Mind Over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age
reviewed by Kristal Curry - July 05, 2021
The foreword to Mind over Media: Propaganda Education for a Digital Age is written by Douglas Rushkoff of the Team Human book (2019), podcast (https://www.teamhuman.fm), and popular TED talk, who has long advocated for humans to regain control of our digital present and future in order to create a more just society. This is an inspired editorial choice, because just as Rushkoff has advocated for an optimistic path forward for humanity as we face unprecedented technological innovation, Renee Hobbs also advocates for humans to take control and shape the omnipresent propaganda of the modern world. The goal of Mind over Media is to provide teachers with tools and information they can use to teach students to not only recognize the role of propaganda in the media landscape, but also to be active creators of beneficial propaganda. This well-written and practical book has been awarded the Association of American Publishers 2021 PROSE award for the social sciences, and it provides clear and thought-provoking ideas and examples that would benefit educators in both K12 and higher-education settings.
This book is organized into seven chapters which explore the long history of propaganda, its contemporary manifestations, and specific practices for discussing propaganda in classrooms from elementary to high school. Notably, the book takes a relatively positive stance on propaganda, arguing that while students should be trained to recognize that the goals of propagandists are not always beneficial to society, they are not always detrimental to society either. For example, Chapters 5 and 6 are entitled, respectively, The Dark Side of Propaganda: Lies, Hate Speech and Terrorism and Beneficial Propaganda: Art, Activism, and Elections. The idea that the tools of propaganda are neutral is a repeated theme throughout the book, and is used as a basis for teaching students a more nuanced approach to the topic.
Each chapter contains several high-quality, non-partisan learning activities teachers can implement in their classrooms. Additional resources, including online lesson plans and a propaganda gallery, are included in the books excellent interactive companion website (https://www.mindovermedia.us/). Learning activities in the books chapters are classroom-ready, with directions and materials (often memes or other media images) that allow teachers flexibility in terms of classroom time required for implementation.
In Chapter 1, Hobbs explains that propaganda refers to a form of persuasion that aims to influence the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of a large audience, not just a single individual or small group, (p. 8). Recently, the line between persuasion as an act directed toward an individual and propaganda as an act directed toward a mass audience has become quite blurry in an age where interpersonal communication and mass communication are not easily disentangled. As this chapter explains, propaganda is especially influential because it exists at the intersection of persuasion, information, and entertainment. In this chapter, Hobbs provides conditions that define propagandafor example, it is strategic and intentional (p. 14)but also notes that definitions of propaganda must be flexible, and she provides a learning activity for students to create a definition based on their own experiences.
Chapter 2 explores the history of propaganda education, the locations in the curriculum where propaganda education could reside, and the risks taken by teachers who undertake high-quality propaganda education. Chapters 3 and 4 provide information and activities that minimize these risks by teaching valuable, non-partisan skills for media consumers. Chapter 3, for example, includes sections on identifying propaganda in advertising, the monetization of attention, clickbait, and the influence of fake accounts and microtargeting. Chapter 4 covers news media literacy, including sections on the many forms of fake news. This chapter includes activities related to helping students analyze the messages, sources, and intentions of news media articles.
It is essential for a book on propaganda to avoid becoming propaganda by choosing a variety of examples and exploring different perspectives. In the activities throughout the book and website, materials contain memes or images from multiple perspectives that appear to accurately represent the points of view of the different sides. For example, a learning activity in Chapter 2 uses six memes about illegal immigration to teach students to consider the message, context, point of view, audience, creator, and consequences related to each of the memes. Three of six represent common anti-immigrant messages and the other three represent pro-immigrant stances, highlighting the cross-cutting theme that while content creators have specific perspectives and agendas, persuasion strategies used by propagandists are fairly universal. The examples provided in the Beneficial Propaganda chapter vary politically, and do not endorse particular positions as beneficial. Instead, a variety of strategies that groups have used to raise awareness about their ideas and gain supporters are described as beneficial because the intended impact on society is positive. That said, neither the book nor the author is completely neutral. Former President Donald Trump and his allies are frequently cited throughout the book for their unethical propaganda practices, and feature prominently in the Dark Side of Media chapter. The authors perspective is also present in narratives where she explores her own reaction to particular memes to illustrate how even knowledge about the workings of propaganda does not always shield media users from the emotional impact of media materials.
The final chapter of the book explores entertainment and education as propaganda. The alleged liberal bias of Hollywood is discussed with supporting and dissenting examples provided. Contemporary controversies in classrooms are also explored, including competing propaganda agendas in science, history, and literature classrooms. Hobbs explicitly connects current efforts to limit or forbid teachers from discussing any past or present political, religious, or racial contentan effort gaining steam in Republican-led states (Wong, 2021)to a form of political indoctrination. As Hobbs puts it, consistent exposure to indoctrination can produce self-righteous people who are extremely confident in the superiority of their beliefs (p. 272). The power of this book is to provide tools for educators to combat this kind of self-righteousness by modeling humility. When students ask questions, listen to others, and analyze information for themselves, they are more likely to develop and share reasoned perspectives, and have the tools to persuade others of the virtues of their views.
Rushkoff, D. (2019). Team Human. W.W. Norton & Company.
Wong, A. (2021, May 13). Teaching kids to hate America? Republicans want critical race theory out of schools. USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/education/2021/05/13/republicans-seek-stop-schools-teaching-critical-race-theory/4993370001/
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