It Isn’t Just Media Literacy

Americans today face some unprecedented challenges–and as I have repeatedly noted, our information environment makes those challenges far more difficult to meet.

The Internet, which has brought us undeniable benefits and conveniences, also allows us to occupy “filter bubbles”—to inhabit different realities. One result has been a dramatic loss of trust, as even people of good will, inundated with misinformation, spin, and propaganda, don’t know what to believe, or how to determine which sources are credible.

Fact-checking sites are helpful, but they only help those who seek them out. The average American scrolling through her Facebook feed during a lunch break is unlikely to stop and check the veracity of most of what her friends have posted.

There is general agreement that Americans need to develop media literacy and policy tools to discourage the transmittal of propaganda. But before we can teach media literacy in our schools or consider policy interventions to address propaganda, we need to consider what media literacy requires, and what the First Amendment forbids.

Think about that fictional person scrolling through her Facebook or Twitter feed. She comes across a post berating her Congressman for failing to block the zoning of a liquor store in her neighborhood. If our person is civically literate—if she understands federalism and separation of powers– she knows that her Congressman has no authority in such matters, and that the argument is bogus.

In other words, basic knowledge of how government works is a critical component of media literacy.

It isn’t just civic knowledge, of course. People who lack a basic understanding of the difference between a scientific theory and the way we use the term “theory” in casual conversation are much more likely to dismiss evolution and climate change as “just theories,” and to be taken in by efforts to discredit both.

To be blunt about it, people fortified with basic civic and scientific knowledge are far more likely to recognize disinformation when they encounter it. That knowledge is just as important as information on how to detect “deep fakes” and similar counterfeits.

There are also policy steps we can take to diminish the power of propaganda without doing violence to the First Amendment. The Brookings Institution has suggested establishment of a “public trust” to provide analysis and generate policy proposals that would defend democracy “against the constant stream of disinformation and the illiberal forces at work disseminating it.”

In too many of the discussions of social media and media literacy, we overlook the fact that disinformation isn’t encountered only online. Cable news has long been a culprit. (One study found that Americans who got their news exclusively from Fox knew less about current events than people who didn’t follow news at all.)  Any effort to reduce the flow of propaganda must include measures aimed at cable television as well as online media.

Many proposals that are aimed at online disinformation address the social media protections offered by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.  I reviewed them here.

Bottom line: we can walk and chew gum at the same time.

If and when we get serious about media literacy, we need to do two things. We need to ensure that America’s classrooms have the resources—curricular and financial—to teach civic, scientific and media literacy. (Critical thinking and logic would also be very helpful…) And policymakers must devise regulations that will deter propaganda without eviscerating the First Amendment. Such regulations are unlikely to totally erase the problem, but well-considered tweaks can certainly reduce it.


  1. Amendment I; “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

    Only the government is restricted regarding denying the freedom of the people in the above mentioned rights as Americans. The past four years we have watched the government ignore every one of these rights, including passage of laws in some areas to deny even the existence of Amendment I. “It Isn’t Just Media Literacy” or the level of literacy of the readers and viewers of the media when we have no recourse to force our elected and appointed government officials to uphold their Oath of Office at all levels to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and/or the Constitution of their individual states. And America’s classrooms are in the hands and at the mercy of their state political party, including the financing of education for all.

    For how many decades have we heard the Republican party claim and spread the irrational fear that the Democratic government is coming to violate their Amendment II right to arm themselves by taking their weapons and ammunition from them? This was the claim of many of those who took part in the January 6th Trump inspired seditious insurrection. Literacy in the media or at grassroots level cannot fight ignorance and fear being spread by the government itself at all levels. When the Republican 50 Senators and the 200+ House Representatives are themselves hiding under desks and seats in the balcony and locked in offices in the Capitol building still support, and some aided, Trump and the insurrectionists; literacy anywhere is so far useless to protect this nation.

  2. Maybe we should thoroughly define and agree upon a definition of propaganda because just using Fox News as an example is liberal propaganda meant to get liberal-minded people to associate misleading statements coming from the far-right political spectrum.

    What about the average textbook being used in middle and high schools? Universities?

    Is there any propaganda in textbooks?

    I love this topic mainly because of the finger-pointing which accompanies it.

    The term propaganda literally derived from the Catholic church…imagine that?!?

    Maybe John will share some biblical propaganda later… 😉

    Edward Bernays wrote the book on propaganda in 1929, and so did Adolph Hitler. 😉

    “Bernays acknowledged in his book Propaganda that “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government, which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of.”

