Learning about propaganda through asking critical questions
By Nicoleta Fotiade and Sorina Untu, Mediawise Society
‘Have you ever used propaganda?’ was the first question to start the first Romanian workshop on how to recognize propaganda, hosted in February by Mediawise Society at Apti Digital Hub. At first, about half of the participants, mostly media and communication professionals, strongly dismissed the possibility to have used propaganda. But by the end of the evening, they changed their minds once we got to define propaganda and explore its various forms.
The main goal of the workshop, held in the framework of the Mind Over Media in EU project, is to cultivate the participants’ critical thinking; to define, analyze and evaluate contemporary propaganda messages through dialogue and the use of the basic media literacy concepts and questions. Here are some questions that helped spark the debate:
- What is propaganda?
- Do you know how to recognize it? Where is it found?
- Is propaganda by definition always harmful?
- What communication techniques does it use?
- Have you ever used propaganda to influence opinions?
- How much does the context matter when trying to analyze the impact of propaganda?
Even though we talked about propaganda, a topic that many people take very seriously, the discussions between participants were lively, relaxed and sometimes entertaining. The participants raised interesting questions and discovered various forms of contemporary propaganda.
In the Romanian public sphere, propaganda is a concept most associated with negative and political mass manipulation. Many of the people attending our workshop thought the same. But, by the end of the workshop, the participants changed their minds once they defined propaganda and felt that some of the propaganda examples could also be considered beneficial.
Self-inquiry is an essential element in analyzing propaganda. It is not enough to be against propaganda. It is important to understand it. And it is important to recognize our own prejudices, beliefs and values to understand how propaganda works and its impact.
Children don’t need to be protected against propaganda. They need opportunities to discuss and evaluate propaganda. — Renee Hobbs
Early on in the workshop, the participants proved that they had well-developed critical thinking skills and that they were willing to use and exploit them to the maximum during the workshop. However, it is important to understand that well-developed critical thinking skills are not enough to recognize propaganda. The willingness to use your skills and to question information makes all the difference. One has to give it time and to participate. An attitude very characteristic to the participation model of media and digital education that we promote at Mediawise Society, which focuses on practicing critical and creative learning.
At times, propaganda can also be considered beneficial, depending on the propagandist’s intentions and the way people react to it. It can lead to positive results, even though its basic aim is to activate strong emotions that suppress critical thinking to influence opinions, attitudes or actions. Advocacy campaigns are also using this technique!
After the workshop, one question lingered: why do history books only mention negative propaganda (e.g. communist/ nazi propaganda)? Was there no example of positive propaganda in the past? A very good point! I believe it certainly existed. Most likely the answer lies in the historians’ understanding of propaganda as a form of communication.
‘Propaganda Lab: do you know how to recognize it?’ is a useful workshop in an information-saturated society that has easy access to various online social platforms. This workshop is part of a series on propaganda that will be included in the Mediawise Society training and educational resources program for media and digital literacy. The workshop can also be replicated in the Romanian educational settings and will be used to support the training of several groups of educators in 2018.