Mobile Propaganda & Disinformation Lab

By Renee Hobbs, Christian Seyferth-Zapf and Silke Grafe

What a fine productive week in Germany we had, reaching 100+ teachers over the course of an intense week of professional development.

Thanks to a grant from the U.S. State Department Consul General of Munich under leadership of Meghan Gregonis, the Mobile Propaganda and Disinformation Lab offered a four-course program to educators from across Bavaria in cities including Munich, Wuerzberg and Nuernberg.

According to Stephen Ibelli, Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. State Department’s Consulate General in Munich, “Disinformation and propaganda are global. Young people find it difficult to understand the what source of their news is. Teaching students to be more discerning is more important than ever before.”

The program explored these four questions:

  • What is propaganda and why is is important?
  • How does propaganda education align with media literacy as articulated in the German education system?
  • What strategies help learners analyze and evaluate contemporary propaganda?
  • What can educators do to address the problem of disinformation and fake news?

Section 1: Defining Propaganda

Educators use HPReveal to explore definitions of new types of contemporary propaganda

Using an augmented reality app called HP Reveal, Christian Seyferth-Grafe helped participants get acquainted with others by working in a small group to discuss some new types of propaganda that are emerging, including clickbait, sponsored content, pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, and partisan news. Using an iPad, they scanned an image to reveal a definition, generating examples from their own experience as media consumers. This activity includes a lesson where learners review several definitions of the word propaganda and consider those elements that are most meaningful to them. German teachers understand that, to be effective, propaganda must align with people’s deepest hopes, dreams and fears. They acknowledge its strategic intent to influence public opinion and appreciate that it might involve both truthful information and lies. We thus establish that the term “propaganda” is situational and contextual, responsive to changes in society, technology and culture.

Section 2: Theory and Practice

Silke Grafe examined the general level of exposure to digital media today among German youth and described the media literacy practices of access-analyze-create-reflect-act (the Hobbs AACRA Model, 2010) and the German media literacy model developed by Tulodziecki, Herzig & Grafe (2019). Systematic inclusion of the five practices should include attention to accessing information, using appropriate types of media for a variety of purposes; analyzing the content and design of media messages; creating and disseminating one’s own media messages; reflecting on the influence of media, and identifying and evaluating conditons of media production and dissemination. Christian Seyferth-Grafe shows the outline of his 15-week unit on teaching propaganda to 10th grade German students and how students practice creating media as a way to demonstrate their ability to understand and analyze propaganda. We see an example of a student-produced counter-narrative designed to create sympathy for Syrian refugees, for exmple.

Section 3: Mind Over Media

Discuss examples of contemporary propaganda

Participants explored global propaganda through the use of the Mind Over Media website. For many, the idea that propaganda is may be beneficial was a new idea. In some sessions, we reviewed a public service announcement created by the European Parliament entitled “Choose Your Future.” Educators recognized the importance of recognizing propaganda techniques including: simplifying ideas, activating emotion, appealing to audience needs and attacking opponents. They discussed and reflected upon examples of propaganda uploaded by students and teachers from more than 40 countries. Working with a partner, they discussed the many new forms that propaganda takes.

Section 4: The Trouble with Memes

We modeled the use of digital annotation in a discussion activity looking at three political memes concerning Brexit, Putin, gun violence and immigration. Participants examined the ways in which images and language intersect to create ambiguity of meaning in memes, enabling them to be transformed and re-purposed. Educators acknowledged that the interpretation of memes is contingent upon contextual knowledge and we offered a range of other instructional strategies to explore this point. We offered examples of student-produced memes, counter-narratives and other forms of media production as a way to “talk back” to propaganda.

Section 5: Search Engine Bias

We explored the concept of the “filter bubble” and looked at algorithmic bias in Internet search engines by comparing and contrasting search engines results pages from different students on a simple search activity. We learned about the growth of Russian news agencies as information providers for Germans and considered the potential exposure to disinformation and the implicit biases that might emerge from exposure to news shaped by the Russian government.

German high school students receive news about the United States from Russian news agencies

Design for Learning

Our programs included these key elements:

  • Structured critical questions to guide the inquiry process
  • Reading comprehension and analysis activities embedded in learning
  • Hands-on, minds-on use of digital technologies throughout the program
  • Individual discussion with a partner to model “the power of two”
  • Small group discussion and the use of digital annotation tools to “talk back” to a political meme
  • Display of student-created media, including multimedia analysis and student-produced counter-narratives
  • Time for written reflection to help educators clarify their thoughts and feelings and to consider how the learning experience could be adapted to their contexts

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