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Propagandists adeptly exploit the media tools of their era. As World War II simmered, one Italian-based scholar proclaimed that “the radio has made fools of us all.” Indeed, the Italian airwaves were saturated with propagandistic messages designed to undermine all legitimate news sources, replacing thoughtful commentary with shallow sloganeering.

Today, it could be argued that social media has made many people if not fools, then at least superficial-thinking reactionaries more attuned to provocative images and sensationalistic claims than to reliable evidence and well-crafted arguments.

Higher education does not necessarily immunize anyone from foolishness. Just because the educated should “know better” than to heed the polemicist claims doesn’t necessarily mean that they will actually do so. Immersion in the propagandist’s world can test the sensibilities of even the most perceptive journalistic minds. One of the most striking passages in William L. Shirer’s monumental work The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich reveals how immersion in Nazi propaganda, day in and day out, gradually shifted sentiments:

It was surprising and sometimes consternating to find that notwithstanding the opportunities I had to learn the facts and despite one’s inherent distrust of what one learned from Nazi sources, a steady diet over the years of falsifications and distortions made a certain impression on one’s mind and often misled it. No one who has not lived for years in a totalitarian land can possibly conceive how difficult it is to escape the dread consequences of a regime’s calculated and incessant propaganda. Often in a German home or office or sometimes in a casual conversation with a stranger in a restaurant, a beer hall, a café, I would meet with the most outlandish assertions from seemingly educated and intelligent persons.

Shirer’s chilling observations could apply to anyone living, if not in a totalitarian land, then a social media-induced isolationist island. In our era, propagandists of all persuasions seek to dominate our social and information landscapes, thereby undermining our critical thinking abilities. They can easily do so with social media campaigns targeted to our personal preferences and biases. The CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, perceptively noted, “Your profile is then run through algorithms that serve up increasingly extreme content, pounding our harmless preferences into hardened convictions … If green is your favorite color, you may find yourself reading a lot of articles or watching a lot of videos about the insidious threat from people who like orange.”

Such capabilities would first astonish and then be fully exploited by the propaganda ministries like those of the Third Reich.

Countering objectionable messaging has taken three basic forms. First, banning certain sources or taking down their cyberaccounts can silence propagandistic voices, at least temporarily. Persistent propagandists, however, can set up new and mutant accounts with a few strokes of the keyboard. In addition, freedom of speech issues must be considered when eliminating accounts.

Second, pruning out offensive messages that pop up while preserving accounts can tamp down wide exposure to troublesome content. For instance, Facebook claimed to have deleted millions of terrorist-related posts during one six-month period. While laudable, this approach resembles weeding a mountain range; the propagandistic weeds keep coming back regardless, and you always ending up pulling some charming wildflowers, too.

Third, educating those who receive propagandist messaging may well be the last line of defense. That should be one of the primary roles of the university, which leads to a question: How should universities help neutralize propagandistic forces? We’d like to offer four modest proposals.

Fast-track network and data-science concepts into the undergraduate curriculum. Network scientists focus on how people are connected to and influence one another. Data scientists mine data generated by all our digital behaviors -- email, texting, browsing patterns, social media postings and so forth -- searching for valuable and exploitable patterns. This digital debris can be condensed, commoditized and weaponized by congealing it into profiles used to mount marketing campaigns and influence strategies.

Exploiting data gleaned from our networks and digital footprint presents propagandistic opportunities without historical parallel. Why? Because purveyors of propaganda can use our own preferences and networks to tailor messaging designed to resonate with pre-existing preferences, behaviors and beliefs. And they can flood our digital landscape with their messaging from morning to night with resonant messaging and imagery from those whom we trust the most: friends, colleagues and family.

While expertise about network and data science exists on most campuses, it is not widely disseminated or built into general education curricula. For example, most people have a vague awareness about how their digital debris can be turned against them. What they don’t often take into account is how it can weaponized or how easy it is to overestimate their ability to be resistant to it.

The more our students and faculty members understand the scope of data collection and network exploitation, the more likely they are to become resistant to those with nefarious intentions. Students need to be aware of how social scientists, marketers and propagandists can harvest personal data and potentially weaponize it to create undetected echo chambers of self-deception. If the first part of the educational equation is to cultivate deep awareness of propagandists’ technical capabilities, then the second part would be to create resistance to propagandists’ tactical practices. That issue can be addressed by our next recommendation.

Expand critical-thinking education to include units about self-persuasion. Instruction on critical thinking performs a vital role in protecting students from quackery, ill-conceived conclusions and fraudulent research claims. Every college graduate should know how to identify biases, question assumptions and detect graphic misrepresentations. In a full-page Wall Street Journal ad last May, Facebook sought to counter “false news” by reminding readers to “investigate the source.” Good critical-thinking advice, but will that work in a fast-paced, hypernetworked age? The ad stops short of mentioning how peer influence acts as a validation device for many people.

Critical thinking today must be updated to include issues such as spotting algorithmic-driven representation patterns, evaluating how networks influence information exposure and managing hyperconnected ecosystems of influence. While many universities possess expertise in these wide-ranging areas, few craft a coherent process for sharing such lessons. Guest lecturers, freshman experiences or first-year seminars provide rich opportunities to promote an updated set of critical-thinking skills.

Enhance cybersecurity training for university personnel to include cyberinfluence strategies. Most universities require faculty and staff members to take training on cybersecurity. This training may prove helpful in waging the continuing fight with hackers seeking sensitive data and records. But the typical training rarely highlights threats posed by propagandists and others seeking to influence us.

Warning university personnel about the potential perils of freely or casually releasing data about their digital viewing preferences, posting patterns and networks could be a first step in promoting greater attentiveness to privacy issues. At a minimum, universities should pledge that their employees fully understand the implications of this simple fact: the images and messaging they see on their social media accounts are not random but are often guided by their unexamined preferences hidden in their own data debris.

Position universities as intellectual hubs for open debate on data-privacy legislation. Laws and company policies regarding data privacy are in their infancy. The lack of open, robust debate and high-profile legal cases should not be equated with consensus on the issues or the effectiveness of legislation. Universities can achieve two important goals by hosting these kinds of debates in highly publicized forums in their local communities. They can:

  • Improve the digital literacy of more people as they grapple with the trade-offs that pit personal liberties against personal convenience, free speech against censorship and free enterprise against government constraint.
  • Enhance the university’s reputation as a place to openly debate important and complex issues. These open forums would reaffirm the universities’ high-profile role as a place for free inquiry and debate not tinged by partisan politics.

Reminding parents at commencement ceremonies about these debates could highlight the pivotal role higher education plays in responding to public policy issues through open, honest and scientifically grounded inquiry. Data-privacy issues, which in turn relate to propagandist attacks on democracy, are at present not hardened into rigid left or right political opinions like other issues. So debates of this sort are distinctly positioned to shift perceptions that some people have about universities and help the institution reclaim its historic public service role regardless of political temperaments.

Fostering understanding of influencers’ technical capabilities and tactical practices can inoculate our students from the propagandists’ messaging. Cultivating professional communities trained to spot nefarious messaging, while debating related cyberpolicies, builds even further resistance to virulent strains of propaganda. At the very least, universities can commit to enhancing understanding about how shrewd propagandists use our digital footprints and networks to influence public opinion. The more people are educated about these issues, the more likely they will develop mental countermeasures to protect themselves from dubious claims propagated in information spheres around the globe.

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