Our ‘Crisis in Truth’ — What We Can Do About Propaganda Today

Media Ecologist Stacey Lynn Schulman Shares Concerns and Solutions

Janet Stilson
ILLUMINATION

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Photo Provided by Stacey Lynn Schulman

Propaganda is something that Stacey Lynn Schulman thinks about a lot. In addition to her role as a research expert who’s well known in the media business, Stacey is trained as a media ecologist. It’s a profession that isn’t widely known, but essentially it involves the study of how media and societies impact each other, back and forth, as a living, breathing ecosystem. As part of that, Stacey keeps an eye on the ways in which information becomes distorted. For example, she’s studied how news in countries like the Czech Republic went through huge (and positive) changes after the former Soviet Union dissolved in 1991.

Recently, I chatted with Stacey about the state of propaganda in our world today. I was particularly concerned about something that the Anti-Defamation League recently reported: white supremacist propaganda activities reached an all-time high in 2022 — up 38% over the previous year. Racism has been with us forever, it seems; we hear about it constantly. But that statistic is off-the-charts alarming, at least to me.

‘CRISIS IN TRUTH’

“We have a crisis in truth right now for lots of reasons,” Stacey says. “We’ve democratized the tools of communication to such an extent that anyone and everyone can be a channel. And anyone and everyone’s opinion is broadcast to the entire world.”

In many instances, “there are no checks and balances. There are no checkpoints or gatekeepers,” she adds. One could argue that there are benefits to the communication explosion, in that we all have a chance to have our voices heard rather than relying on a few media outlets to feed us their versions of the truth, as once was the case. While there are some news sources that go to great lengths to make sure they’re conveying accurate information, many others don’t. That’s where distortion and propaganda creeps in.

“We don’t have the critical skills to evaluate everything that’s available to us — to understand whether we’re being given good information or not,” Stacey notes. “That begs the question: how do you build media literacy? How do you develop critical thinking to evaluate information and then decide whether or not it’s truthful?”

RUSSIAN PROPAGANDA IN AMERICA

The Wall Street Journal recently published an article on a striking example of propaganda: one of the foremost pro-Vladimir Putin podcasts is hosted by an American Naval veteran claiming to be born in Russia, but she apparently was not. She reportedly doctored a Pentagon document that was allegedly leaked by the Air National Guardsman Jack Teixeira. Her tweak made Russian casualties seem way lower, and Ukrainian casualties look much higher than they actually were.

The warped-news situation we’re facing has been exacerbated by the rise of artificial intelligence tools like ChatGPT, which have the ability to spew out what appears to be well researched documents that can actually be riddled with errors.

“This is a dangerous place to be, especially as we think about going into the next political cycle in the United States,” Stacey says. “Now you’re not even sure if the information that you’re presented has validity, and you have no tools for testing validity. Our government in the United States has not found its way to understanding the phenomenon with artificial intelligence, let alone regulating it.”

COUNTERACTING THE CRISIS

Thankfully, the rise of fact checking reports by some news outlets has counteracted the problem to a certain extent. But a lot more needs to be done. Perhaps nowhere is this issue more critical than with children. Stacey and her husband are raising two young sons, and she finds herself in repeated conversations with her kids about information they’ve discovered on social media. She’s teaching them about how to discern biases. But regardless of how many parents are doing similar good work, more needs to be done.

The Media Literacy Now organization is currently monitoring dozens of legislative bills that have components that could foster better ways of educating young folks. And there are around 17 states with some kind of media literacy education policy on the books, the group reports. But we have a long way to go, in terms of comprehensive training, with the funding that must go along with it in order to give our young citizens the media skills they need.

Stacey sees the day when we might have a commission, unaffiliated with any political party, to help figure out what news sources can be trusted. But that can’t be the only solution. “It may be that technology gets involved. There’s got to be a way to identify whether a signal is emanating from a certain place or has been impacted in some way. But even before we get to technology as a solution, we need to have conversations about what we value, and how we value it,” she says.

None of this is going to be easy to figure out. The notion of an impartial commission to essentially give its Good Housekeeping seal of approval is likely to raise all kinds of competing views and controversy. Getting more bills passed on a state or national level to give school districts the money they need to educate students properly is going to take a lot of work.

The question becomes not just how we get through all the roadblocks, but how much more troubled our media system will become if we don’t do so. I delve into how this could play out within my sci-fi novel, “The Juice.” (Now working on the sequel.) We can find more effective ways to counteract warped information and hate speech. I’ll support everything I can to meet that goal. What about you?

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Janet Stilson
ILLUMINATION

Janet Stilson’s novel THE JUICE, published to rave reviews. A sequel will be released in May 2024. She won the Meryl Streep Writer’s Lab for Women competition.