Monday, April 26, 2010

Beware the Hidden Propaganda

היום השבעה ועשרים יום שהם שלשה שבועות וששה ימים בעמר
Today is the twenty-seventh day, making three weeks and six days of the omer
יסוד שבנצח
A day of foundation in a week of perseverance

While doing some internet research on Don Isaac Abravanel, a 15th/16th century Jewish statesman and commentator for a talk I'm giving at Netivot Shalom on May 15, I came across a page titled "Edict Response by Isaac Abravanel." Having just read about Don Abravanel's efforts to reverse this edict by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1492 that led to the expulsion of Jews from Spain, I bookmarked this for later reading and eventually decided to print it out, thinking I might want to quote parts of it for my teaching.

Then I began to study the document. It just felt off, at odds what I had been reading about how Abravanel approached the King and Queen about the Edict. There were some sections highlighted with red text, and I couldn't understand why. And then I saw a note added by the editor of the website, which started with "Proving that everything that Ferdinand and Isabel did was quite correct! (Well, almost: they should have gone much further by considering all racial Jews as Jews in a legal sense. . .)"

As I went to see the home page of the root website, I was shocked to see a photo of Adolf Hitler. It is a white supremacist site, listing links to publications that spout their propaganda. I will not link the site, nor even name it. But seeing how easily I could have been pulled into their lies sent chills down my spine.

In May, 2004, I wrote a paper for my English 101 class at City College titled "Heeding the Visions of Huxley and McLuhan: Counteracting Racist Propaganda on the World Wide Web" Here is my opening thesis statement (note to any academics, sources available upon request :)
Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958 after witnessing the power of using modern technology to spread propaganda. He quotes Albert Speer: “Hitler’s dictatorship . . . was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship which made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country”. Marshall McLuhan published The Medium is the Massage in 1967 when the boom of the technology age was on the horizon. He saw how the images and the processes of the media could influence society in a subconscious manner—“Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act—the way we perceive the world. When these things change, men change”. Although both these men died before the World Wide Web came into existence, they have much to teach us about the dangers this new technology can bring.

There are many examples of the positive influence of World Wide Web as a resource for information and communication. Access to medical databases and the most up-to-date information available gives health care providers the ability to better serve their patients . Non-profit organizations can use websites to recruit volunteers without having to spend much money. Families of soldiers stationed in Iraq can connect with their loved ones through video conferencing . But we cannot ignore the dark side of the use of this technology. The same aspects of the World Wide Web that serve to unite civilization are being used by hate groups to divide society. We need to give students an education in media literacy to counteract the ability for a dangerous few to greatly influence a generation with their hate propaganda.
I go on to discuss how both Huxley and McLuhan forewarn how easily propaganda can be spread with the development of communication technology with global reach. I cite some of the white supremicist websites that are cleverly disguised as educational sites--even one that seems to be honoring Reverend Martin Luther King, althought the agenda is quite the opposite. I also cite resources for media literacy that are available for teachers and students. I conclude with this:
It is essential to teach students how to think and train them to evaluate the knowledge they gain. There is also the need to show students how to separate the content from the packaging. The pervasiveness of computer technology into the fabric of modern life has influenced how information is received. Perceptions of what is true have become more important than the truth itself. Giving students media literacy skills will allow them to analyze the information they receive and teach them to maintain control of their thoughts rather than relinquishing that power to someone else. . .

Aldous Huxley realized the need for education to combat the spread of propaganda—“The effects of false and pernicious propaganda cannot be neutralized except by a thorough training in the art of analyzing its techniques and seeing through its sophistries”. Marshall McLuhan saw the importance of teaching students to recognize the form of the new media as well as its informational content—“The classroom is now in a vital struggle for survival with the immensely persuasive ‘outside’ world created by new informational media. Education must shift from instruction, from imposing of stencils, to discover—to probing and exploration and to the recognition of the language of forms”. Education in media literacy is critical to counteract the use of the World Wide Web to spread racist propaganda. We need to heed the voices from the past and use the resources of the present in order to ensure that the future will not be controlled by those who preach hatred.
If I were ever to rewrite this paper, I'd have to take out the emphasis on students needing that education in media literacy and make the point that we all need to be aware of the lies that are out there disguised as educational material. Let us all heed this lesson.

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