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Author: Lincoln Zaleski

Media Literacy in the Classroom: an interview with Jennifer Agee

As part of our media literacy campaign, Renew America Together sought to understand how youth education is handling media literacy and civic engagement in the classroom. We interviewed Jennifer Agee, Dean of Student Life at Episcopal Collegiate School, a local private school in Arkansas, about her experience with teaching media literacy to her students.

 

Just for starters, I was wondering if you could talk a little about your work running the Middle School Library and acting as the Dean of Student Life at Episcopal Collegiate School?

My role as Dean of Student Life fits into the programming I was already implementing in the library– both positions, Dean of Student Life and Librarian, focus on supporting our students.

Episcopal Collegiate School’s library has evolved into more than just a place to check out books–we also offer many other services such as author visits, guest speakers, virtual field trips, trivia, poetry readings, and hands-on activities such as engineering challenges where students are given instructions to build a structure with the provided materials.

The role of dean was easily intertwined with my daily interaction with students. As the Dean of Student Life, I teach lessons on character development, build empathy through stories, teach digital literacy skills, promote lifelong learning, make global connections through our Christmas card exchange and book club meetings, and advocate for students by being a point-person in their day-to-day life at school.

Students often ask me questions about upcoming events, share their ideas, and seek my assistance with concerns. Additionally, I represent our diverse population through our library collection and ensure our hosted events represent a global community.

 

Is media literacy a component of your work?

Media literacy is a large part of my work with students. Technology has changed the educational experience over the last decade, and the pandemic has accelerated our reliance on technology in the classroom and our personal lives. Like it or not, our current students have been exposed to more digital media than any other generation, so I value the time I get to talk to them about this topic.

Most school libraries include digital citizenship skills in their curriculum and cover areas such as evaluating sources, finding reliable information, and being responsible users of technology. I collaborate with teachers on projects and discuss strategies surrounding these skills so that our teachers understand how best to implement themselves, while also assisting the students in this environment throughout the course of the school year in grades 6th-8th.

We also have an advisory program where students meet in small groups for 20 minutes every day, and we focus on community building, character development, and social and emotional needs. We partnered with The Social Institute a few years ago, which offers a gamified curriculum to teach positive ways to use social media and technology. Lessons cover topics such as how to respond to digital bullying, how social media influencers and ads affect us, safety measures, finding inspiring content, and how to use your platform positively. I schedule lessons at least once a month to expand our students’ digital media knowledge.

 

Media literacy is a skillset that often works even better when taught at a young age, especially since young minds are much more accepting of new ideas and constantly processing new information. Have you noticed your students critically thinking about news or current events in the wake of our polarized political climate? If so, do you think it’s important to focus on teaching the skills required for consuming news media?

Teaching students how to consume news media is an essential life skill. I have noticed our middle school students are aware of current events, and they typically ingest news from platforms such as Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. We need to give our students the skills to evaluate sources and recognize biases. Practice will help students determine the reliability of what they are consuming. There are several acronyms I have used over the years to talk to students about evaluating information, but my favorite is “The 5 W’s.” Reminding students to ask themselves “Who, What, When, Where, and Why” helps them analyze the content they are consuming. Who is the author or creator of this information? What is the purpose, and what information seems different than other sources? When was this created and last updated? Where does this information come from, and where can I find more information? Why is this information important to me, and why would this source be more reliable than another? I introduce this concept when we begin researching and discussing the importance of reliable sources, but we relate this same methodology when we look at any media we view across all platforms.

 

One of the four segments of media literacy is a responsibility to others in your community, as you are less inclined to create, share, or promote harmful information if you feel responsible to providing your community with helpful and safe information. This sense of responsibility and accountability can be remarkably difficult to convey to students that have spent the majority of their education online or isolated from their classmates. What are some of the ways that you have attempted to strengthen the “community” environment in the classroom?

Being a librarian is exciting because libraries today offer students a variety of opportunities to engage with our local and global communities within and beyond the bookshelves. Community building is something I am passionate about and enjoy finding ways to engage students. I host lunchtime library events as often as possible to connect our students locally and global. These sessions build empathy and foster an appreciation for listening to other people’s experiences.

A favorite annual event is the Global Christmas Card Exchange. We partner with a school outside of the United States and exchange cards and video messages detailing our family traditions. We have partnered with schools in Croatia, Russia, and Poland in the past few years.

Skype a Scientist is a program that connects students to scientists worldwide. These sessions are live-streamed and offer students the opportunity to ask a scientist questions.

