Teaching in the Age of Disinformation

If ever we needed proof that many Americans are living in an alternate reality, the storming of the U.S. Capitol last week was it. How thousands of people fell prey to the idea that a vast conspiracy reversed what they believed was a landslide victory by President Trump is a question that will hang over the country for decades.

For higher education, that question is especially urgent. While most Americans don’t hew to the paranoid theories that prompted the insurgency, the world that spawned them is deeply affecting students. Disinformation and propaganda are flourishing, traditional sources of authority are under siege, and people increasingly live in politically polarized media ecosystems.

Colleges have traditionally been places where professors and their students use the tools of reason and inquiry to get to the truth. But such work has become monumentally harder because of these changes. Students are entering college not only confused about what and whom to believe, but unsure of how to talk to people who think differently from them. The truth alone may not be enough to win arguments and change minds across the great divide that’s consuming the United States. Political identification has grown so deeply personalized, and much of the discourse so disconnected from facts that, as one scholar put it, “the information is almost beside the point.”

Is higher education prepared to teach students how to navigate this terrain? While many professors say they’re able to handle difficult topics in the classroom, two recent surveys suggest that’s not always the case.

“A lot of them aren’t even going to get near these conversations about misinformation or trust, because either they’re not prepared to deal with it or are afraid of consequences from their institutions,” says Allison BrckaLorenz, an associate research scientist with the Center for Postsecondary Research at Indiana University at Bloomington.

She and Sarah Hurtado, an assistant professor of higher education at the University of Denver, asked faculty members in a national survey how they navigated tricky topics. “A lot of what faculty cited as their go-to is to de-escalate in the classroom and deal with it privately,” says BrckaLorenz. “What does that mean for everybody else who doesn’t get to be part of that resolution, or get any sort of closure on that?”

Another study, based on interviews with nearly 70 faculty members who teach diversity courses at five predominantly white institutions in the South, found that many instructors struggled to meaningfully engage students. They cited such barriers as large class sizes, disengaged or overly cautious students, their own fears about receiving poor evaluations or being accused of political bias, and worries that heightened emotions might be counterproductive to learning.

“We pin a lot of our hopes on college classrooms being one of the only spaces where we can have these difficult conversations, truly hear multiple viewpoints, and dispel some of this misinformation,” says Ryan A. Miller, an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and one of the authors of the study. “As we did this work, we realized it’s a lot more complicated than that.”

Professors who teach about propaganda, political polarization, and information literacy have been wrestling with these issues in their classrooms for years.

One strategy they use is to get underneath the news of the day. Instead of confronting a statement head on as to whether, say, the threat of Covid-19 is exaggerated, they discuss the appeal and effectiveness of disinformation campaigns and how to discern the truth. That enables students to step back and think more critically.

Jennifer Mercieca is a historian of American political rhetoric and author of Demagogue for President: the Rhetorical Genius of Donald Trump, which describes how he uses language to manipulate the truth, as well as his followers. Trump, she explains, employs verbal tricks, such as paralipsis, which calls attention to something by saying you’re not going to mention it (“I will not call him a lightweight, because I think that’s a derogatory term.”) and ad hominem attacks to focus on the person rather than the idea (“You’re a terrible reporter”).

For the past four years Mercieca has been teaching a class on propaganda at Texas A&M University at College Station, where she is an associate professor of communication. Her students, she notes, tend to get their news in an “ambient” way, meaning that it is picked up from friends, family, and social media. So one of her goals is to teach them how to become more direct consumers of news.

Most things in life have a level of complexity and domain knowledge that don’t allow people to verify things for themselves.

Those who do follow politics lean toward conservative outlets. That poses a different set of challenges. “Part of the right-wing media’s war on truth,” she says, “is to say that people like me, who are academics, are trying to decide what’s true for everyone else. And that we are liars and misleading and corrupt. There’s a real fine line to walk in a classroom, particularly a conservative classroom.”