    Do you think Edward was referring to the same Deep State that Eisenhower referred to in his departing speech?

    Who assassinated Kennedy and King?

    Who’s torturing Julian Assange for telling the truth about war crimes?

    Was Mueller’s report propaganda? Independent journalists think so. Glenn Greenwald thinks so.

    What about the indictments of the 13 Russians for hacking the DNC and “influencing the 2016 election?”

    Once again, if the USA is ranked 45th in the world for freedom of the press, what isn’t propaganda in this country?

  3. A good start would be for main stream media to stop using the term “conspiracy theories” to describe widely-shared delusions of crazy and/or deluded people.

  4. I agree with you about the importance and lack of critical thinking. I have 3 degrees (B.A and 2 Master’s). My own studies as an adult — Howard Zinn and others led me to question and think. I lived for a time in the South where Fox news is the primary source of information, and so many good people think Fox is reliable. Good people are being seriously misinformed and misled by an Australian multi-billionaire. I appreciate your columns very much! Thank you.
    Barbara Carlson

  5. Todd,

    You won’t find any propaganda in science books. Read some of them for intellectual relief.

    Part of the problem discussed here is the utter lack of quality education in civics, history and government. Schools have mostly coaches teaching those classes rather than true academics. Rarely is a coach that involved in these academic subjects. Of course, the school saves money by getting a two – fer.

  6. Todd, I’m not sure “both sides/lots of people are guilty of toys kind of thing, do why bother trying to fix it?” Is a particularly helpful guiding philosophy.

  7. Because of the sophistication of digital image manipulation, we also need to teach visual literacy – the “truth” of what you are seeing, images, graphs, etc..

    Again (sorry folks)…”Teaching as a Subversive Activity” 1969, Postman & Weingartner.

  8. Americans have to be better consumers of news and information. They assume mainstream media is corrupt and not telling them the truth, so they then seek out alternative information and don’t seem to spend any thought as to whether the source is credible. If it’s in their Facebook or Twitter feed, it’s as good as the New York Times. That’s what they think.

    Todd is making the everyone is guilty argument. Since everything is propaganda (the Mueller Report…really?) there is no such thing as propaganda. If everyone is responsible for the 1/6 assault on the Capitol, then nobody is. The one I heard from my Trumper friends, is that “every President lies” as an excuse for not being bothered by Trump’s lies.

  9. “What a fool believes he sees
    No wise man has the power to reason away!”

    (Doobie Brothers, 1978)

    Truer words were never spoken, or sung.

  10. Not everyone, Paul.

    “Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media is a 1988 book by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky arguing that the mass communication media of the U.S. “are effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function, by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion”, by means of the propaganda model of communication.”

    Herman, Edward S.; Chomsky, Noam. Manufacturing Consent. New York: Pantheon Books. p. 306.

    And yes, the Mueller report proved nothing – Glenn Greenwald was more specific:

    “The key fact is this: Mueller – contrary to weeks of false media claims – did not merely issue a narrow, cramped, legalistic finding that there was insufficient evidence to indict Trump associates for conspiring with Russia and then proving their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. That would have been devastating enough to those who spent the last two years or more misleading people to believe that conspiracy convictions of Trump’s closest aides and family members were inevitable. But his mandate was much broader than that: to state what did or did not happen.

    That’s precisely what he did: Mueller, in addition to concluding that evidence was insufficient to charge any American with crimes relating to Russian election interference, also stated emphatically in numerous instances that there was no evidence – not merely that there was insufficient evidence to obtain a criminal conviction – that key prongs of this three-year-old conspiracy theory actually happened. As Mueller himself put it: “in some instances, the report points out the absence of evidence or conflicts in the evidence about a particular fact or event.”

  11. Paul, WADR, as a daily reader of the NY Times, it is abundantly clear that it has a sophisticated, but real, left slant, especially regarding “political correctness”/identity politics.

  12. Paul K Ogden; you accused Todd of using the argument “everyone is guilty” and everything is propaganda. While I often disagree with Todd’s views; oftentimes the wisest among the commenters on this blog agree with him.

    You posted the argument that Americans are all fools, illiterate or have low reading comprehension. You assume to know what all Americans think and how we think or insinuate we do not think at all. As a thinking American, I take issue with your comments.

  13. Todd,
    don’t worry, I’ll give you some fodder, LOL!

    Just because individuals believe in God, or believe in Scripture, does it mean that they are ignorant!

    Although, those who demonize without really knowing what their demonizing can be claimed misinformed at the very least!

    Being steeped in reality and intellectual is by any standards, a logical desire! But then, why is there so much disinformation out there by those who should know better?

