The talk was delivered in Thomas Steitz Hall of Science 102 and was well-attended by LU students and community members.
Photos by Caroline Garrow.
On Tuesday, Feb. 19, the Lawrence Government Department
invited Barbara McCormack to give a talk about public education and propaganda.
McCormack is the Vice President of Education at the
Newseum in Washington, DC. The Newseum is a museum of journalism that works to
further American commitment to free press and the First Amendment.
“A matter of Trust, Countering the Corrosive Effects of
Polarization and Propaganda” was the title of her presentation.
She began by showing comparisons of pictures and asking the audience to distinguish between propaganda and politics.
To examine today’s media and political climate, McCormack
quoted the words of U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats: “U.S.
adversaries and strategic competitors almost certainly will use online
influence operations to try to weaken democratic institutions, undermine U.S.
alliances and partnerships and shape policy outcomes in the U.S. and
Then she provided the definitions of some terms.
Partisanship is a personal ideology.
The gap existing between two partisanships is called
polarization. Media bias is when news media starts to cater to one or the other
side of the divide.
The media landscape has changed. The old one was from
events and ideas to news producers or distributors and to the news consumers.
It was a linear relationship and a straightforward supply
line. However, there is a new media cycle right now. It is a triangular power
The news aggregators are introduced. The news producers
no longer provide news to the consumers directly, and they need to deliver news
via social media sites.
This new model is not supported by economic theory
because it was built upon a social platform.
It turns out to be a massive battle for the minds of the
The news media is competing for money, attention and
support. The tactics are different now.
One strategy they use is to appeal to people’s partisan
opinions and beliefs. “We like to be told we are right,” McCormack said.
Consumers start seeking out things they like. This media
landscape is potentially contributing to the increasing polarization.
Propaganda is media that is created and disseminated
specifically to influence your ideas and actions in supports of an agenda. It
resembles advertising but with higher stakes. It can serve an array of ends and
disguises its delivery.
The sources of propaganda are unknown. It is also
important to understand that we are all susceptible.
Disinformation is false information that is created with
the intent to mislead. It is one type of propaganda and it is created in order
to reach a specific agenda. It is rooted in the truth to make it more
Misinformation is incorrect information that lacks
knowledge and causes confusion, but there is no hidden agenda.
“Polarization and media bias make it easier for
propaganda to exist,” McCormack said.
Propaganda oversimplifies the debatable issues. It
exploits our fears and desires, so the audience will react to it emotionally.
It also exaggerates the details and facts. Most
importantly, it uses divisions that identify and enlarge the cracks in our
social and political structure.
How does propaganda work? McCormack quoted Jacques
Ellul’s words, “All propaganda is aimed at an enemy.”
It generalizes the objects and labels different group.
Propaganda also utilizes name-calling like “crooked Hilary” in it. Caricature
is also one of the strategies.
According to McCormack, we are living in this vicious cycle
that creates a more-and-more divided society. The public’s trust level has
decreased in the U.S.
For solutions, she does not think regulation is a good
way because it can restrain the civil liberties. Instead, consumer training is
She conveys that we should change from the consumer side
to create critical news.
First, the consumers need to understand the role of free press in our society. Then, we need to adjust media consumption habits and strengthen media literacy skills.