Do Educational Media and Technology Advance Democracy?

09 Nov 2015

University of Rhode Island Communication Studies professor Renee Hobbs discusses how her research suggests some of the ways that society benefits from a media-literate public.

STI Experts

Can educational media and technology contribute to advancing democratic self-governance?

We have all been exposed to the hype concerning the potential of educational technology to transform education and to promote a more just and equitable world. Undoubtedly, the Internet offers enormous opportunity to transform learning in and out of school. It’s been said that now that people can share ideas across geographic, cultural, ethnic and national boundaries, a kind of global cosmopolitanism will emerge that deepens appreciation and respect for human diversity in all its many formulations. Digital media texts, tools and technologies -- along with innovative instructional practices in schools and universities -- may help create and sustain communities that value and respect diversity and challenge racism, prejudice, nationalism and discrimination.

But as a researcher and teacher, I know that it’s not that simple. Digital media, mass media, popular culture, globalization and capitalism are converging in ways that destabilize old forms of social power and create new sources of power. Digital media creates new discourses that simultaneously increase opportunities for previously marginalized people, while at the same time threatening traditional power structures and hierarchies. It’s a process that has been gradually developing for more than 30 years, beginning with the rise of satellite television, which contributed to the global village, creating media environments that enable audiences to share the same entertainment, desire the same products, and even see each others’ lives portrayed through the media. Now, digital media is advancing into the classroom with both potentially innovative and disruptive effects.

What have you learned from your research regarding media education and adolescent civic engagement?

I’ve seen many benefits accrue to educators and learners who are at the front end of the effort to integrate media literacy into secondary-level language arts and social studies curricula. In one study, I examined the work of teachers in a Maryland high school who developed and implemented programs in media literacy to meet the needs of both academically gifted students as well as those who are more career-oriented. I found that students who participated in media literacy programs have higher levels of civic engagement as compared to students in a matched control group.

In another study, I looked at a media literacy program entitled “Student Reporting Labs” developed by PBS News Hour. It was implemented in more than 40 schools across the United States. During the school year, teens worked collaboratively to create short broadcast journalism segments on social and political issues in their community.  Findings from nearly 500 high school students who participated in the program revealed the development of literacy skills that involved gathering and synthesizing information, using digital media and technology to communicate ideas in the format of a broadcast news package, and engaging in cycles of revision and feedback to polish their work. We also found statistically significant increases in collaboration and teamwork competencies, including intellectual curiosity, the ability to give and receive feedback, and confidence in self-expression and advocacy. Students showed increases in critical analysis skills, more selectivity in media use choices and shifted their preferences towards high‐quality news sources over entertainment-­type news. The program also contributed to having a less apathetic view of news and journalism, an increased commitment to civic activism and an interest in civic engagement activities, particularly ones that are digital and collaborative. This modestly-funded program, supported by the media industry, turned out to have a big educational impact on teens.

How does STI help you as a researcher and advocate?

The expert meetings organized by STI enable researchers to share knowledge that explores the potential of both media industries and educational institutions to contribute to creating global citizens who have the capacity to access, analyze, create messages in a wide variety of forms, reflecting upon their social responsibility and taking action, using the power of information and communication to make a difference in the world. This work is strengthened when researchers can interact with others across disciplinary and national boundaries.

But if the Internet is so good at connecting people, why are we becoming so insular? Why is extremism and hate on the rise?

It’s a disturbing paradox: While the rise of Internet culture is enabling people to call out examples of social inequity and form coalitions to help address social, political and economic problems, it is also enabling people to construct and share narratives of hate. Such narratives position some people as inferior, threatening or dangerous. We have seen it time and time again, not only in Europe but all around the world: the combination of political polarization and increased public apathy leads to public disengagement from the political process and the construction and marginalization of certain out groups. When social exclusion combines with propaganda and the power of state actors, it can have destructive consequences, sometimes on an epic scale.

Researchers and educators must work actively to address this reality. Political extremism is a leading source of ideological violence around the world and it must be stopped. I’m pleased to see the rise of so many media literacy education initiatives in Europe that address this issue. These efforts can address political extremism in Europe by helping young people learn to recognize and resist messages that are racist and discriminatory. Students also benefit from learning how to collaborate with diverse others to create socially responsible communication. History, policy, culture and human psychology all contribute to the rise of extremism and it’s important to explore how media education initiatives may mitigate its power.

Can technology itself be used to address the problem of political extremism?

Teachers need knowledge and skills to advance their ability to implement media education in classrooms across Europe, North America and around the world. Professional development and graduate programs help educators continue learning how to do this and European researchers are documenting “best practices” thanks to non-governmental organizations like the Evens Foundation. But teachers also benefit from having digital tools and technologies to support their work in the classroom. That’s why I have developed Mind Over Media (, an educational website that enables people to share, critically analyze and comment upon contemporary propaganda from all over the world. Contemporary propaganda can be either harmful or beneficial, depending on the creator’s motives and strategies, the audience’s interpretations, and the cultural context in which the message is shared. New forms of propaganda are sometimes difficult to recognize. I wanted to create a resource to analyze contemporary propaganda that now circulates via YouTube and the Internet. The website includes hundreds of examples of both beneficial and harmful propaganda, with opportunities for users to evaluate examples and comment on them. There are lesson plans that teachers can use to help learners understand new forms of propaganda, like viral marketing and sponsored content, which depend upon exploiting the user’s own data trail as they surf the Internet and share content with their social networks.

What impact can educational media really have on reducing political extremism?

We’ll know in a couple of years as efforts of European and North American researchers continue their investigations on this important topic. Of course, media literacy education is only one of many elements needed to reduce the rising tide of extremist propaganda we are experiencing today. But let’s not underestimate its potential. The longstanding appeal of media literacy education is its capacity to authentically stitch together the practices of communication, education and democracy in order help heal the most broken and dysfunctional dimensions of civil society. Consider the words of Robert Maynard Hutchins, the President of the University of Chicago in 1941, who wrote an influential magazine article entitled, “Education for Freedom.” In it, he warned educators about the rise of extremism in Europe and our tendency to put our faith in technology. Technology alone cannot make our society more just and equitable. Hutchins explained, “We cannot rely on science to tell us how to get a better society unless we know what is good.” Today, we need an army of scholars and educators at all levels ready to take responsibility activating people’s critical thinking as an explicit strategy for fighting the spread of harmful propaganda and hatred in Europe and throughout the world.




Hobbs, R., Donnelly, K., Friesem, J. & Moen, M. (2013). Learning to engage: How positive attitudes about the news, media literacy and video production contribute to adolescent civic engagement. Educational Media International 50(4), 231 – 246.

Martens, H. & Hobbs, R. (2015). How media literacy supports civic engagement in a digital age. Atlantic Journal of Communication 23(2), 120 – 137.  DOI:10.1080/15456870.2014.961636

Media Education Lab (2015). Mind Over Media: Analyzing Contemporary Propaganda.


Renee Hobbs is Professor of Communication Studies and Director of the Media Education Lab at the Harrington School of Communication and Media at the University of Rhode Island (USA). She participated in STI's Experts Meeting "What Society Needs from Media in the Age of Digital Communication" held in Oxford (UK) in October, 2013.

Visit Prof. Hobbs expert profile.