    I’ll repeat a little bit of information I posted earlier;

    Those who had developed the separation of church and state, you can safely say, Jefferson was influenced by John Locke, Thomas Paine, Viscount Bolingbrook, and Joseph Priestley!

    They believed in deity, although the deity should be kept private! It should not be injected into politics or used as a bludgeon against those of other beliefs. Read John Locke’s; ” A Letter Of Toleration,” and or, “The Reasonableness Of Christianity!”

    So, if we look at John Locke who was Thomas Jefferson’s biggest influencer besides Joseph Priestley, a conclusion was jointly come to, and which toleration coupled with intellectual support pointed to a day of reckoning before a just God! So, if they didn’t believe in God or a deity, then somebody was fibbing!

    These 5 men, from different backgrounds, all came to similar conclusions! Thomas Paine’s; ” The Age Of Reason,” if you decide to read it, gives a lot of insight into his thought process on deity. Which he felt that specific written dogma would have hamstrung the supreme deity therefore, written dogma must be cast aside!

    As a matter of fact Terry, one of Thomas Paine’s famous quotes was “the word of God is the creation we behold and through this God speaketh universally to man!”

    Thomas Paine and Jefferson were aware of the false doctrine that permeated Christianity, basically written by Un-inspired men. To basically release Christianity from the darkness!

    Priestley was a Unitarian minister, and penned the book ” History Of The Corruptions Of Christianity” which was a favorite of Thomas Jefferson’s. Joseph Priestley convinced to Jefferson that faith and reason could coexist!

    Therefore Thomas Jefferson was convinced of the philosophy of Jesus the Nazarene, (Jesus Christ) because of the great faith of Joseph Priestley and his convincing arguments.

    One thing that Jefferson gleaned, was that; ” what all men agree on is probably correct, but what no two agree on is probably wrong!” This thought process was more than likely taken from; (Matthew the 18th chapter verse 15-16)

    These men were definitely shapers of our Constitution! They are the reason there is a separation of church and state! That didn’t mean that they were not believers in faith.

  14. Propaganda is not a one-way street! And, there is definitely propaganda in the scientific realm of our intellectual reality! You hear it all the time about specific scientists being demonized by others because they are in disagreement.

    One professor of astronomy Avi Loeb, a close friend of now departed Stephen Hawking, and named one of the 25 most influential people in the field of space research by Time Magazine, has been demonized for writing a book on the piece of space debris or phenomena called “Oumuamua” his detractors which count in the majority, claimed that his opinion will damage those trying to receive funding into research on these extraterrestrial objects.

    So the propaganda is to ridicule and demolish this professors distinguished history in research. Just so they can continue to receive funding from the usual sources for their research. But, he stood firm and is standing firm with the quote, “In the military, there is a saying: ‘If you’re a good soldier, you put your body on the barbed-wire so that others can pass over it, I’m willing to put my body on the barbed wire.” Actually, in the same mode of Carl Sagan, and during ridicule and taking incoming salvos, until those spewing the propaganda catch up!

    I can quote many other scientists, whatever their area of expertise is, on the problem of propaganda in science! Instead of letting the research come to natural conclusions, some institutional scientific influencers have their own agenda. Power, and being renowned in history books is a huge draw more than being right or wrong.

    Generally, those who attempt to manipulate science for their own self-aggrandizement and adoration of history books, are eventually found out, but that takes having the will to investigate and become educated and to ask questions and also hold those accountable who are using propaganda and disinformation!

    Joseph Goebbel’s recognized this!

    Just take a look at Andrew Wakefield, Judy Mikovits, John Yudkin, just a couple who have been either guilty of promoting propaganda or the victims of it! So, I think you get the point!

    Science is valid, but scientists can be just as propagandizing as any other group! So, let’s not hand out the golden shields here.

  15. I think JoAnn’s on to an essential problem we’re having in US these days. When Govenment officials are propogating lies i.e. (trump won) and leading with the authority of their offices, citizens into storming the Capitol to use violence against their political opponents,they’ve crossed the Rubicon! First Amendment gives citizens the right to protest their grievences to the govenment. Where does it give government officials the right to lie, and not uphold the US Constitution?
    I was glad to see private sector step up & cut trump off twitter. The violence could have gotten even worse if they hadn’t.
    Nancy Pelosi recently stated that the enemy is now within Congess. I think we Americans have the right to demand more and better from this Govenment.

  16. From one of Sheila’s paragraphs: “To be blunt about it, people fortified with basic civic and scientific knowledge are far more likely to recognize disinformation when they encounter it.”