Mercieca works within those parameters by teaching students the history and theory of propaganda: What is it, how it works, and why people on both the left and right can fall prey to it. Her students read Noam Chomsky’s critiques of the mainstream media alongside reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

She never calls anyone a liar, even if they’re clearly promoting misinformation. Such labels, she says, don’t reveal anything about why someone like Alex Jones, a far-right radio-show host who promotes conspiracy theories, is as powerful and as successful as he is.

She asks her class to apply what they’re learning to the world around them, often by discussing the news of the day. “Students bring the examples, and I bring the theory. I find that is less confrontational,” she says. “That makes for a much better classroom environment, where they don’t think I’m trying to push some version of truth or reality that makes them shut down.”

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By providing her students with the language and context to understand the world around them, Mercieca enables them to do their own analysis. In one class, for example, they discussed the wall between Mexico and the U.S., which Trump promised to build without much success. Yet he continued to claim it as a win.

“Someone said it was a ‘glittering generality,’” Mercieca recalls, a term they had studied to describe a form of messaging that carries emotional weight but lacks specificity. Trump, the students noted, never provided a clear plan for what was going to be built or how, allowing him to avoid accountability. Mercieca was pleased to see how her student applied a term popularized in the 1930s to current events.

She asks her students to apply this analysis to all manner of propaganda campaigns, whether it’s how Edward Bernays, considered the father of public relations, persuaded Americans to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, or how the United Daughters of the Confederacy erected statues around the South in the early 20th century to reshape the narrative of the Civil War. “Once you understand how it works,” she notes, “you see it everywhere.”

Her goal, she says, is to help students become critical thinkers and skeptics without veering into cynicism, which can actually make people more susceptible to propaganda.

Ultimately, she says, there’s no way to measure the longer-term impact of her teaching on students’ mind-sets. But a college education in general, and the humanities in particular, she believes, are the best ways to arm students with the critical-thinking, writing, and research skills necessary to combat disinformation.

Every day, college students must make sense of the world around them. To do so effectively requires learning how complex systems work: How the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention evaluates the health risks of Covid-19, whether our election system is secure, what science has determined about the causes of climate change, how social-media algorithms shape what people see. The list seems endless.

Yet some information-literacy experts worry that too many professors narrowly stick to disciplinary content instead of helping students understand more broadly how such knowledge is constructed and interrogated in the first place.

“Education really has this mythology of direct verification. Hey, let’s find out the truth and we will reason our way to it. We’ll verify it, run the lab experiment, pore over the data, do the calculations,” says Michael Caulfield, director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University at Vancouver, who works on digital-literacy projects to improve civic engagement. “But the big problem is that most things in life have a level of complexity and domain knowledge that don’t allow people to verify things for themselves.”

Put another way, the internet may have democratized access to raw data and information, but consumers can’t possibly make sense of it all on their own. Caulfield believes professors should talk about this challenge openly with their students. “Most of what we believe comes down to, who do we trust and why?” he says. “There’s an awful lot in academic culture that sees this as somehow lesser, not noble enough.”

Teaching students how to discern what’s true or false won’t get to the root of broader social problems.

Students would benefit, Caulfield says, if professors spent more time explaining how their discipline functions. Who do the experts turn to to understand how something in their field works? How is knowledge built? Describing to students how the World Health Organization comes up with its guidance around Covid-19, and how that differs from the CDC’s decision-making process, he says, is of greater long-term value for most students than understanding how mitochondria operate.

That’s particularly important, he says, as the traditional gatekeepers of information — journalists, scientists, and academics included — have been side-stepped by self-styled experts who think they can read raw data and determine the truth about mask-wearing and voter fraud.

“People who are deceived by misinformation often think they can evaluate things on their own terms,” says Caulfield, who has written a free textbook Web Literacy for Student FactCheckers. “You really can’t. You have to find someone who knows what they’re talking about. You have to listen to what they’re saying. And then think about whether what they’re saying is in the mainstream.”

