By Adriana Mihai, Mediawise Society, December 2018
Media literacy and critical thinking are measures to be taken in order to increase citizen resilience to propaganda, a recent report(1) on Romania’s vulnerabilities to Russian propaganda has confirmed. If critical thinking was introduced in 2009 by the Romanian Ministry of Education in the mandatory school curriculum as a transversal value, aiming to stimulate “an autonomous, reflexive and critical thinking towards received messages” , media literacy is absent both from transversal values and from core curricular subjects. Media education only exists as a “school decision” curriculum, as an optional discipline to be taken on, at request, by individual high-schools.
Our purpose in creating the “Mind Over Media in Romania: Propaganda for Critical Thinking” local curriculum was, therefore, twofold: a) to fill curricular gaps in media education and contemporary propaganda by connecting these subjects to what is currently taught in schools; and b) to provide lesson plans which stimulate a critical discussion on the problems linked with contemporary propaganda in the Romanian public sphere – fake news, manipulation, nationalism and financial power.
Educational context: between persuasion and the communist past
Whether we are looking for prevention against what is considered harmful propaganda, or for reflection on propaganda messages which suit our values and beliefs, the ability to recognize and critically analyze this form of persuasion across media needs to be developed through education. Persuasion and argumentation are currently taught in secondary education within the Language and Communication Area and in Social Sciences, under the Logic, argumentation and communication subject taught in 9th grade. Unfortunately, only the Modern Languages curriculum explicitly connects its aimed competencies (producing and receiving messages) to multimodal forms of communication and to present-day social practices. The Romanian Language and Literature curriculum provides little room for contemporary media practices, being primarily focused on grammar, print-based texts and aesthetic, structural and thematic approaches to literary fiction (2).
Propaganda itself is also seldom discussed and only in relation to the communist past, under the History and Romanian literature teaching units addressing totalitarian regimes and propaganda in literary fiction. The main source used by textbooks in analyzing the latter is Eugen Negrici’s literary historiography which looks both at the context of literary production during communism and at aesthetic codes, techniques and themes used in such prose and poetry. Since the core curriculum gives teachers a relative freedom of choice in what concerns educational resources, methods and activities, a comparative approach between past and present propaganda practices can be introduced. Among the techniques employed in propagandistic fiction, Negrici was highlighting myths of endangered motherland, of the Saviour, but also accessibility and simplicity of form and the use of antithesis to obtain “a strong emotional effect”:
“Love for the red flag of the communist ideal is enhanced by bigoted hatred for its enemies, against all embodiments of Evil (fascists, imperialists, Anglo-American imperialists, famous capitalists, racketeers, conspirators and spies, etc.)”(3).
These practices strongly resonate with the techniques used in contemporary propaganda, taught in the common Mind Over Media curriculum: activating strong emotions, attacking the opponent, simplifying ideas and information, using audiences’ values and needs, all of which being applied by over 100 workshop participants to local propaganda examples.
Local propaganda practices and curriculum
Building upon these, our lesson plan on Nationalism and Propaganda looks at the current use of national myths in simplifying information, the attacks on minorities or foreign groups and entities including the EU as scapegoating strategies, at the techniques of stirring emotions of anger and fear based on values such as national pride, unity and belonging. These can be discussed comparatively, in the disciplines mentioned above, or as stand-alone case studies. Teachers can use examples of communist propaganda posters, which are currently available in edited volumes, digital repositories or museum exhibitions such as the National Museum of History in Romania’s online gallery Communism in Romania – Portraits of a Dictator or Atelierul de Grafică – GraphicFront’s poster collection, alongside images disseminated in present-day social media. Examples of nationalist propaganda circulated in the Romanian web sphere against Hungarians, Russians, Romani, LGBTQ couples, Jews and many more have been uploaded on the MoM platform and discussed in our workshops, facilitating a dialogue on polarizing issues from the public agenda.
While the common ground between past and present propaganda in Romania is useful in terms of conceptual coherence and curricular insertion, an emphasis on the differences between regimes and media systems needs to be included. This is the aim of the lesson plan on The Economy of Propaganda, which introduces differences in media regulation before and after 1989, current electoral advertising production and audience targeting in mainstream media and online. The questions of financial power and media production can be easily included in the Modern Languages curricula, but also in History units where students can see how propaganda can change aesthetics, techniques and institutional or commercial contexts.
The negative connotation associated with communist propaganda remained so strong in Romania that the form of communication(4) in itself has become a rhetorical trick used to discredit the adversary in political communication. Moreover, many of our workshop participants considered propaganda as manipulation by definition before examining the concept in more depth. What is the difference between persuasion and manipulation? When is propaganda manipulative? The lesson plan on Propaganda and Manipulation in Electoral Contexts, linked to the curriculum of the optional Competences in Mass-Media and to teaching units on argumentation and persuasion, aims to provide examples from electoral campaigns in order to find more clarifying answers to the questions above.
As a result of vilifying “the other’s” propaganda, it remains a challenge to consider as propaganda a message we agree with, leaving us more exposed to spreading information which confirms our beliefs without verifying it beforehand. Teaching students how to reason, how to evaluate evidence and to assess an argument is essential in judging the credibility of a truth claim, and thus in building resilience to fake news. The lesson plan on Fake News, Fake Content Online aims to also create the habit of checking the context of production behind a news article in order to increase the resilience of audiences to fake news and to disinformation in propaganda: looking at the context and date of publication, the author, the credibility of the source, the structure and rhetoric of news articles, as well as comparing them with other articles on the same subject. Being aware of how and why intentionally fabricated stories are spread online could make us think twice before distributing a message, even if it confirms what we believe or if it seems too good to be true.
Even though the lessons we designed can be integrated in the present core curriculum, the decision ultimately belongs to educators’ willingness to update their resources, methods and subjects. Curricula change slowly, as this process is coordinated by the Ministry of Education and involves many stakeholders who need to agree on new approaches; most of secondary education curricula date from 2004, 2006 or 2009. In 2017, however, a curricular shift was introduced at gymnasium level in Romanian Language and Literature, where the notion of written text has been replaced with multimodal texts. Until such shifts introducing visual messages and media literacy across competencies and contents in curricula, or perhaps even introducing media education as a core subject, can take place, the best chance of passing the present competencies in analyzing contemporary propaganda lies in educators’ training. This will continue to be our focus in 2019, while remaining engaged with educational experts and policy-makers to raise media literacy in Romania.
(1) Popescu, Oana and Rufin Zamfir (eds). Propaganda Made-To-Measure: How Our Vulnerabilities Facilitate Russian Influence. A Study of Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and the Republic of Moldova. GlobalFocus Center, Bucharest: 2018;
(2) M.G. Slager, “Lessons in Literature: A comparative study into the literature curricula in secondary education in six European countries,” MA thesis, University of Groningen, August 2010;
(3) Eugen Negrici, Literature and Propaganda in Communist Romania, The Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, Bucuresti: 1999, p.21;
(4) Momoc, Antonio, Comunicarea 2.0. New media, participare și populism, Iași: Adenium 2014.