Opening remarks for Media And Society

Classes started this week at Lehigh. Every year I teach at least one section of our introductory course, COMM 001 Media And Society. I still think of it as some of my most urgent work. It exists to help students understand the business of media, how it’s structured, and its powerful way of influencing, well, everything. In a time of disinformation and danger, the work is even more important. What follows is a Zoom transcript of my short introduction on syllabus day, edited for grammar and clarity.

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So this morning I was thinking about a couple different things that are disconnected and yet particularly relevant to why I’m teaching this class and why I think this class is important for you to take. I come to you this morning with a sense of urgency, because our democracy in the U.S. is in peril.

The first thread is some of the aftermath of the Capitol riots here in United States. On the sixth of January, we had a group of people turn up for a protest at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, DC. and then they decided to take their protests over the barricades and inside of the building. Members of Congress, gathered to count the certified votes from the recent presidential election, had to evacuate the chamber and put the capital on lockdown. The security fences that they’ve had to erect in the aftermath remain there, to this day, because we finally are waking up to the long-term problem with homegrown white nationalist terrorism we have long had in this country.

Now, this is not a political science class, but this is a communication course and one of the things that we are going to talk about in this class is extremism online and how the events of January 6 — if you were paying attention to the news, if you were aware of the kinds of things that were happening in online groups on social networks in Facebook and so forth — were the places not only where these groups forming, but also where they were circulating disinformation to recruit and radicalize others.

They were circulating disinformation that was related to conspiracy theories, outright lies, and there was a whole lot of manufactured media distrust built into some of those groups. And so the seeds the seeds of that moment on January 6, were planted years ago. It is the media angle that will be covered this class.

We will talk about how you should have seen this coming. I was in a class last semester where we talked about QAnon. Some of you may have heard of Q. It’s an online conspiracy theory that has been growing on the Internet since 2017. Several of my classes have tried to focus on the movement, where it was forming, and how it’s grown to the point where you should be able to spot it in the wild if you know what to look for. When Q paraphernalia started showing up among the Capitol rioters on January 6, it was not a surprise to me. I saw this coming because, because I was aware of the media environment that a lot of these folks were living in and what it was doing to them — and us — long term.

The second thread I’ve been thinking about this morning came from surfing Facebook last week. I’ve been seeing some discussion on the side from some people I know and their friends about the COVID vaccine for months now, and it got really bad this past week. In this case, I was thinking about a post from a college friend of mine who got the vaccine.

About three weeks ago they posted a nice report saying, “Hey, I got my second shot it had no side effects and really excited to have this,” and then watched as the downstream comments turned negative and conspiracy-minded in a hurry. “I don’t trust corporations with this thing,” or “It isn’t going to work,” or “Bill Gates is going to be tracking me because he’s been funding vaccine research,” and so forth. And so we’re dealing again with distrust, conspiracy theories, distrust in the media and in the news.

Some of the commenters, I sometimes take a look because I know them peripherally. Many are in the very age group we’re trying to protect. They are the old or people with major illnesses that make them susceptible. They are people without health insurance and frontline essential workers. People who are much more susceptible to the worst effects of this virus.

I think about these situations as the great paradox of our time, one that we will pick at all semester in this class: We have more information at our fingertips than any other generation in human history right now and yet we cannot agree on basic facts in society.

And the results are disastrous. The U.S., with all its wealth, technology and know-how, is royally screwing up its handling of COVID. It’s unthinkable and yet unsurprising if you know anything about the state of information and news in the U.S. in 2021.

It’s not just COVID, though. There are long term consequences to the health of our democracy and our ability to self-govern if we cannot figure out a way to not only come up with a common definition for what trust and verification looks like, but also to decide what is a source that is junk versus one is to be trusted. So the early part of this class we’re going to be talking a lot about media platforms and the places information comes from. We’ll talk about methods of persuasion so forth, but the second half of this class is largely devoted to some of the some of the downhill effects of our polluted information ecosystem. That’s the “society” part of Media And Society.

I’ve read your survey responses as they have been coming in. Many of you have said you’re really interested in this idea about media and its effect on us, and a lot of you are thinking narrowly about its effect on yourselves. But I want you to step back and see the bigger “us,” not just as this community in this class, but also as a wider member of society. The society you live in, or the society that you decided to live in when you came to Bethlehem.

You are part of a larger collective. Whether you’re the kind of person who’s going to buy into an online conspiracy theory or not, you have neighbors who do you and you have friends who do. It has effects and impacts on us, and we are all in this together. If the pandemic has made nothing else clear, it’s that our fates are linked.

So I have found this class to become much more of an urgent thing that I teach with each passing year since I started in 2009, because the questions have gotten more serious.

There are things we have to figure out really quickly, as these products grow and get sprung on us, deployed without our consent and take over large pockets of discussion and society. We are affected by these things, even if we don’t choose to use them. So I want to give you tools this semester, to be able to figure out answers to some basic questions:

  1. What is news?
  2. What is good versus bad news?
  3. What is fake news, something that people say a lot but often don’t really know what they’re talking about?
  4. What are some of the ways in which we can figure out how to build verification and trust, and I think more importantly, how do we build bridges to people who don’t get it?

There’s a real systemic problem that we’re going to be unpacking and have you talking a lot about. From online white nationalism to hate groups, we’re going to be talking a lot about the ways in which they spread information and use platforms to amplify and build and recruit.

In the second half of this class, this will get a lot more real, but I want to make this class as relevant as possible to the moment, and so we are going to be doing a lot of that work as we go.

Yes, we will be talking about fun things like your finstas and your pet Instagram that you run as a side hustle and your Snap streak.

Things like that.

But we’re also going to talk about some deeper heavier issues, and because this is a social science class that links up to things like sociology, psychology, and political science. You’re going to find that this class will straddle multiple fields.

My hope is that you will find something here that is interesting, that you can take with you as you go forward whether you’re planning on majoring in journalism or you’re just really interested in that topic. There will be something for everyone, it will be relevant, and I hope we can get to work now in thinking about ways we’re going to help fix the problems society is facing.

Jeremy Littau is an associate professor of journalism at Lehigh University. Follow him on Twitter.

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