Break the Election: How to Learn Media Literacy by Remixing Political Advertisements

This post originally appeared in two parts on Confessions of an Aca-Fan: The Official Weblog of Henry Jenkins. It is republished here as a single post.

As we start back to school, many of us are going to be looking for new ways to provide our students with the media literacy skills and contextual background needed to make sense of the craziness which is the 2016 Presidential Campaign (“All Bets Are Off”). One of the many groups working to address these needs is LAMP (“Learning About Multimedia Project”) which describes itself as “bringing 21st-century survival skills to all New Yorkers.” They have adopted a hands-on approach where young people are encouraged to develop critical media literacy by breaking down, remixing, and commenting upon campaign commercials released by the various candidates, using their Mediabreaker Critical Remix tool. I’ve long advocated that appropriation represents a core cultural competency of our times and that schools should be doing more to build critical remixing into their instruction. I was thus delighted to learn of this great example and happy to be sharing it with my readers. What follows is an interview with D.C. Vito and Emily Long, two of the organization’s leaders, as they share a progress report on Break the Election.

Interestingly, we are seeing more and more examples this election cycle where the campaigns or the PACS working on their behalf are actively appropriating and remixing media towards their own ends. Consider, for example, this video which juxtaposes clips of Donald Trump with bullies from 1980s comedies. Or this one which remixes various Republicans talking about Trump’s tax returns.

The first adopts a playful approach to remix, using popular media to comment on real world political concerns, where-as the other raids the media archive, creating a new context for understanding previous statements. But both demonstrate how remix practices are being deployed by the campaign. What do we do now — remix the remixes?

Give us some background on Break the Election. How did this project come about and what are you trying to achieve?

We first started thinking about Break the Election during the 2012 presidential race. Up until that point, we were using video remix in our programs for the purpose of remixing and talking back to commercials. We knew we wanted to develop our own video remix tool — up until that point, we used iMovie, which was too complicated for a lot of our students and teachers to learn quickly — but couldn’t justify doing it if the only media we were going to remix were commercials. We knew there were other applications for remix, and it was like a light bulb for us as we were iterating the new tool amid an environment saturated with political campaign ads.

The new tool, of course, was what is now MediaBreaker/Studios, a free online teaching platform built around our MediaBreaker video editing tool designed specifically for remixing third-party video. We’ve done programming where students remix not just commercials and political ads, but also movie trailers, TV shows, music videos…you name it.

One of our largest goals was to provide pathways for young people to become engaged in the election in a way that we hoped would be authentic to their interests. Break the Election allows our students who are still too young to vote to have a say about the issues, and with just every moment of the campaign trail being caught on video, they have plenty of material to use to make their point. It also challenges them to look at how public opinions are shaped by media, and ask some uneasy questions about the democratic process. Do we elect the candidate who is most capable, or do we elect the candidate with the strongest, best-funded media machine? How well do we really get to know a candidate, when our perspective is shaped by outlets trying to keep up with a 24-hour news cycle? These are tough questions, but they have to be asked in a media literate democracy.

Why do you think remix is an important strategy for developing critical media literacies?

Remix requires people to flex every muscle in the standard definition of media literacy, which is to “access, analyze, evaluate and create” media. You have to source your material, which means you need to be able to access it, but you also have to analyze and evaluate in the process of making critical statements and transforming the message — which happens to also be legally required, if you’re going to stick to fair use guidelines so you can share your work publicly. If you can’t remix, I don’t think you’re media literate. Remix really is the canary in the coal mine for critical media literacy.

Why the focus on political advertisements?

One of the reasons we like remixing commercials in general is because of the form. Commercials are short, tight persuasive messages, and usually they’re entertaining so young people enjoy working with them. Since they’re only about thirty seconds long, they can be unpacked in a relatively short time, which is important for teachers who only have forty or fifty minutes in a class.

Political advertisements are also rich troves of messaging. They’re very challenging from an information literacy perspective, but they’re also designed to solicit really strong emotions about things that matter deeply, like the type of world we want to live in. Part of what we’re doing is teaching young people to not be indifferent to political ads — even though they are too young to cast a vote, they’re still part of a target audience, from now through the rest of their lives. Media literacy is hardly ever more important than when you’re using it to decide who should represent your voice, and you’re never too young to start practicing and applying those skills.

