The age of information has mutated into the age of disinformation. Authoritarian rulers have learnt to entrench their power by flooding societies with disinformation that divides, confuses, and intimidates democratic opposition. Aggressive states and terrorist groups use mass-media falsifications, hate videos, and social-media trolls to destabilise other countries and communities. Across the world the Internet and global media have empowered conspiracy theorists and violent extremist groups have emerged from the fringes to set the social agenda. In democratic societies we are seeing the emergence of a “post-fact” politics where candidates reinvent reality at whim, making debate impossible.

A range of international bodies, from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) to NATO, have identified Media Literacy—the ability of audiences to think critically and analyse the manipulative propaganda around them—as a key way to withstand information war, lies, and hate speech. However, Media Literacy has always been associated with education in schools and universities and to have real influence, it needs to be incorporated into mainstream entertainment television and online products. To this end the following needs to happen:

  • Media Literacy experts should unite with entertainment content creators to draw on the experience they have in designing entertainment formats.
  • Donors, development agencies, and international public-service broadcasters should mainstream Media Literacy messages into the content they produce and support.
  • Rather than a separate theme, Media Literacy needs to be integrated into mass-appeal formats such as soap operas and chat shows.
  • Different formats, genres, and media (TV, online, on-demand) should be used for different audiences.

This paper looks at what sort of formats could work in the Middle East and Ukraine, two areas that are deeply affected by propaganda and information wars. Formats that might be appropriate for mass audiences include:

  • Panel chat shows and breakfast shows—Typically, these are lively studio-based chat shows where a panel of hosts discuss topical matters with celebrity guests. The Media Literacy “takeaway” would come in the form of light and humorous discussions of the news of the day. If this kind of material is too emotionally divisive, or if censorship is a big problem, such shows could use more “neutral” areas like entertainment or celebrity news to teach Media Literacy. It is still possible to lay out the key points and encourage critical thinking, even if the targets are celebrities and their PR managers rather than governments.
  • Celebrity travelogues—Such travelogues would feature popular presenters who would travel around the region, celebrating its natural and cultural wonders. These shows could subtly explore Media Literacy principles, but they should not be overtly political—they should be located in a space where contemporary politics do not seem to intrude.
  • Soap operas, melodramas, and telenovelas—Media Literacy plot-lines could be introduced into story-lines—for example, in situations where characters make good or bad decisions based on how they interpret media.
  • Talent shows—Talent shows such as The Voice are the biggest rating successes in both Ukraine and the Middle East. Media Literacy principles could perhaps be introduced through, for example, a comedy talent competition. Or use of a particular song could draw attention to the harm caused by hate speech and propaganda.
  • Children’s TV drama—Such drama would allow Media Literacy to be considered in allegorical terms, moving the action away from reality into a world of fable or fantasy.

Formats suitable for audiences better informed about current affairs include:

  • Satirical news review shows—The most obvious idea would be a satirical news show, or news review show, along the lines of The Daily Show in the US.
  • Current affairs comedy quiz shows—A linked idea would be a satirical current affairs game show along the lines of the long-running Have I Got News for You? in the UK.
  • Situation comedies—Another idea would be a satirical situation comedy (sitcom) set in a TV news outlet grappling with the demands of censors and propagandists.

To boost the appeal of existing online fact-checking and counter-messaging sites, we recommend the following:

  • Media Literacy online games
  • Online “Golden Raspberry Awards” for the “Top Ten Lies”
  • Targeted social-media analysis showing which disinformation stories are trending and demand a response

As a next step, we propose a Media Literacy Entertainment Working Group bringing together educators and entertainment producers to create pilot programmes based on these recommendations.

About the Beyond Propaganda Series

The 21st century is seeing a new scale of media manipulation, psychological war and disinformation. The technological capacity of the information age, a more liquid use of ideology by authoritarian regimes, and the West’s own difficulties in projecting democratic values have redefined the threat of propaganda. The Transitions Forum’s ‘Beyond Propaganda’ series investigates these challenges and aims to identify solutions.

The Transitions Forum is a series of projects dedicated to the challenges and possibilities of radical political and economic change.