Propaganda, Social Media and Meta-Education Thinking

Updated: Dec 20, 2021

There are two key factors impacting global sustainability: climate change and technologies that are being misapplied to the detriment of democratic societies. For the first time ever, we truly need to live and work together to maintain life on the planet. Education has a uniquely important role to play.

Meta-education system thinking is an opportunity to advance the longstanding call for education system change. We can use this window of opportunity to align education with our collective need for a sustainable world. To do that, people need to talk to each other; to raise awareness about the link between meta-education and global sustainability.

The Consilience Project is a valuable resource for information and perspectives about the misapplication of media and technologies. Edushift has been following the incremental release of a series of Consilience Project articles on the topic of propaganda. Together, these articles provide a compelling view about what propaganda is, how it has been affected by new technologies controlled by a small number of private companies, how these technologies could be reoriented to advance human cooperation, and why it is so necessary for democracies to regain some control of propaganda.

There are four articles as follows:

Article 1: It's a MAD Information War, July 25, 2021

Article 2: WE DON'T MAKE PROPAGANDA! THEY DO!, August 23, 2021

Article 3: The End of Propaganda, October 17, 2021

Article 4: Social Media Enables Undue Influence, December 5, 2021

Propaganda is regularly interpreted as the spreading of lies and fake news. In actuality, propaganda has a long-standing historical and critical connection with governance. Every government uses propaganda. Good governments use propaganda that finds a balance between the needs of society overall and the rights of individuals to create, communicate and live with equitably supported public services.

Global communication technologies have caused a change in the availability and application of propaganda; formerly a vertical structure that has now become horizontal. As a result, the implementation capacity of public services has been deteriorated. “For decades now, the emergence of digital technologies has been undermining the way propaganda and public relations have traditionally been justified and operationalized.” (Article 3, p.8) Consider, for example, the change in propaganda tactics required for the Covid-19 vaccine compared to the polio vaccine of the 1950’s.

Central to this consequence on propaganda is the profit-oriented business models of social media platforms that, by design, have a profound impact on human behavior. Appearing as tools for community building and personal identity, these platforms are actually designed to capture the attention of users, with information then monetized by microtargeting and nudging behavior to maximize advertising revenue. These design structures also stimulate an addictive desire for users to conform with online environments through likes, private chats, and information silos.

The speed and dominance with which this has happened is remarkable. “Social media technology companies have many billions of users and claim trillion-dollar valuations, which are significantly larger that the populations and budgets of major governments. They have a monopoly-like control over AI-mediated personalized behavior modification systems-touching the lives of billions of people – which they lease out for profit to governments and businesses.” (Article 4, p.10)

We can see that education is in a precarious position. Systems are expected to educate young people while dealing with unprecedented strains in mental health and behavior caused by a profit-oriented business model of technology. And this is expected to occur within currently existing system structures that have a limited capacity to address this unprecedented need for student and staff mental health.

But education has another responsibility - to help advance a balanced use of propaganda. This is not about propaganda content, but the function of education to help the capacity of people in a world that needs cooperation and a humanistic use of information for its survival. “It is easy to mistake the difference between propaganda and education as depending on the content of the message being conveyed, rather than the techniques, intentions and effects of its conveyance.” (Article 2, p.8) To what extent is the state application of propaganda necessary to ensure effective public policy? To what extent can education build the capacity of people to inform themselves?

To date, our education systems have been caught in a seemingly endless and futile effort of “catching up” to address the impact of social media on student and staff mental health. A micro system response continues to focus exclusively on adjusting existing system structures to address the mental health needs of students and staff.

Meta system thinking takes a larger view. Education first needs to improve awareness – to help people understand how damaging our information environments have become. There are potential short term system tools that could facilitate this process as they relate to professional development, multiple layered communication strategies and curricular alignment; all within the limited context of current industrial-era educational system structures.

Following this, education needs to help develop digital environments that can align with local and global humanitarian goals. Data and psychological science can be used to promote personal growth and learning instead of promoting behavioral conformity for profit. “The same technologies that brainwash us now could provide for a kind of education more powerful than any modern school system.” (Article 4, p.13) More specifically, “[f]orms of social media could be designed that use AI to organize the collective knowledge being produced, compiling vast stores of crowd-sourced information in real time, and then making it searchable and useful for everyone, including public metadata and open-source algorithms.” (Article 3, p.12)

The stakes for democracies and global sustainability are large. Left unaddressed, western societies will become increasingly susceptible to dystopian propaganda enabled by AI technologies and private industry. Education is the only institution that can provide a middle ground between this eventuality or, equally disturbing, outright state control of information. “If we want a future in which non-authoritarian forms of social organization remain viable, it is critical to understand clearly the implications of a global, distributed arms race in propaganda. In times of crisis and peace, humanity now requires some new form of mass communication to emerge that enables large scale social cooperation.” (Article 3, p.12)

The ongoing investigations and inquiries now happening in response to the coercive business practices of some social media platforms is a step in the right direction. Will education and public leaders build upon this increase in awareness to move to the second step? The desire and need from our communities is there, but hidden due to a longstanding culture that connects education with industrial-era schooling systems.

Moving forward is possible - with awareness and focus of meta-education system thinking.

Phil Dawes, December 20, 2021


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