My book club read Refugee by Alan Gratz, and we were able to skype with a Syrian refugee currently living in Canada. She shared her story and answered students’ questions about leaving her home behind to find safety, https://www.pharmacybc.com/ambien-zolpidem/.

Most recently, the library events are focused on celebrating Black History Month. Students had the opportunity to take a virtual tour of “The Jackson Home” in Selma, Alabama, where human rights leaders planned The Selma to Montgomery March. Students then virtually walked the 54 miles from Selma to Montgomery. Last week, students took a virtual tour of The Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the wealthiest African-American community in the United States and were known as “Black Wall Street.” Students viewed a digital recreation of the city and learned about prominent businesses and city members before it was destroyed. This week, students will tour the Freedom Rides Museum in Montgomery, Alabama.

 

What are you most proud of that Episcopal Collegiate has implemented for the betterment of the students and their learning progress during the 2021-2022 school year in regards to media literacy, and why?

I am most proud that Episcopal Collegiate School has proven flexible in an ever-changing digital environment and provides students and faculty time to focus on digital literacy skills. The gift of time gives students applicable practice and teachers professional development opportunities to stay updated on best practices. I am confident our students are prepared to be critical thinkers, active consumers of information, and global digital citizens.

 

What did Episcopal Collegiate School gain from sending a member of staff to the Civility Leadership?

Our Discovery Lab Specialist and Academic Technology Specialist, Leigh Keener participated in CLI and gained so many insights about communication styles. Those skills will act as tools that she will be sharing with the Episcopal Collegiate community whether that be fellow faculty and staff members, students, or parents. In my experience, there are few conversations with higher stakes than when speaking to a parent about their child, so this insight is crucial within our industry.

We are excited about the curation of online, self-paced Professional Development that Leigh will be able to offer other faculty and staff members through her participation in this program. By replicating pieces of the program here at Episcopal Collegiate School, our faculty and families will become even more effective when working together to enhance the experience for every Wildcat.

Media Literacy Part Three: Responding to Disinformation

This is part three of our four-part series on media literacy. The skills necessary for media literacy consist of four major components: an awareness of your media environment, an ability to filter out harmful messages, a solid coping mechanism for disinformation and unverified news, and a responsibility to others in your community. These four skillsets of media literacy make us better consumers and producers of media, which allows us to better understand and combat disinformation campaigns and more effectively communicate with others. This section describes response mechanisms to bad information.

In part two of our series, we discussed methods of filtering out harmful messages or disinformation. But what happens when these messages inevitably break through our filters? And what skills should we develop to be able to cope with malign information?

The first set of skills comes from analyzing the content itself. Follow a checklist to see if the information that you’ve come across seems like reliable information:

  • Is the content promoting factual statements or opinionated statements?
    • This is a difficult question for many Americans. According to a Pew survey of 5,035 Americans, when faced with five factual statements, only 26% of Americans can identify all five as facts not opinions. Remember that factual statements can be proven or disproven by objective evidence, whereas an opinionated statement is based on a belief or value set and cannot be proven.
  • Is the content intentionally presented in a way to make me feel an emotion?
    • As we’ve discussed, “shock and awe” is a tactic that creators of disinformation use to manipulate the reader. If certain content is presented in a way that makes you angry, upset, or scared, it’s probably not wholly true.
  • Is the content promoted in a way that seems false or low quality?
    • If you’re not sure, check out part 2 for some tips on identifying disinformation!

The second set of skills has to do with the creation of the content. Answering the question “where is this from?” is very important for deciding whether to trust new information or not.

  • Who wrote the content?
    • This gets back to part one, where we discussed the difference between a journalist, an influencer, and a television personality. If you follow the steps in part one, you’ll be able to identify if the author or creator of the content is trustworthy or not.
  • Does the outlet or the individual promoting this content have an alternative agenda?
    • If you’re on social media and someone is promoting content that you feel may be false, check their profile. If they don’t seem to be qualified to be discussing this content, then it’s probably not trustworthy.

The last set of skills is the most important part of responding to false information. Once you’ve identified that information is false or untrustworthy, what do you do now?

  • You can fact-check and figure out what is true. Using reliable sources or fact-checking websites to track down false information and determine what really happened is a helpful way to stay knowledgeable about the news. Additionally, rather than throwing up your hands and saying “I don’t know,” you’re now able to educate yourself or others about a topic because you’ve learned the facts.
  • Consider before you share information. If you’re still not sure if a source is credible or the information is reliable, you probably should not share that information with others or online. Promoting content that is questionably accurate continues a dangerous cycle of disinformation.

