Teaching and Learning in a Post-Truth World - ASCD
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November 1, 2017

Teaching and Learning in a Post-Truth World

It's time for schools to upgrade and reinvest in media literacy lessons.

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Social-emotional learning

In the summer of 2016, I found a startling announcement in my Facebook feed from WTOE 5 News, saying, "Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Donald Trump for President, Issues Statement."

It looked so real that I was tempted to share it with my friends. But before I did that, I did some research to confirm the statement, and that's how I learned that WTOE 5 was not a real news outlet. Pope Francis did not endorse any American presidential candidate.

But in those heated days before the 2016 election, nearly one million people did share that particular story, making it one of the top so-called "fake news" stories of 2016 (Ritchie, 2016). And of course, there were hundreds of other examples of false and misleading information circulating online as the fake news phenomenon spread like wildfire, not just here in the United States, but in Germany, Italy, and around the world.

Since then, there's been a lot of talk among educators about the importance of teaching students to critically analyze news and information. The public is gaining awareness of our vulnerability to media manipulation. Researchers have found that most adults can't accurately judge the truth or falsity of an online news story because they assume that content that aligns with their existing beliefs is automatically true (Goodfellow, 2017).

So-called "fake news" is rising in visibility and influence due to the attention economy, a concept first developed by Herbert A. Simon in 1971. Many choices are available to us as both consumers and creators of media, and, sadly, it seems as if people have adopted a problematic post-truth attitude: If it's entertaining or meshes with their own views, who really cares if it's true? This makes it easy for creators of "fake news" in a world where digital content is cheap to produce. These sites use sensationalism (sex, violence, children, animals, and the mysterious unknown) to profit from viral sharing, where more clicks equals more revenue. And when articles include emotionally inflamed or intense words or images, they spread quickly and reach a larger audience.

Not only are we seeing more emotionally manipulative online content, but it is also more challenging to find and validate the source of the information we consume. Because most Americans get their news from social media, we experience content as unbundled snippets, without source information or context clues to assist in interpretation. These are all good reasons to implement media literacy education in middle and high schools.

New evidence reported in the American Educational Research Journal by Joseph Kahne and his colleagues shows that teens and young adults who have had some exposure to media literacy and civic education in school are better able to analyze news content for accuracy and bias, even when the story is in line with their existing political beliefs. Based on an online experiment with a nationally representative survey of young people, this study is the first of its kind to demonstrate that civic media literacy education can improve the degree to which students can distinguish between evidence-based and inaccurate online political claims (Kahne & Bowyer, 2017).

Teachers must take up the cause and help students analyze and evaluate the information they receive each day. In a post-truth world, media literacy matters. The future of our democracy depends on it.

Sorting Fact from Fiction

As many commentators have observed, the use of the term fake news conceals more than it reveals. Although I'm happy that many K–12 educators have increased interest in teaching students how to critically analyze media, I recommend that they resist using this particular term.

Learners are far better served by a more precise set of definitions and concepts, including terms like propaganda, disinformation, clickbait, hoaxes and satire, pseudoscience, sponsored content, and partisanship. These more precise terms need to be a fundamental part of English and social studies education in all American secondary schools.

Fortunately, educators around the world are banding together to develop resources to help educators at the secondary level teach media literacy. For example, the European Association for Viewers' Interests has developed a chart that helps people analyze and evaluate online content simply through the process of trying to identify the genre of the message (EAVI, 2017).

Tools like this chart can help students learn to critically evaluate media messages. Students can first review the 10 definitions on the chart, looking carefully at the legend to understand the terms. They can then go online to find relevant examples, checking a variety of sources, including content posted to social media platforms. For instance, when I scroll through my newsfeed on Facebook, I can find an example of sponsored content (such as a video that features Adult Swim's animated TV show, "Rick and Morty"). I notice a clickbait story urging me to learn more about a foolproof method for reducing wrinkles. There's also propaganda in the form of a dog rescue video shared with me by an old high school friend.

After identifying examples like this on their own social media accounts, students can work collaboratively to make educated guesses about the authors' motivation for any particular example. Who created this message? Were they creating this message to make money? To inform (or misinform)? As a form of political or social power? As a joke or a form of humor? Or because they truly are passionate about the issue?

