When Derek Foster saw a cautionary NBC News story on a wave of social media misinformation about sunscreen use — and expert efforts to combat it — he was far from surprised.
The Associate Professor in the Department of Communication, Popular Culture and Film has spent the summer digging into conspiracy theories, propaganda and other language-based public manipulation tactics to prepare for his upcoming course on Language and Public Communication.
Students in COMM 3P51 will tackle the ways language is used to manipulate others from public relations to fake news.
“It can be easy to suggest how others — especially those we don’t agree with — are subject to being manipulated, but we all are,” says Foster. “We all believe things, but where do those beliefs come from and how do they take shape? And what does it mean when we share those beliefs in increasingly narrow and more polarized discourses?”
The course will also examine how to resist and contend with the issue of language and manipulation.
“This isn’t just about politicians, but the politics of everyday life,” Foster says. “When ‘truthiness’ was a word of the year in 2006, it seemed more constrained to satirical news, but when ‘post-truth’ was a word-of-the-year in 2016 and ‘fake news’ made the list in 2017, it signalled that something more fundamental was afoot.”
While misuse of language is nothing new, the digital age has brought about an onslaught fed by algorithms, engagement and ad revenue, to say nothing of deep fakes and artificial intelligence. It’s a landscape that Foster believes students from many different fields can benefit from understanding.
“Participatory culture and interactive media make it easier for users to contribute their own voices, recirculating what they have embraced in metaphorical halls of mirrors that become self-reinforcing,” he says. “Calling for fact-checking and media literacy seem to be inadequate measures when we can cherry-pick convenient facts and the truth-claims that make sense to us.”
He says he is looking forward to engaging with students on these topics and hearing their ideas for resisting the pull of a comfortable information bubble.
“There is no person who is not potentially misled and no media that is unbiased,” says Foster. “Students from all majors are welcome to join, because whether we like it or not, we are all living in what’s been termed a post-truth media environment, so let’s figure out how to better equip ourselves.”