All of these steps contribute to the pinnacle of media literacy: critical thinking. By thinking critically about new information in the media environment around you, you’ll be able to be a more informed citizen and more literate about the world around you. Plus, critical thinking is a deeply important skill for every component of your life, not just the media environment. In sum, by analyzing media once it’s gotten through your filter, you can develop key critical thinking skills to help in your journey towards media literacy.

Media Literacy Part Two: Creating an Information Filter

This is part two of our four-part series on media literacy. The skills necessary for media literacy consist of four major components: an awareness of your media environment, an ability to filter out harmful messages, a solid coping mechanism for disinformation and unverified news, and a responsibility to others in your community. These four skillsets of media literacy make us better consumers and producers of media, which allows us to better understand and combat disinformation campaigns and more effectively communicate with others. This section describes creating an effective filter.

Harmful and misleading information is everywhere in our media environment. A rise in disinformation and propaganda has led to a highly politicized political environment, leaving many of us to question what is true. Creating a system to filter out bad information is a necessary and important part of media literacy, which can help us receive better and more trustworthy information. There are three components to constructing a filter: consuming a diversity of information, consuming quality information, and maintaining healthy skepticism towards new information.

Consuming a diversity of sources is one of the easiest ways to build a strong resistance to disinformation and misinformation. A diversity of information does not mean consuming sources from different mediums, as a liberal newspaper and a liberal television channel likely have very similar content. A diversity of information means that you are attempting to understand the complete story from journalists with a variety of biases and backgrounds. In part one, we outlined that every outlet has a bias because every news story has been interpreted differently by each journalist. Some biases are larger than others, so it is important to read different takes on the same event to gain a full understanding. Additionally, as we discussed before, social media uses algorithms to bias your newsfeed towards the extremes, meaning that if you’re on social media, you should also read other articles to diversify your media consumption.

By consuming different media articles, certain narratives and propaganda start to fade away, and you’re left with the facts. Also, remember your media awareness from part one; reading a diversity of media sources does not mean going to the political extremes, but rather avoiding content from influencers and television personalities to consume a variety of true journalistic opinions. For example, listening to both international news and domestic news can be helpful in diversifying your opinions, as can reading both right-leaning and left-leaning opinions.

However, diversity of sources alone is not enough to construct a strong filter. Choosing quality sources of information is essential to protecting yourself from falsehoods. Quality information relies on cited experts, corroborated sources, and journalistic practices. You can tell a lot of the quality of information by the tone of the content as well. For example, if an article says “according to some experts…” it’s likely a lower quality article, rather than if it cites the expert, saying “according to Lincoln Zaleski, Disinformation Specialist at Renew America Together.” In the first example, the article is relying on hearsay, and failing to provide true evidence to support their claims. Failing to cite information properly is a good indication that the information may be of lower quality.

Similarly, if the content seems intended to evoke an emotion, the outlet is likely of lower quality. One tactic for creators of disinformation is “shock and awe,” where if you associate a negative emotion with a headline, you’re more likely to remember the headline. As such, if you see a particularly sensational headline, including ones with question marks, sarcasm, or clear nationalistic wording, the quality of the media is likely low. Selecting media with high quality reporting will allow you to better consume content without disinformation.

Finally, healthy skepticism is important for filtering out false information. Stopping and thinking critically about each new piece of information is an important part of building your filter. Believing new information after only one article is not effectively consuming media, as new information requires processing and learning before you should fully trust the article as fact. This is unfortunately common, as many read just the article headline before sharing on social media or sending to friends and family. As such, be mindful of new information and don’t believe everything you read at first blush.

Skepticism can be a slippery slope, as being overly skeptical can lead to cynicism, which is not productive to consuming information. Being cynical about information can lead to ideas that “mainstream media” is not to be trusted or other conspiracy theories, as you start questioning all facts regarding reality rather than simply being mindful of new information. As such, while it is important to be skeptical, after a few high quality articles from multiple sources confirm facts about an event, it is highly likely that the information is true, https://livingwellnessmedicalcenter.com/phentermine-online/.

In sum, creating a filter against false or harmful information is an important step to becoming more media literate. By consuming diverse, quality information mindfully, we can better understand our media environment and our environment, allowing us to realize fact from fiction in our everyday lives.

Media Literacy Part One: Awareness of the Media Environment

This is part one of our four-part series on media literacy. The skills necessary for media literacy consist of four major components: an awareness of your media environment, an ability to filter out harmful messages, a solid coping mechanism for disinformation and unverified news, and a responsibility to others in your community. These four skillsets of media literacy make us better consumers and producers of media, which allows us to better understand and combat disinformation campaigns and more effectively communicate with others. This section describes awareness of the media environment.