Professors who have incorporated information-literacy strategies that Caulfield and others have developed into their teaching say they’re surprised at how weak many students’ skills of discernment are. Students may believe they can distinguish a factual website from a misleading one, for example, but can rarely articulate their strategies for doing so. As a result they often fall for misinformation online, whether it comes from a TikTok video or an advocacy organization’s website.


Alex Williamson for The Chronicle

Annie Mendenhall, an associate professor at Georgia Southern University and a coordinator of the first-year writing program, introduced Caulfield’s strategies in a Covid-themed writing course this past fall. She was shocked to hear students tell her that this was the first time anyone had taught them techniques like tracking down the original source for a piece of information, researching the author or publisher, and reading what others say about their validity. “We’re still relying on a heavily print-based model of literacy,” she says, “which is based on publishers having already vetted the information.”

One caveat that Caulfield provides whenever talking about the value of information literacy is that teaching students how to discern what’s true or false won’t get to the root of these broader social problems. The very real dangers of disinformation and propaganda spreading unchecked have to be addressed by those in power, such as TV networks refusing to book Twitter provocateurs as news analysts.

“It can be very frustrating for people to see what’s going on, and the level of what’s going on at the moment, and then get a list of, ‘Here are five tips to talk to your family about fascism,’” he says. “There’s sort of a disconnect. But that doesn’t mean that in the areas we have influence we can’t be moving forward.”

Like Caulfield, Dannagal G. Young believes that students need more than media-literacy training to understand what’s happening to the country. The notion that you can fact-check your way toward winning an argument is misguided, says Young, an associate professor of communications at the University of Delaware, otherwise we wouldn’t be witnessing such deep political divides. Yet young people are in search of solutions, and desperate to find ways to bridge those divides.

“It makes them bonkers,” she says. “They crave some semblance of unity. They grew up learning about a system that seems to have functioned. And that seems far away.”

Defining and defending reality are important, obviously. And Young talks to her students about the value of falsifiability, the practice of putting one’s ideas to the test to determine whether they are true. It’s a bedrock value across the sciences that brings rigor to observation.

But, she notes, most of us don’t use falsifiability in our day-to-day lives because it takes time — and because it may reveal something discomfiting: When we’re wrong.

So, she tells her students, instead of arming yourself with statistics to change your aunt’s mind about voter fraud, try to understand what drives people to believe what they do. “Content isn’t going to change someone’s mind. But the credibility you develop, and the questions you ask” people “to start to understand why they have this investment in this belief, that is all communication.”

Why would someone deny that humans cause climate change, for example? Could it possibly be because their livelihoods or lifestyles might be threatened? “I never land on, ‘because they’re stupid,’” she says. “These are identity-driven motivations that people have in order to protect themselves.”

Her students may feel frustrated that feelings matter more than facts to some people on some issues. “But they’re also unburdened,” she says. They realize that throwing data at people won’t bridge differences with friends and family, but conversation and sincere questions might help lower defenses and open minds
. Still she admits, “it takes a level of mindfulness and emotional detachment that is really hard to achieve.”

Young is working on a book about why people believe things that are demonstrably false and how to deal with the problem, individually and as a society. “This is the sticky wicket in my field,” she notes. “We’re saying, well, facts don’t matter. But in a way communication is even more important.”

Yet understanding has its limits. As the events of the recent weeks have shown, directly rebutting harmful propaganda and misinformation is critical to a functioning democracy. On an individual scale, people are being hurt every day by disinformation.

Last spring, Young says, she heard from one of her students who had been kicked out of her house after challenging her mother, who was making racist remarks about Covid-19 and blaming it on Chinese people. “What should you say to your mom because she kicked you out during the pandemic?” Young asks. “I just don’t know.”

Young, who has been teaching about media for more than a decade, notes that her view of digital technology has shifted over time. Like many, she was thrilled by the power of social media during the Arab spring, in which ordinary people used Facebook and other platforms to organize protests against repressive regimes. “I thought: ‘When you fuel connectivity, you give people a voice and allow them to challenge authority. Nothing but good can happen,’” she recalls.

“What it ignores,” she says in hindsight, “is that there will always be nefarious actors who seek to exploit the system.”

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