    If you are scientifically literate, not necessarily a scientist, but an avid reader of science materials, I think you will be used to arguments that are based on evidence. And the closer the stuff you read is to the actual scientific articles, the more obvious the evidence will be.

    That backdrop is not apparent in most media discussions, so a casual user of the media may not be in the habit of asking for evidence.

  17. Media Literacy, and Literacy in general took a huge hit with the book Chariots of the Gods? by Erich von Däniken. The book puts forth the hypothesis that the technologies and religions of many ancient civilizations were given to them by ancient astronauts who were welcomed as gods.

    Von Däniken suggests that some ancient structures and artifacts appear to represent higher technological knowledge than is presumed to have existed at the times they were manufactured. Von Däniken maintains that these artifacts were produced either by extraterrestrial visitors or by humans who learned the necessary knowledge from them.

    Such artifacts include the Egyptian pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Moai of Easter Island.

    All sorts of fantasy finds an audience, bigfoot sightings, crashed UFO’s and dead extraterrestrials.

    We know via science and the study of ancient technology humans built these edifices, with out any help from extraterrestrials.

    The tough, sweat work of archeology extensively documented is a long read, concerning the construction of the Pyramids, Stonehenge and Easter Island heads.

    I recently watched this ridiculous program on TV about this group looking for Noah’s Ark. They are convinced the “Great Flood” actually happened a few thousand years ago. Logically, how could you possibly fit all these animals and people into the Ark. You cannot of course so you have to leap to a supernatural solution.

    Why are some people susceptible to fantasy and conspiracy hypothesis?? I suspect it has to do with your social and cultural up bringing. Some will bridge the gap to logic and science for others the simple answers to a complex world is satisfied by fantasy and conspiracy.

  18. One result has been a dramatic loss of CREDIBILITY.

    How I wish these sort of blogs would start with credibility and move through their line of reasoning from there. As I’ve said before, there is no such thing as trust insofar as a starting point is concerned. Trust is a false flag whenever meant to be, or is recommended as, the first move in relationships or transactions. The first indication of missing credibility, or hidden traps, is when someone asks you to trust.

  19. It upsets people to hear but the Democrat-Republican divide is about policy versus power and doing versus blaming. I personally thought that this election would wake up Republicans to the fact that power is losing ground to policy among the electorate. I was wrong about that so far but over the next two years things will continue to happen. Watch Kevin McCarthy, he’s the weathervane spinning in the wind equally happy to point in any direction.

    The GOP is in disarray now that they see that not having even the option to participate in policy debates leaves Marjorie Taylor Green as their only star.

    Biden projects the right path forward. Honor bi-partisan policy debate but remain open to Republican inability to participate leaving partisan progress as the only option.

    Be patient now that it is an option to be. Progress is slow in a democracy, especially half a democracy overcoming power. Biden is filling Trump potholes in the road to progress at the moment and that will take a little while and let Republicans consume themselves in the meantime with their democratically rejected power play.

    Despite headlines, wars are won by planning not the headline grabbing fighting.

  20. Todd,
    “Bernays acknowledged in his book Propaganda that “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society.”

    Of course it is. At least, that is what every advocate of ‘talking instead of killing our way through conflict ‘ purports is the civilized and intelligent way of dealing with controversial issues.

    Manipulation, consensus, agreement, compromise through bright and clever wording (as well as imagery) is also the mantra of university programs dedicated to the art of persuasion. Should those programs add a course or two that reject all they have taught on the grounds that there is some ancient, dusty moral code that prohibits persuasion, especially subtle persuasion?

    Take away the sharpened sword (everyone’s) and abolish the clever pen (except yours) — as it appears you advocate — and what is left with which to fashion consensus? And why demand such disarmament on citizens, as you seem to be doing? Maybe with both gunhand and penhand in cuffs, America would be much the riper for harvest from whomever your secret friends are.

  21. The problem with the product that Edward Bernays advocated for is that it is equally effective weaponizing all ideas. Objective truth, blatant lies and half truths. He was really a public relations advocate and he excused the the lies and half truths with, someone else will do it if you don’t.

    Did Hitler or Goehring read “Propaganda”? I don’t know but they could have.

    Free speech in a world of pervasive marketing and communications technology was the setting for “1984” and that outcome is even more likely now.

    What will we do with that reality?