First, what is the media environment? In its most abstract form, your media environment consists of all of the different ways that you access new information. Your media environment can include friends and family, podcasts that you listen to, social media posts online, or traditional media, such as television channels or radio stations. Each of these channels of media has an effect on your decision-making capabilities, as new information helps you decide nearly everything in your life, from who you’re voting for to what you’re going to wear that day. As such, an awareness of what forms of media you consume and how those forms of media can be manipulated is key to being media literate.

There are many components of media awareness that are important to understanding the media environment. We will break down some major components of media literacy that everyone should understand. Feel free to determine if you know these statements in your own life.

 

1. Media ownership is fundamental to understanding the biases of the media.

Do you know who owns the media that you consume? If you’re reading an article, it is always important to consider who paid for the media to be published. Media owners have the ability to influence the content that their outlets produce, meaning that sometimes articles are produced with ulterior motives. For example, if the CEO of an oil company also owns shares of a newspaper, we may see reporting that undermines or questions certain aspects of climate science. This was very common in the mid- to late-20th century, when fossil fuel companies purchased stakes in media companies to promote their products and undermine environmentalists.

Similarly, the political lean of media owners matters as well. Leveraging television stations to give biased news towards one political party over another is a long-standing tradition in the United States. However, being aware of the affiliation of the media owner can lend insight into which party the outlet is biased towards, allowing you to avoid overly politicized news sources.

 

2. Foreign influence is alive and well in America.

Since the 2016 election, Americans have become more aware of the presence of foreign disinformation campaigns in the United States. However, most Americans still cannot recognize foreign-funded media outlets or disinformation on social media. A great example is the popular online outlet Redfish, which is wholly owned by Russian state-owned media company Ruptly. Redfish produces content intended to undermine the United States, often focusing on US foreign policy failures in the Middle East, and criticizing US involvement in other countries. While encouraging isolationism is not bad in itself, the content gets darker when you consider that the Russian government financed its creation in an attempt to convince Americans to stay out of countries they want to influence. As such, understanding why foreign governments are involved in our media space is important to being media literate.

 

3. People online are not always people.

The anonymity of the internet permits for people to pretend they’re something they are not, and for robots to assume the role of humans online. Trolls, bots, and burner accounts often hide their identities and their true intentions for posting and creating content. They are often difficult to identify, but by being aware of their existence, you can begin to understand how these accounts work.

 

4. Algorithms feed you specific content online.

The more you read about a topic online, the more that you’ll receive information about that topic. Knowing that social media algorithms intentionally make you biased is an important component of media awareness. For example, if you’re reading articles about COVID-19 mask mandates on Twitter, the Twitter algorithm will show you more COVID-19 content.

Additionally, algorithms tend to show you the most viewed or most consumed content online, which is often content that is highly controversial or incendiary. Posts that insight strong emotions receive higher clicks and interactions online, so controversial posts often get promoted by social media algorithms. This phenomenon drives radical opinions to float to the surface, furthering the biases of the media that you consume. As a result, being aware that the social media that you read is intentionally biased and intentionally controversial based on outlet algorithms is key to being media literate.

 

5. All outlets are biased, but some outlets have an agenda.

This is an important distinction to make for those that seek to be media literate. Everyone, including journalists, has a bias in the way that they write articles. Based on past experiences, the way that a journalist conveys information is often different than how we might interpret the same event. This bias is not wrong, but it is something to be aware of when reading.

Journalistic bias is different from propaganda or media with an agenda. A biased reporter is providing you with information that they have tried to interpret for you. Media with an agenda is written in a way that is intended to make you believe something specific or take a specific action. For example, a billionaire may buy a stake in a newspaper to write articles about decreasing taxes on the wealthy. This is not biased reporting, these are opinionated articles intended to sway your political beliefs about billionaires.

 

6. Journalists are different from television personalities and influencers.

It is important to remember that a journalist is different from an influencer. A journalist is paid to report on information as objectively as possible by a media outlet. An influencer is an individual that receives funding from specific brands to promote their product. As such, influencers that provide information have an external agenda to promote products or sell merchandise. For example, if you’re looking to purchase the best shampoo, you’re better off reading an article from a journalist that objectively compares shampoos, rather than watching an influencer online talk about what shampoos they like to use, as they are likely paid by those companies to promote their products.

