Throughout the Crash Course media literacy series, viewers have learned the ins-and-outs of persuasive techniques, advertising, and public relations. However, in the tenth video of the series entitled “The Dark(er) Side of Media,” Crash Course focuses on propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation.
Public relations is the management of the relationship between the public and a brand. Both advertisers and PR people use campaigns, or planned, systematic efforts to intentionally persuade us of certain beliefs or to act a certain way. Campaigns that saturate the media landscape with a united theme and message can be really effective. They can convince us to buy new phones and stop buying cigarettes and vote for one candidate over another in the next election. One of the key components of a campaign is its coordination. For a campaign to have the biggest impact requires multiple people working in tandem to accomplish a cohesive goal.
Propaganda is the same principle on a tilted axis. Propaganda is information used to promote a particular point of view, change behavior or motivate action. Sometimes that information is facts and ideas, sometimes it’s opinions, or intentionally misleading or biased. Though technically propaganda itself isn’t inherently evil, it is usually associated with bad actors. That’s because it’s often used to manipulate the public into things they might not naturally do, like supporting a war or believing harmful stereotypes about others. And most typically, the people doing the coordinated propaganda campaigns are part of governments. For example, during World War I, the U.S. Committee on Public Information was formed for just such a purpose – to produce pro-war propaganda. In World War II it was the Office of War Information.
If propaganda is used to psychologically persuade, disinformation is used to confuse and distract the intended audience using deliberately false or misleading information. Disinformation campaigns can be used to poke and prod opposing groups and heighten the tension between them. And just because these campaigns aren’t being done by official government propaganda offices doesn’t mean they’re small scale, or ineffective. With the reach of the internet, and the ability to make digital media, people all over the globe can organize themselves for coordinated campaigns. By working together, flooding different media outlets with carefully crafted messages, a group can drastically change public information.
What disinformation is best at is confusing the facts of an issue. Disinformation can whip up a smokescreen, and disperse the attention of the masses. This style of disinformation can also be used to excuse or dismiss bad actions or behavior. One of the reasons disinformation is so effective online is because of the existence of a related phenomenon: Misinformation. While it sounds similar, misinformation is unintentionally inaccurate information such as accidents or mistakes in reporting. Often, misinformation occurs during a breaking news situation when members of the media want to be the first to report the news. Mistakes happen, they make a typo, they don’t double check, and they get it wrong.
As long as there have been news sources, there have been errors and corrections and updates. But our new online media environment changes how those mistakes get made, and the impact they have on people. Increasingly, people get information from a variety of sources online, often shared and mixed together over social media, rather than from a small number of central institutions. Once a consumer hears or reads misinformation, it’s often hard to correct it in their minds, even when confronted with the right information. Plus, once we’ve deemed a source trustworthy or safe, it’s hard for us to even criticize their content. Our brains are pretty stubborn.
How do media consumers determine if what they’re seeing is from the darker side of media? Well, Crash Course uses this opportunity to end the video and promote the next video in the series. However, I have advice of my own to determine if you can trust the media piece:
- What type of content are you looking at? Is it a news story? An opinion piece? Is it an ad or a reaction to someone’s content? Who produced the content? Where does the organization get its content? Does the content have an obvious political bias? Knowing what you are looking at is the first step to figuring out what you can believe.
- Who and what are the sources cited and why should you believe them? News content usually cite sources for the information provided. Note who is being cited. Is it a police official? A politician? What party? If it’s research, what organization produced it and what background if offered about them? Once you have identified who the sources are, do they have a bias?
- What’s the evidence and how was it vetted? Evidence is the proof that the sources offer for what they know. Is the evidence a document? Was it something that the source saw as an eyewitness? Is it firsthand or secondhand? Did the media do anything to verify the evidence? Trust the material that offers more evidence, is more specific, and more transparent about the proof being offered.
- Is the main point of the piece proven by the evidence? Think about the conclusions being drawn. Do they follow logically from what has been cited? Are too many conclusions being drawn from evidence that doesn’t support all of them? Remember: correlation doesn’t equal causation. We should expect enough evidence to prove the case. We shouldn’t just take someone’s word.
- What’s missing? An important step in being a critical, questioning media consumer is to ask yourself what you don’t understand about a subject. If there was important information missing from the story, that is a problem. If something was explained so poorly that it wasn’t clear, that’s also a problem. The point of any media content is not just to tell you something, but to create an understanding and also to help you to react or take action.
Until next week,