URI professor launches website that explores contemporary propaganda

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KINGSTON, R.I. – March 3, 2015 – We live in a world filled with propaganda, says a University of Rhode Island professor, but sometimes it’s not easy to spot. Instead, terms like sponsored content, viral marketing, astroturfing and clickbait reflect the new disguises that propaganda now wears.

To increase people’s awareness of the many forms of contemporary propaganda, URI Communication Studies Professor Renee Hobbs is launching Mind Over Media: Analyzing Contemporary Propaganda an educational website where people can share, discuss and analyze examples of propaganda in entertainment, news and advertising and from government, industry, advocacy and education.

Hobbs is the founder and director of the Media Education Lab within URI’s Harrington School of Communication and Media.

Most people have a narrow understanding of the concept of propaganda, Hobbs said. “When people hear the term propaganda, they think about the Nazis in 20th century Germany and think propaganda is a historical phenomenon. But propaganda is an important part of our lives today. As a form of strategic communication that uses any means to shape attitudes, beliefs and behaviors, propaganda can be beneficial or harmful depending on the author’s purpose, context and situation,” she said.

Hobbs’ expertise in media literacy and her interest in teaching about propaganda led to consulting work with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum that began in 2009, when the special exhibition, “State of Deception: the Power of Nazi Propaganda,” opened in Washington, D.C.

The Mind over media website contains hundreds of examples of contemporary propaganda on a wide range of social, political, economic and environmental topics. Users can upload examples of propaganda they find in everyday life and rate them on a scale from “harmful” to “beneficial,” offering comments about the examples to discuss their interpretations and reflect on their meanings and implications. A six-lesson curriculum unit on contemporary propaganda, designed for high school students and aligned with the Common Core standards, is available at the website. Teachers can advance students’ digital literacy using the website to create a private, custom online gallery for students to analyze propaganda with members of their class.

Among the hundreds of examples on the website are informational videos produced about the important role of women in the Republican Party, Greenpeace advocacy videos that link Dove Soap to the destruction of the South Asian rain forests, news stories that blame Ukraine for the downing of the Malaysian Airline Flight, MH17, and public relations videos about “the clean” coal campaign sponsored by the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity.

Why do people choose to share propaganda through social media? According to Hobbs, who authored a 2012 scholarly article on the relationship between propaganda, journalism and advocacy, “People are trying to get feedback from their peers on the meaning of these ambiguous messages. Many forms of propaganda are a mix of entertainment, information and persuasion, and this blurriness is one of the prime reasons why messages go viral.”