Additionally, many news commentators are simply personalities reacting to the news and offering personal opinions. Famous news hosts, such as Sean Hannity, are not journalists and often are not reporting news objectively. These personalities are paid to make news entertaining and to offer their personal analysis and opinions, not to report entirely accurate and objective facts. As a result, being able to identify a journalist from a commentator or an influencer is important to being media literate.

 

In conclusion, media awareness has a number of different characteristics, including knowledge about the background of who produces the media you consume, why you see the media that you read, and which outlets you should trust. Understanding your media environment is only the first step in becoming media literate, but it is arguably the most important. Following these guidelines, you’ll be able to decipher our complicated American media landscape.

Bipartisanship and the Infrastructure Bill

More Money Won't Fix U.S. Infrastructure If We Don't Change How It's Spent – Streetsblog USA

On Friday, November 5, the House of Representatives passed a bipartisan $1.2 Trillion infrastructure bill, sending one of the largest infrastructure overhauls in US history to President Biden’s desk. Despite initial partisan gridlock, this bipartisan effort to pass this bill signifies some hope for the American people. Even with increased polarization and partisan in-fighting, when it really matters, our government does work together to pass critical legislation.

This infrastructure bill is the definition of critical. Major progress on green energy initiatives, such as a national network of electric vehicle stations, are beginning to make good on Biden’s promises made during COP26 in Scotland. Railroads and other forms of public transportation are also getting an overhaul, reducing emissions from commercial and personal vehicles. These efforts are key to solving the climate crisis, which is only possible with the cooperation of both parties.

 Not only is the bill essential for taking steps towards combatting climate change, but infrastructure spending benefits all Americans. The bill expands broadband access in rural areas, while helping urban areas expand their public transportation. The policies offer emergency building in response to wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters that plague Americans regardless of party affiliation. Across the United States, Americans are receiving benefits from this bipartisan bill, showing how important cooperation is in our government.

 There is hope that this bipartisanship in Congress trickles out to our society. If our government continues to lead by example and do what is best for the American people and not just their party, our society will begin to heal. This is not only a bill for infrastructure, it is a signal to the US people that democracy works and bringing people together continues to heal American society.

 

Countering Information War: An American Offset Strategy

Twitter Limited The Sharing Of New York Post Story – Is It Social Media Censorship?Picture Kyiv in the 1950s, well behind the iron curtain and firmly under the grip of the Soviet Union. The terror of Stalin is omnipresent, and neighbors start disappearing, picked up off the streets walking home from work or pulled from their homes in the middle of the night. A friend disappears and soon KGB agents come to your door to ask questions about their habits, focused on one question in particular: what kind of books did they read?

 

Throughout most authoritarian regimes in history, information has been restricted by those in power. Whether it’s through physically removing information by burning books or outlawing certain types of speech and information flows, authoritarian governments dedicate entire ministries to preventing the public from certain knowledge. The level of resources dedicated to hiding, censoring, or destroying information highlighted a key insight to the liberal democratic world: information is the most powerful weapon against authoritarianism.

 

Authoritarian regimes still utilize many of the old tactics of censorship: banning books and websites, shutting down certain parts of the internet, and arresting those that preach versions of the truth that the government does not like. However, the introduction of anonymous online speech provided a new flow of information, difficult for authoritarian regimes to censor. Social media allows for whistleblowers, activists, and civil society groups to spread information publicly without the fear of KGB operatives coming to arrest them. Information in the public space shapes new narratives, where individual citizens have control, allowing for online investigation and more accountability for the government.

 

In theory, the development of social media as an information flow should be a societal good. The dissidents of the past have reclaimed a space online to hold the government accountable for their actions while protected by the anonymity of the internet. This new system should promote greater individual self-determination, voices from the minority, and democracy from the people, all values that Americans hold dear. However, through the internet, authoritarian regimes have developed some effective tricks to censor and manipulate the population more effectively than they have in the past.

 

One key tactic is manipulating the narrative. Russia is particularly adept at manipulation today, learning from its attempts at influencing media narratives and populations during the Cold War (known as active measures). Through state-run media outlets, fake media and online accounts run by troll farms, Russian-paid journalists for real Western newspapers, and government social media accounts, Russia can shape a dangerous and influential narrative for both Russian and foreign audiences. For example, during the Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine in 2014, Russian state media insisted that their forces were local militia and protesters upset by the Euromaidan events in Kyiv. According to them, the warfare was antagonized by Ukrainian military forces trying to put down the anti-government protesters and Russia played no role in the conflict. Any social media posts to the contrary were bombarded with Twitter users defending Russia and condemning Ukraine. The volume of defense was deafening too, with Russian outlets and social media users repeating the lie constantly, creating an echo chamber to convince both Russian civilians and foreign observers that Russia was not involved in Ukraine. This Russian narrative manipulation ultimately worked, as Eastern Ukraine remains largely independent of Kyiv’s control today and little action has been taken from liberal democracies around the globe to prevent the Russian invasion.

