The project, led by URI Communication Studies Professor Renee Hobbs, aims to engage faith leaders, K-12 teachers, law enforcement officials, public health workers, military veterans, high school students, and others in constructive dialogue, active listening, and creative media production. The work is supported by a four-year, $700,000 grant from the Department of Homeland Security.
“This project is responding to the rise in polarization that is tearing at the very fabric of our democracy,” said Hobbs, a professor in the Harrington School of Communication and Media at URI. “We want to help create communities that are more connected, less prone to us-versus-them thinking, and more resilient in the face of propaganda and misinformation. The idea is to pilot some practical strategies for addressing these issues.”
The project will have three separate programs, each engaging different audiences.
One program, led by Pam Steager of the nonprofit advocacy group Media Literacy Now RI, will invite members of faith communities, military families, and other community members to participate in online and in-person forums that demonstrate strategies for constructive dialog. The idea is to help people to share diverse opinions without devolving into an us-versus-them mindset.
“We want to explore the habits in our communication behavior that keep us stuck in our existing worldviews and make it hard for us to listen to each other,” Steager said. “Doing that can help us to depolarize, which is important for our relationships, our communities, and our democracy.”
A second program will provide professional development to high school and college educators, teaching strategies for integrating media literacy into civic education. The project will build upon years of experience in K-12 professional development through the Summer Institute in Digital Literacy, a program co-created by Hobbs’ Media Education Lab and the URI School of Education. The goal, Hobbs says, is to teach strategies for helping students to recognize false, misleading, and divisive rhetoric and to identify how “conflict entrepreneurs” hijack people’s attention for power and profit.
A third program will invite high school and college students to create digital media as part of a state-wide communications campaign. The aim is to help empower young people with confidence in self-expression as they contend with stress, anxiety, and social isolation that results from divisive online communities that may demonize people and promote hate.
“A lot of what students experience as ‘propaganda’ is really just effective communication—it activates strong emotion; it simplifies messages; it taps into people’s hopes and fears,” Hobbs said. “But the propaganda we’re concerned about has an extra step that involves demonizing those who might not share a particular belief. So we're going to invite people to take the pledge that, as effective communicators, you simply refuse to engage in us-versus-them framing that dehumanizes and divides people.”
The grant from the Department of Homeland Security will go toward hiring staff for the project, funding outreach and other program activities. The funding comes from the department’s Targeted Violence and Terrorism Prevention Grant Program, which aims to head off acts of targeted violence before they happen.
Hobbs says she’s pleased that government officials have recognized the roles that critical thinking and media literacy can play in reducing violence.
“We know that people’s beliefs, knowledge, attitudes, and sense of social connectedness are key factors in their behavior,” Hobbs said. “If we’re able to help create communities that are more resilient to harmful propaganda and disinformation, that can help keep people out of extremist niches and foster a greater sense of connectedness. That makes for stronger communities and a better functioning democracy.”