Americans are constantly confronted with propaganda and misinformation on the airwaves and the Internet. Former President Trump and Fox News talking heads are lying machines. Late night television had a heyday making fun of Congressman George Santos (a/k/a drag queen Kitara Ravache), but the reality is that there are a lot of Republican liars in the House of Representatives. 147 of them voted to block the 2020 Presidential election.
In an October 2022 report by the Open Society Institute in Sofia, Bulgaria, Finland ranked first out of 41 European countries on the ability of the Finnish people to identify and resist misinformation. This was the fifth time in a row that Finland was the highest-ranking country. A major reason for Finland’s success is its school programs. Finland has an especially strong overall educational system that includes media literacy starting in preschool and a systematic approach to teaching students to identify fake news.
A national media literacy curriculum was developed by the Finnish government in 2014 after Russia targeted the country with fake news stories. The attacks helped educators and government officials understand that students were coming of age in a “post-fact” period. In a typical middle-level lesson, student read a news articles or view a TikTok video and discuss the purpose of the article or video, how and when was it written or created, the creator’s motivation, and its central claims.
Developing skills needed to identify propaganda and misinformation is now included across subject areas. In math, students examine the way statistics can be manipulated in reports. In art classes, students discover how an image’s meaning can be distorted. In history classes, students analyze notable propaganda campaigns in the past. Language teachers help students discover how the choice of words can be used to twist meaning and confuse or deceive readers.
The United States was not included in this survey, however studies show that media misinformation and disinformation have are increasing and trust in media outlets is extremely low. According to Gallup, only 34% of Americans trusted the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly compared to 76% in Finland. Twenty-eight percent of American adults reported they do not have very much confidence in newspapers, TV and radio and 38% said they have none at all.
Fact or Fiction – Identifying Propaganda and Conspiracy Theories
These activities were part of an exhibit created by the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and the United Nations Department of Global Communications, “After the End of the World: Displaced Persons and Displaced Persons Camps.” A lesson on the power of propaganda is available from Facing History & Ourselves (https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/power-propaganda-1).
Propaganda or Not?
The power of propaganda depends on the following main characteristics aimed at specific groups:
- Playing on emotions
- Attacking antagonists
- Simplifying information
Do more than half of the below apply? If so, it is most likely propaganda.
- The message compels you to think or do something.
- The message is addressed to a specific group of people.
- There is an obvious and specific antagonist.
- The message uses stereotypical images of the “other.”
- The message presents a complex issue as actually being quite simple.
- The message plays on your emotions.
- The message is short and easy to repeat and makes use of slogans.
- The message uses lies, half-truths and out-of-context truths.
- You find the message only in restricted media channels.
10. The message uses specific symbols.
Conspiracy Theories or Not?
A conspiracy theory has a firm structure. A powerful group has a secret plan which is disadvantageous for the majority and yields an advantage for the first (powerful) group.
Do more than half of the below apply? If so, it is most likely a conspiracy theory.
- The story begins in a credible way and with clear facts but gradually becomes more improbable.
- The story is presented as the unmasking of the real truth.
- There is a “powerful” group of people who keep the real truth hidden.
- Everything is part of a larger plan and the story reveals this plan.
- The story provokes intense emotions.
- There is extreme distrust against scientists, news media or government.
- Discussions are not held in public forums but instead, for example, in private chats.
- The story is often being removed from social media.
- Fact checkers and journalists say the story is not true.
- People who oppose the story are said to be easily duped and unable to think critically.