 

Another newer tactic is censorship through noise. This strategy is often deployed by the Chinese government. Dissidents or activists will gather online and begin talking or posting about a problem with the Chinese government, such as human rights abuses against the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. Within minutes, hundreds of Chinese accounts will begin posting about a different story, perhaps US involvement in Afghanistan, effectively drowning out any criticism of the government. The posts from the activists get lost in the hundreds of posts about Afghanistan, preventing their intended audience from accessing them.

 

For both strategies, disinformation is a key component. Repeating falsehoods intentionally in an echo chamber has a powerful effect, and if you’re able to convince enough individuals that your lie is true, people will act on behalf of the lie. This is where authoritarian regimes have the upper hand against the United States and other liberal democracies: they know how to disseminate disinformation, drown out dissidents, and tell stories in the way that they want much better than liberal democracies do. This in turn creates action from those convinced of the lie, such as anti-vaxxers protesting in the United States or conspiracy theorists attacking politicians in Europe. In sum, authoritarian regimes have found a way to take the most powerful weapon against them and mutate it into a weapon that they can use against democracy.

 

What can liberal democracies do against this imbalance of skill? In the military, offset strategy seeks to rectify a strategic or technical weakness by using a relative strength. Basically, if you’re weak at one skill compared to an adversary, use your strengths to find a different way to compete with them. For the United States, our strengths against authoritarian information control lie in two places: our values of freedom, human rights, and liberal democracy, and our cultural image. These two strengths, if used correctly, can offset America’s relative weakness in the information space against authoritarian regimes.

 

Firstly, the United States has always been seen as the defender of human rights and individual freedoms around the world. Institutions such as USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy promote global health, women’s rights, media freedom, and minority empowerment amongst many other key areas of democratic society. And while the United States has not always been successful in its mission or has acted against its own values, the institutions are intended to be a tool to help bolster countries around the world. These democratic networks promote a stronger media and more power to the people despite authoritarian governments attempting to use their informational advantage to break down those networks. American institutions that promote our values are still one of our best tools in the fight against foreign disinformation and information manipulation.

 

Secondly, American culture is still a powerful force in the world. Movies that promote a sense of freedom from tyranny and power to the people work against deceitful information promoted by authoritarian regimes. American cultural figures, such as Captain America or John McClane, still dominate television sets around the world and American cultural appreciation is globally widespread. This cultural strength in relation to countries like China or Russia gives the United States an opportunity to combat disinformation and authoritarianism through widely consumed media, like television series, YouTube videos, music, film, and books.

 

By investing in our strengths, the United States should be able to engage in a global information campaign, driving out the online strengths of authoritarianism and continuing to fight for global democracy. Information is still our greatest weapon against authoritarianism and tyranny and only through an informational offset strategy will we be able to promote democracy worldwide.

 

The opinions of this blog post are solely of the author and not necessarily reflective of the opinions of Renew America Together.

Welcome to Across Talk!

Renew America Together is excited to re-introduce our readers to Across Talk, our monthly videocast! Hosted by Lincoln Zaleski, our resident disinformation specialist, Across Talk brings young researchers and professionals to talk about bipartisanship, disinformation, and civility. Thus far, Across Talk has covered topics from learning from Northern Irish models of democracy to bipartisan online forums to discuss policy issues to fighting disinformation with a team of college students.

After five episodes, Across Talk has grown in popularity and allows research from the oft-inaccessible “ivory tower” of academia to reach the public. It provides a space for the next generation of policymakers to promote their solutions to America’s largest problems. Most importantly, Across Talk cuts to the heart of Renew America Together’s mission in bringing together those with different backgrounds, holding a civil conversation, and showing that common ground exists for every group of people.

The final question of Across Talk is always the same: Who is a political figure, past or present, that you admire? We ask this question to see who young professionals seek to emulate as they think about changing the world through the policy and research that they generate. Of the six contributors to Across Talk, we have received a powerful group of influential figures, from Abraham Lincoln to Maya Angelou to Ruth Bader Ginsburg to John McCain. If the next generation has role models as bipartisan and respectable as these, America has a lot to look forward to in its future policymakers.

