topic of propaganda. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum was developing an exhibit called "The State of Deception," which is about the history of Nazi propaganda. And they reached out to me to ask about how to connect the past to the present? How to reconcile the history of Nazi propaganda with the contemporary propaganda all around us? They had come to the conclusion that the takeaway message that they wanted museum-goers to have is increased vigilance and awareness about the role of contemporary propaganda in people's lives. And so for a period of about four years, I worked with the museum to help them develop the connection between historical propaganda and contemporary propaganda. And that work really led to the writing of the book.

2:08: David Madden:

In your book, you talk a lot about the attention economy. I was just wondering if you can explain to me what that is and how that kind of propagates propaganda in social media?

2:20: Dr. Renee Hobbs:

Yeah. The attention economy is a concept I think really best explained by Timothy Wu in his wonderful book, The Attention Merchants, which is really a book about the history of advertising-supported media. So the idea that your attention is a commodity is actually the kind of business model for mass media industries. This is a concept developed by Dallas Smythe in the 1980s. Right? He was a Canadian political economist, and he basically observed that even when you are at leisure, your attention is, in a capitalist economy, even when you are at leisure watching TV, your attention is monetized, right? It's sold to advertisers, right? Because the price you pay for watching a TV is sitting through the ads.

And in a platform economy, it's that on steroids, right? Because not only are you going to see the personalized search ads at the top of your Google search engine, when you go to search for information, and the banner ads and all the other skillful forms of ads that roll before you watch a YouTube video. But every click and every keystroke that you make on your computer is turned into data that becomes another way to track your behavior, predict your behavior, and control your behavior. And that's another way in which the attention economy works. Shoshana Zuboff has called that "surveillance capitalism."

And so, understanding the core business model of mass media industries now really requires an understanding of how human attention is commodified and turned into a product. And in a way, it also signals to us that our most, the thing that we most need to learn to manage and control is our own attention. So media literacy educators often talk about how learning to decide what's worth paying attention to, is a vital skill for learners of all ages.

4:55: David Madden:

Is there any specific tool that you think students should develop, like any most important tool that they should develop in order to detect propaganda in social media?

5:03: Dr. Renee Hobbs:

What do you mean by tool?

5:05: David Madden:

Like a technique, like questions to ask themselves so that will help them recognize propaganda being used?

5:14: Dr. Renee Hobbs:

Well, you know, that is a very interesting question because perhaps the oldest of the tools available to educators, it was created by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis back in the 1930s. And many of us old people learn these, learned about these rhetorical techniques back when we were in high school or in college. Concepts, like the bandwagon effect and glittering generalities. And one of the things in our work with American educators, one of the things we realized that this is a very stable list, plenty of teachers still of course use the list of rhetorical strategies as developed by the Institute for Propaganda Analysis. But that identifying techniques alone was not sufficient for making sense of the new forms of propaganda that circulate in culture, like clickbait, like pseudoscience, like conspiracy theories.

And so we in the media literacy community, we have a set of critical questions that include consideration of the political and economic context in which messages circulate. The different frames of interpretation that propaganda can be understood. And of course, the question of omission, to recognize the bias or the point of view in propaganda, you pay attention to, what's not said, what's not presented, what's omitted. So we like the media literacy critical questions as a way to promote general critical thinking about propaganda

7:00: David Madden:

You discuss in your book about one of the biggest obstacles in teaching propaganda in schools is the increasingly polarized world that we find ourselves in. I was just curious if you can talk a little bit about how teachers could potentially depolarize their classrooms, so we can have discussions about propaganda education in schools?

7:21: Dr. Renee Hobbs:

So of course when educators gain a deeper awareness of their own biases, their own interpretive lenses, right? The glasses that we wear when we're making sense of media messages; when educators are more reflective and metacognitive about their own biases, then that helps them to listen better and not be so defensive. So that's partly why media literacy educators think about their instructional practices in relation to empathy. Because to listen, well, you have to kind of let go of your own your own emotional baggage, your own preconceptions. Sometimes you even have to de-center yourself from your worldview.

So that's one of the delights of teaching, but it's also one of the challenges of teaching is to try not to indoctrinate students with our own worldviews, but to actually sort of invite them to engage in a practice we call critical autonomy, which is actually a Socratic method of asking questions and eliciting responses in a way that encourages students to think for themselves.

9:01: Michael Gordon:

Dr. Hobbs, what's your initiative for the next, let's say the next five years, if you have an agenda in the next five years, what do you want to accomplish?

9:16: Dr. Renee Hobbs:

Well, my lifetime goal, one that I set out back in 1992 or 1993, was that before I retired, every single one of the 75 million children in American public schools would get a media literacy learning experience before they graduated from high school. So I would say that that is still my target and the work that I now do teaching teachers is driven by that big goal. There's 3 million teachers in American public schools, and we know that a growing number of them absolutely see why media literacy is an important life skill for living in a media-saturated society and for the future of self-governing democracies. But the next step is to figure out how to empower teachers for the unique challenges of teaching about propaganda and disinformation.

You know, think about it this way, when you teach math, right? A ratio formula is the same today as it was last year, last month, the month before that, the year before that and the millennia before that, right? But with media literacy, we are always adapting to the media culture that students are inhabiting. So media literacy teachers now are trying to figure out how to help students identify propaganda on TikTok, even though we ourselves are just learning to use TikTok. And the fact that media literacy strives to be relevant to the lived experience of the learner puts us in a unique, gives us some unique challenges as educators. And the educators who embrace this work are so innovative and so creative and rise to that challenge. So I just hope to continue to support them in the years ahead.

11:36: David Madden:

Well, it looks like that's all the time we have for today. Once again, we've been talking to Professor Renee Hobbs, author of the book, Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age. Thank you for joining us Professor Hobbs.

11:48: Dr. Renee Hobbs:

Thanks for the opportunity to talk with you about this important topic. We share, we have a shared mission here, so keep up the good work.