Contemporary Propaganda

Of all the types of misleading news listed in the EAVI chart, propaganda is perhaps the most difficult for students to understand. Propaganda, which is generally defined as strategic communication designed to activate strong emotions, bypass critical thinking, and shape attitudes and behaviors, has long been an important form of social power. But for too many American students, the term is only associated with historical examples from the middle of the 20th century. As a result of biases and omissions in classroom instruction, some high school and college students wrongly think propaganda only happened in Nazi Germany!

Today, propaganda is everywhere, and it takes new digital forms that blur the lines between entertainment, information, and persuasion. Propaganda can be found on YouTube videos, websites, and TV news, and in movies, music, and video games. And it doesn't have to be solely negative; some forms of propaganda are actually beneficial. Think of the public service messages that remind you not to text and drive, for example. Well-designed propaganda activates strong feelings that motivate people to take action.

Teachers, librarians, and school leaders are using the pedagogy of media literacy education to teach about the different types of disinformation, including propaganda. For example, Susan Vernon, a high school English teacher from North Polk High School in Iowa, used Mind Over Media: Analyzing Contemporary Propaganda in working with her students. Mind Over Media is an online resource developed at the University of Rhode Island's Media Education Lab, which I direct. The website includes more than 1,000 current examples of contemporary propaganda from across the United States and around the world, on topics including politics and current events; food, nutrition, and health; immigration; environmental science; national and international affairs; crime, law, and justice; health and public policy; media and technology regulation; animal rights; and more. It also offers free lesson plans on exploring new forms of propaganda like viral media and sponsored content.

Students in Ms. Vernon's class first learned the definition of propaganda and reviewed four common techniques used in constructing it:

▪ Evoking strong emotions

.▪ Simplifying information and ideas.

▪ Appealing to audience needs.

▪ Attacking opponents.

The students then selected examples of propaganda from the Mind Over Matter website and evaluated them on a scale that runs from "harmful" to "beneficial." When evaluating each item, students had to make explicit their judgments and interpretations through classroom dialogue and by making comments using the online platform. After students evaluated a particular example, such as a meme related to genetically modified foods, the website's database showed them how others interpreted that example in similar (and different) ways, which created an opportunity for rich classroom discussion.

To become media literate, it is important to gain awareness of how and why we choose to accept some information as truthful and other information as false. Making judgments about the potential benefits and harms of online propaganda gives people structured opportunities to practice the art of interpreting and evaluating media. We get to see interpretations that are sometimes more diverse than those we find in our local communities.

"Young people are exposed to so much information that it is a struggle for them to form their own opinions about major topics that impact their world," says Steve Keim, a high school English teacher at Southern Huntingdon County High School/Middle School in Pennsylvania, who recently explored the topic of contemporary propaganda with his students through the Mind Over Media website. Keim believes that being able to identify propaganda and filter out quality information is a vital skill for these students to learn so they can avoid being manipulated by news outlets that crop up on their social media pages.

The Thanksgiving Meme

One fascinating artifact on the Mind Over Media website is a meme featuring a reproduction of a classic painting depicting the Puritans and American Indians in the first Thanksgiving celebration. The painting is accompanied by the phrase: "The irony of refusing aid and assistance to refugees/migrants while preparing to celebrate a holiday about receiving aid and assistance as refugees/migrants." Figure 1 shows the meme, which was shared widely online in 2016.

Figure 1. The Thanksgiving Meme


<ATTRIB> Source: Media Education Lab. Mind Over Media. Used with permission. </ATTRIB>

As the data graph under the photo shows, this meme has been interpreted very differently by users of the Mind Over Media website. Thirty-five percent of website users see it as beneficial, and twenty percent see it as harmful. The polarized results create a natural starting point for dialogue and reflection in the classroom: Why do some people think this meme is beneficial? Why do some see it as harmful?

To answer this question, multi-perspectival thinking is required. High school students interpret such propaganda in many different ways. One participant interpreted the Thanksgiving meme as somewhat harmful, noting, "This image calls upon old traditions in order to garner sympathy for the refugees from the Middle East war zones. This appeal to tradition is harmful and ignorant of the changing times. The Pilgrims were colonists while the migrants today are refugees under very different circumstances. It should be noted that the colonists caused mass genocide as well, so comparing the migrants of today to the colonists of the past does not exactly paint a pretty picture."