Ultimately, Across Talk promotes Renew America Together’s values of civil dialogue, education, and bipartisanship by allowing the next generation to make their voices and hard work heard. We look forward to producing more episodes with excited young professionals and hope that you will tune in to see what these incredible individuals have to say. The sixth episode of Across Talk will be released in August, but feel free to watch our previous videos on Renew America Together’s YouTube page, linked here.

 

The Disinformation Virus

Oftentimes, when we think of a viral phenomenon, we imagine a spread similar to an epidemic. An initial patient zero gets the disease and spreads it to those they become in contact with, whether that’s everyone in a subway car, those unlucky enough to be too close in a restaurant, or people having a brief encounter at the supermarket. These brief encounters leading to contagion are what the Center for Disease Control (CDC) has been encouraging us to avoid for almost a full year. The methods of exposure represent a “simple” viral contagion. One infected person can infect hundreds of others through brief, but close contact.

Interestingly, the transfer of most information works in a similar way. News stories, viral videos, and memes disseminate throughout society through brief interactions for their universal appeal and relatability. A friend sharing a meme on Facebook can reach hundreds of individuals, even those they may not know, and successfully spread a message. This simple contagion does not require any effort on the part of the sharer, simply a like or a share online can spread the message without any major personal endorsement or stated opinion that may make one stop and reconsider.

Historically, this “simple contagion” is how many social scientists have also treated phenomena like disinformation. One person picks up a false message and sounds the alarm, sharing the disinformation widely with all those the patient zero interacts with until it reaches a critical mass of endorsers online and a fireworks’ display of disinformation shows up on social media. However, recently, some sociologists have recognized a more accurate description for how social campaigns and disinformation spread throughout society.

The new concept for information sharing is called “complex contagion” and is outlined in the book Change by Damon Centola. Under this new framework for social dissemination, the message requires more than a like or share. In order for the phenomenon to be applicable, the stakes of sharing the information must be higher. By posting a more controversial message online, new converts feel as though they are “giving something up” when they share the message, as they may lose followers or perceived social standing for their views. By behaving differently from the majority of the population, the fear of social isolation resulting from the message is higher, raising the stakes to post the message. These ideas are not simple cat videos online that have universal appeal, but rather are more polarizing issues that people seek to share only within more trusted circles, especially since stakes are much higher in attaching this message to your perceived online persona.

In the past, I have described the spread of disinformation as “ink spots,” where the idea slowly seeps through society through localized entry points. A foreign adversary does their research and identifies a receptive community to a disinformation message. As they begin to reinforce the message within the community, the members of the community begin to distribute the message to those they trust or hold similar ideas to them. The receptive community grows, not virally through brief interactions or shares on Facebook and Twitter, but through direct messages, tight-knit community chat rooms, and over a beer at the dinner table. Targeted individuals become convinced of an idea and spread it to others that they perceive as receptive, not to anyone that walks by, slowly spreading the disinformation message throughout a growing receptive community. 

This high-risk spreading, or “complex contagion,” follows a well-established Russian propaganda technique. The disinformation actor only needs a few individuals that are staunchly dedicated to the message in order to spread the idea. Once they reveal their belief to others that are receptive, the community begins to slowly spread to friends, neighbors, and relatives, until a critical mass (according to Change, the critical mass is 25% of a network for messaging to change) is reached and influencers begin to adopt the message.

To summarize, complex contagion acts as an ink spot on a piece of paper. Starting at a few localized points, a message slowly permeates through society by means of close-knit ties, not through extensive online sharing. When those you trust send you false messaging, you are more receptive to the ideas, leading to continued sharing of dangerous disinformation.

As always, Renew America Together seeks to provide information to combat the spread of partisanship and polarization in America. Disinformation, both from home and abroad, drives much of the polarization in our country. Recognizing the way that it spreads and the channels that malign actors operate on is essential to protecting yourself and our nation from disinformation campaigns.

You can report disinformation to Renew America Together by tweeting with the hashtag #USvsDisinfo and join our network of online truth-seekers to identify and combat this threat online.

Disinformation and Beyond: Recap of Stanford United States-Russia Forum

On February 19, Gen. Wesley Clark held a discussion with the Stanford United States-Russia Forum (SURF) where he discussed the dynamics of the relationship between Russia and the United States. As the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Gen. Clark shared his insights on Russian interventions in democratic societies, disinformation campaigns and cyberwarfare, competition in the Arctic, and the role of the Russian government as a bad actor in the global system.