  22. One would hope that we we have progressed from the uneducated masses of medieval days, but I am not so sure. They had their share of propaganda with the idea that royalty was chosen by God to govern, that God would send them to hell if they did not abide by priestly views of scripture (a scripture they were, if they could read, forbidden to read), that it was their duty to provide the grain for the royal court, their duty to fight off enemies of their “lord” etc. Their lived lives were short and the system (with some refinement) resembled slavery.

    So now we are, we say, better educated, free, and constitutionally protected from the dictatorship of the medieval times – but are we? We are more advanced in the arts and sciences (including those of communication) than were our predecessors, so those who would govern us and maintain their power over our lives must come up with more subtle propaganda than was required, for instance. during the Holy Roman Empire – and they have done a good job.

    Resistance to propaganda via civics and critical thinking is helpful, but teaching such resistance to propaganda is not the exclusive province of teachers. We will begin to see the disintegration of Fox News and other such purveyors of propaganda when resistance to propaganda is also taught in the home both by word and example. Increased means of propagandizing the masses need both school and home critical thinking environments to counteract such toxic blather.

  23. ML,

    I guess that’s where faith comes in! Are the Scriptures just a book of fables? Or, maybe the story of Noah was a parable like those used by Christ on a regular basis. One thing I do know, the story of a flood is paramount to most ancient civilizations and cultures. The Babylonians, the Greeks, the Mesopotamians, the Medes and Persians, all had stories about a great flood! And when you compare them, they’re all quite similar!

    Does a mere story spread across millennia and through different civilizations and cultures? That in itself is an interesting question.

    Myself, I personally agree with science on most things. I have issues with some that I’ve expressed here, one of the issues is theoretical physics. Now, it doesn’t take much to be a theoretical physicist, because, everything is hypothetical. What is a black hole? What is dark matter? 1st the universe was contracting, then it was expanding, now the expansion is accelerating exponentially. These are just a couple of things, I have hundreds on one of my Pinterest pages, were scientists really are confused by what others claim is gospel in science. So, religion doesn’t have any more of a hold on reality than a lot of cosmologists.

    The battery that they had found in ancient Egypt, this pretty much shows that there was a working knowledge of electricity way before Benjamin Franklin flew that kite, LOL! Sometimes what’s old is new, and sometimes what’s new is gibberish, and obviously, gibberish is sometimes taken as truth!

  24. One of my favorite courses in college was in logic. I wish it were a requirement in high school. Some political arguments and marketing ads (including political ads) are so obviously illogical, yet supposedly smart people believe them. The whole nation would be smarter in business, home management, and political decision-making with a course in logic.

    And yes, knowing something about the underlying subject matter is important too. We seem to have forgotten that public education was seen as a necessity in order for democracy to survive.

  25. I got here quite late today, but agree totally with Sheila’s perspective. If we can get this fixed, perhaps we will no longer hear about the (shhhh, very secret) Jewish lasers in the sky creating California wildflowers. (shhh.)

  26. I won’t go into it, but yes, the left has their craziness (anti-vaxxers) and scientists do as well (I ruffled a few feathers in my days by mentioning “technological fads” at conferences and the renaming of Alzheimer’s Disease. Still, I think we are talking 95 vs. 5 when it comes to the craziness on the right.

    More to the point and to use my father’s favorite phrase, “I just read an interesting article”. This was by Canadian psychology professor and skeptic, James Alcock, written some 16 or 17 years ago. He pointed out that while we seem to have innate faculties for thinking, it took centuries for people to lay out rules for deductive reasoning, quantify probability, and even have the mathematics that included zero.

    We also have an innate ability to learn and use our native language. There the similarity ends. We feel it important to emphasize language arts (reading, writing, language arts, English classes – various names) throughout our primary and secondary education, continuing into college for those who attend. Critical thinking may get one semester at best. Usually even more than civics (I had one semester of “civics” in high school and zero semesters in critical thinking).

    So for the long term, in addition Sheila’s constant urging for more education in civics, and the need for scientific understanding for those not interested in science (both echoed by many here), it may behoove us to think about twelve years of some sort of critical thinking training, and not just a course or two. The classic “3Rs” should become the “4Rs”, as the concept of basic education – Reading, wRiting, aRithmetic, and Rational thinking (or Reason if you prefer).

    Now what to do in the short term – that’s a harder problem.

  27. I always tell people before you start spouting (pick your amendment number) the literal interpretation of the amendment, to please go and read the rulings that the Supreme Court has made over the years interpreting them. On some of them it changes the game significantly. Of course only a few lawyers and people in the know would even be aware of this exercise. Wikipedia is a tremendous source to read the ruling on each case that came before the Supreme Court. It states how it affects and changes each of the amendments as it currently pertains to the law of the land.

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