Saturday, December 10, 2016

"Let's Call it What it is: propaganda" - December 12, 2016

Fake news has been all over the news recently. Let’s call it what it really is: propaganda.

Why are we talking about this in a column about technology for families? Anyone online is inundated with information. Before the internet, there were certain filters in place when we got our information from newspapers, magazines, books and broadcasting.

It was expensive to print and distribute or to broadcast. The publishers and broadcasters had limits of how much content they could put out, so they were discriminating in their selection. And they had to reach a large audience to be economically viable, so they could not alienate a large portion of their audience by being unfair.

I do not mean to suggest propaganda techniques were not used, just that there were some filters in place. Today there are none. Anyone can publish to the net for only the cost of an internet connection. The only filter between publisher and audience is what the individual audience member provides for himself.

I learned about propaganda techniques in school, and I went looking through the Virginia Standards of Learning to find out our schools still teach about them -- albeit in the seventh grade.

That may be too late. Media consumption habits may already be well-formed by then, considering how much information even children are exposed to online.

As parents, we need to teach our children critical thinking at a young age. Have them learn to question what they read, see and hear. And also have them watch for propaganda techniques in their personal interactions.

When you see an example of name calling in an ad or speech, ask your child why the message needs to call someone a name. What are they hoping to gain?

When a testimonial is used, ask why we should forgo our own decision making and simply accept the opinion of others. Are Beats by Dr. Dre really better headphones simply because we like his music? Or should we try listening through them and other headphones to see what we think sounds better?

If the spokesmodel is beautiful, should we lend more credence? Is the attractive classmate's opinions more valid than the unattractive ones?

The bandwagon technique suggesting the crowd is for something is an especially seductive allure for children as they all want to be accepted. Discuss bandwagon appeals when you see it in media. It will be easier to discuss bandwagon appeals without the emotional attachment they get when you have to combat their wanting to do something unwise because “all my friends get to do it.”

Show them how to recognize appeals to their fears and prejudices when someone is pushing a concept. Discuss how some will attack not the idea a person is putting forth, but the person. Why are they not attacking the idea in those cases?

Have them watch out for fear mongering as a way to promote an idea. “Let’s not play the game Tommy wants because his grandmother came from the same part of the world as terrorists do.”

Point out scapegoating — blaming a group of people as the sole cause of a larger, complex problem. And stereotyping — assigning a weakness to an entire group of people. Ask them if they have ever been stereotyped. Is it fair to be stereotyped?

Talk about fact checking. Does the speaker cite specific supports for the views? Teach them to know the difference between “experts agree” to “scientists at MIT have research that supports…” Show them fact checking sites and encourage them to check sites before passing along information they see online.

Let them know that the value of Wikipedia is not just the statements and opinions in the articles but the citations to the articles that may lead them to more valid sources of information.

Talk about filter bubbles. Now that we can seek information ourselves online, instead of it coming to us in newspapers and TV news, it is easy to want to seek out only that news that supports our beliefs. Teach your children the value of challenging their own beliefs; and considering the opinions of others. Discuss how easy it is to build an online world where they live in a bubble with other people who share their beliefs without ever experiencing the beliefs of others, or even facts that challenge their own beliefs.

Help them to consider the source. Does the source provide only one point of view? Does it always criticize the same side, and always compliment the other side? Can one side do no wrong, and the other side do no right?

Teach them the difference between an unsupported meme and one with citations in the meme itself. Teach them to validate the citation before sharing the meme.

Stress the difference between facts and opinions. Teach them to value both and that opinions do not negate facts. Remind them that sharing faulty information makes their opinion less valued among the very friends they are trying to impress.


We need our children to be good consumers of information, fair purveyors themselves of information and most of all, educated and thoughtful citizens.

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