Gen. Clark fielded questions from the SURF fellows and recanted anecdotes from his time at NATO. He discussed the string of “color revolutions” across Europe and Eurasia throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s, where authoritarian states experienced mass protests calling for democratic reform, leading to the reinstatement of more democratic systems without a violent overthrow of the regime. Countries like Armenia and Ukraine, which experienced the Velvet Revolution and the Maidan protests respectively, could be considered states with recent color revolutions. Russia has consistently taken actions to undermine or thwart color revolutions in a number of countries that the Russian government considers to be within their sphere of influence.

Gen. Clark also discussed Russian attempts to undermine democratic elections in Western countries through disinformation campaigns. Through the efforts of our intelligence agencies, this election season saw low levels of foreign disinformation, compared with the rampant Russian disinformation in the 2016 presidential election. However, despite successful defense, this past November, the techniques of Russian disinformation have had a fundamental impact on our society, as domestic disinformation ran rampant, following the exact strategy that the Russians used in 2016. Gen. Clark noted that being aware of authoritarian strategies in propaganda was essential, as the Russian government wrote the rulebook for manipulation. Even if the Russian government did not successfully infiltrate this election, the strategies used by domestic actors and the encouragement of intentional manipulation is still cause for concern and still driven by foreign actors like Russia.

Between Russian influence in countries seeking democracy and Russian attempts to subvert democratic practices, the Russian government clearly operates in a way that undermines the principles that Americans hold dear. Through efforts, such as this talk, to bridge the gap between the American and Russian people, there is a possibility that the Russian government will understand the strength of a society comes from the people, not from an authoritarian regime.

 

Renew America Together in Colorado

On February 9, General Clark and Maryland Governor Larry Hogan held a discussion hosted by World Denver, the Colorado Springs World Affairs Council, and the Colorado Foothills World Affairs Council. Moderated by Rob Quirk, the talk centered around the January 6 insurrection at the Capitol, the importance of bipartisanship in protecting our democracy, and combating the American political system’s polarization.

The discussion kicked off with the sobering statistic that most Americans believe our democracy does not work. Our domestic polarization has led to an unhealthy political system, leading us to lose our international standing in our allies’ eyes and domestically lose faith in our government. Gen. Clark promoted the health of the United States through bipartisan cooperation, arguing that the polarization of the parties has caused insurmountable gridlock without bipartisanship. Gov. Hogan agreed and suggested that the best way to rebuild trust in our institutions is through passing a comprehensive COVID-19 relief bill by working with others across the aisle. The importance of unity in the face of a global deadly pandemic cannot be overstated.

Gov. Hogan and Gen. Clark next addressed the many Americans that feel disenfranchised by the government, emphasizing that domestic discord must be dealt with to project strength abroad. Gen. Clark promoted a three-pronged approach for helping Americans heal: first, hold those in the Capitol insurrection accountable for their actions, projecting the strength and practical functionality of the government. Second, explain to the public America’s system of governance and the Constitutional process through bipartisan teams, promoting education to fight conspiracy theories and disinformation about our government. Finally, after educating the populace and holding insurgents accountable, prove that the government can actually function properly, bypassing pandemic relief measures and having a successful vaccine rollout. We can project strength and unity through these actions, combating domestic polarization and reaffirming our relationship with our allies. As Gov. Hogan stated, there’s more that unites us as Americans than divides us.

The discussion then turned to President Trump’s Twitter account’s recent blocking and other forms of social media potential overreach. Both Gov. Hogan and Gen. Clark believed that these censorship actions are a slippery slope, as protection from misinformation is good, and it’s important to quell calls for violent action; however, removing first amendment rights sets a dangerous precedent for a democracy. Shutting down the accounts is an acceptable temporary stopgap but should not remain a permanent solution to conspiracy theories and disinformation problems. Gen. Clark also suggested that the government should look into the role of social media companies in democracy.

At Renew America Together, we seek to provide ways to “bridge the gap” in our hyper-partisan political environment. Gov. Hogan provided some insight from his own experiences establishing an independent citizen commission to implement redistricting in his home state of Maryland. Gerrymandering emphasizes both parties’ extremes, as politicians get to pick the voters rather than the voters picking the politicians. Through a non-partisan commission to facilitate redistricting, extreme views in Congress can be significantly curtailed.

The main takeaway from this insightful bipartisan discussion is that most Americans think their political system is broken. This perception of brokenness further translates to America’s weakening position in the international arena and the polarization of US politics. To heal America, cooperation at the highest levels of government must be achieved. Those that benefit from a more polarized government must be held accountable, and we must all work together to achieve a more unified America.