Another student saw the Thanksgiving meme as somewhat beneficial, writing, "The pilgrims were once migrants searching for a home, and now the world is faced by a new challenge of greater proportion but the same ethical question. The creator of this piece wants the viewers to compare the two situations at hand and have the [United States] apply the same hospitality to the refugees from the Middle East. Yet, that same hospitality didn't work out all that well for the Native Americans that showed kindness to the pilgrims."

Although their interpretations differ widely, both students are considering the potential intentions and motives of the author, wondering, "Who is the author, and what is his or her purpose?" Two major theoretical ideas of media literacy education that have been articulated by the National Association for Media Literacy Education (2009) are activated in this lesson: (1) all media messages are constructed and (2) people interpret messages differently based on their background, life experience, and culture. When students recognize the constructed nature of information, they begin to identify the different points of view that are embodied in the choices authors make. They recognize that meanings are in people, not in texts. Through classroom dialogue and discussion, students learn to appreciate the many different ways that media messages can be interpreted. This helps them activate critical thinking skills and cultivate respect for diverse interpretations.

Updating the Tradition

The critical examination of propaganda is not new. As far back as 1938, high school teachers were using instructional strategies to help build critical thinking about the propaganda of the time, which was disseminated through radio, newspapers, newsreels, and popular movies. The Institute for Propaganda Analysis (1937–1942) developed curriculum resources and activities that demonstrated how high school students could take a close look at the content of a media message and search for evidence, verification, and the communicator's motives (Hobbs & McGee, 2014).

Now it's time to update the tradition of propaganda education for the 21st century. With social media sites and news outlets making it easy to "select" our exposure and create echo chambers and filter bubbles, people today may actually get less access to diverse points of view than in previous eras. Often, the true funder of fake news or propaganda is disguised or hidden, as in the use of sock puppets (organizations that deliver messages without revealing the funding sources that support them) or bots and trolls (social media users who amplify their voices by using computer programs or multiple accounts).

The quality of civic education and civic learning in public education must be continually responsive to the lived experience of the students we serve. If schools are to fulfill their social purpose of preparing students for life in a democratic society, education leaders will need to get creative about how to ensure students are thoughtful and intelligent about the information they consume, and that in the face of increasing polarization, they can tell the fake from the facts.

Critically Analyzing Media

Here's what students should ask every time they engage with contemporary propaganda.

What key information and ideas are being expressed?

Techniques: What symbols and rhetorical strategies are used to attract attention and activate an emotional response? What makes them effective?

Means of communication and format: How does the message reach people, and what form does it take?

Representation: How does this message portray people and events? What points of view and values are activated?

Audience receptivity: How may people think and feel about the message? How free are they to accept or reject it?


European Association for Viewers Interests. (2017). Beyond fake news: Ten types of misleading information. https://eavi.eu/beyond-fake-news-10-types-misleading-info

Goodfellow, J. (2017, February 6). Only 4% of people can distinguish fake news from the truth, Channel 4 study finds. The Drum. Retrieved from www.thedrum.com/news/2017/02/06/only-4-people-can-distinguish-fake-news-truth-channel-4-study-finds

Hobbs, R., & McGee, S. (2014). Teaching about propaganda: An examination of the historical roots of media literacy. Journal of Media Literacy Education, 6(2), 56–67.

Kahne, J., & Bowyer, B. (2017). Education for democracy in a partisan age: Confronting the challenges of motivated reasoning and misinformation. American Educational Research Journal, 54(1), 3–34.

National Association for Media Literacy Education. (2009). Core principles of media literacy education. Retrieved from https://namle.net/2009/06/02/the-core-principles-of-media-literacy-education

Ritchie, H. (2016, December 30). Read all about it: The biggest fake news stories of 2016. CNBC. Retrieved from www.cnbc.com/2016/12/30/read-all-about-it-the-biggest-fake-news-stories-of-2016.html

Simon, H. (1971). Designing organizations for an information rich world. In M. Greenberger (Ed.), Computers, communications, and the public interest (pp. 37–72). Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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