How might educators bring the Break the Election activity into their classrooms?

We have a series of free hands-on resource guides called LAMPlit, and we created one especially for Break the Election. It takes educators step-by-step through the process of teaching students to create critical remixes rooted in political advertisements, and includes a brief history of political campaign ads to help educators contextualize their unique form and purpose. The LAMPlit also has links to other resources to help educators find and select political ads to remix, and prompts from which educators can choose. And of course educators should feel free to adapt the activities in whatever way makes sense for their students and classrooms.

What advice do you have about creating the right atmosphere in the classroom for political remix?

We’ve found it’s very important to emphasize that remixing a political ad isn’t meant to be an act of partisanship. You can, and should, remix ads based on their content, not based on the candidate you happen to support. The point is to be critical, and there is plenty to critique when it comes to political messaging whether you’re Democratic, Republican, Independent or something else. The focus needs to be on facts, not hyperbole, and healthy, respectful debate. If a teacher thinks the current election is too polarizing for a productive learning experience, we suggest he or she try looking at more historical material.

Many educators may be concerned about the copyright implications of using remix in their classrooms. Some also confused remix and plagiarism. How would you address these concerns?

It’s really too bad when these concerns result in chilling innovative education, which includes using remix and technology in the classroom. Remix and plagiarism are of course not the same thing; plagiarism is trying to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Any good remix cites sources and/or uses original ideas to back up an argument, just as students are expected to do when they write a paper. A remix is really just a multimedia essay.

We have a LAMPlit resource guide about fair use, written with K-12 teachers in mind, but there are other resources out there too. I especially like Stanford University’s Copyright & Fair Use Center,American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University also has some great research plus a pro-bono cyberlaw clinic.

Some might argue that young people are being taught through many different channels to be cynical about political institutions. Is there a danger that these remix practices might contribute to cynicism? How do we distinguish between skepticism and cynicism?

For me, cynicism entails apathy. Skepticism entails constant curiosity. It’s easy to feel frustrated and bombarded in a media-saturated environment, and sure, confronting those media can potentially feed cynicism. But we try to focus on remix as an active means of critical expression, which is valuable in a way that sitting around and complaining just is not. If you can create an argument and back it up with facts — and, even better, point to a positive way forward — then your skepticism is healthy and useful. We think remix fosters this.

What have emerged as some of the common themes in student remixes and critiques of existing political advertisements?

One is authenticity. Students are aware that candidates are trying to appeal to the masses, and that in order to do that they need to seem likable in media. You can see those themes in this remix on Hillary Clinton and this one on Marco Rubio.

There’s also an interest in pointing out how emotionally manipulative the ads can be, like this one remix about Ted Cruz.

I should say there are a lot of great remixes we haven’t been able to post publicly because they don’t meet fair use standards. What makes them great is that the students are clearly very passionate. Fair use is really hard, and takes a lot of practice. We don’t always have as much time as we’d like in programs to go back and refine videos, but I’ve been so impressed with our students’ ability in general to call out political ads for not being substantial enough. They see that publicity stunts, like dancing on Ellen or cooking bacon on a machine gun, happen at the expense of talking about the real reasons why people should vote for someone.

This campaign has shaped into one of the most negative in American presidential history. What should we be telling students specifically about the impact of negative advertising in the campaign process?

This is a great time for students to be learning the difference between feelings and facts. Negative ads often make us feel angry, but they don’t usually make us think too hard about facts, or think that we should question those facts in any way. I think it’s less about what we should be telling students about the impact of negative ads, and more about what we should be helping them ask and explore. Such as, what’s the difference between negative advertising and bullying? When it comes to negative ads, do you think the facts matter to people? Why would someone engage in, or specifically avoid, negative advertising?

The rhetoric in this campaign has been extremely negative but I think our job as educators is to not let that poison our young people’s interest in civic engagement. It’s getting harder and harder to convince people they should take part in such an imperfect democratic system, but I would never counsel a young person to sit out of voting, knocking on doors or forming and sharing an informed opinion. We’ve already seen how remix can be used to powerful effect in this campaign, by the candidates themselves and by citizens. What I want to see is how it can be used to powerful effect in civic engagement for the future — no matter who winds up winning this election.