For the second year in a row, the Faculty of Communication of Vilnius University and IREX have been teaching the course “Journalism in the Age of Disinformation: Information Manipulation in the Digital Age” for future journalists. We invite you to read the conversation with the course developer VU Faculty of Communication doc. dr. V. Denisenko. 

What is the level of students’ readiness to study the course “Journalism in the Age of Disinformation: Information Manipulation in the Digital Age”? How can we measure the competencies of student knowledge “before” and “after” the course, resistance to disinformation? 

Students take a standardized, uniform test before and after the course that demonstrates their knowledge of information literacy and media process comprehension. Student responses are evaluated by our partner IREX, they look at what the responses were before the course, whether they changed, how they changed, whether the students made more mistakes before the course, (in)correctly assessed one thing or another, whether it changed after the course. 

It should be noted that our journalism students learn a lot about the media and their environment from the first year onwards, so the evaluation of basic knowledge and misinformation is usually critical even before this course. The evaluation of students’ media “before” and “after” does not show a bigger change – just because students’ knowledge is already good. Understandably, then, the question arises as to the necessity of this course. I would like to emphasize that the course is about the quality of reliable information, which is extremely important for journalists and journalism students. This course is optional, so it is chosen by students who want to delve into the issues of disinformation and propaganda. 

How is this course different from other subjects taught at VU Faculty of Communication? 

Although journalism students have a regular course on propaganda and disinformation, the key difference is that it discusses propaganda as a phenomenon, its historical origins, etc., and this course, developed according to the IREX methodology, is more focused on current challenges. During lectures and seminars, we try to talk about what is going on here and now. We are talking about journalistic professionalism, what challenges it faces. 

What discoveries await students while attending this course? 

There is a lot of talk about propaganda in the media, but I can assure you that the amount of disinformation and propaganda that students see when they start working with it professionally is enormous – students are stunned. We know that this phenomenon is widespread, but we have little idea how widespread it is, how absurd stories are being developed and disseminated in the information space. I would say this course provides discoveries. Those discoveries may not be fun, but they are important. 

How can students apply the knowledge gained during the course in the field of work / daily life? What practical tasks do students do during the course? 

The essential specificity of this course is that students’ achievements are not assessed by a traditional exam, but by the results of a creative project. Students work together to create a media, a media whose central theme is media literacy, propaganda, and how to counter it. All students who choose this course work as editors of the blog being created. They decide for themselves who will take on the responsibilities of the editor-in-chief, the editor-in-chief has deputies and so on. Students do all the work themselves, and as a teacher, I only perform the function of an evaluator, I do not interfere in their work, but I comment, I evaluate the quality of published material (texts, videos, webcasts), I give advice on how to improve some things. During the course, students perform clear practical work that is related to the study program they are studying. They work in journalism and will hopefully apply their skills in their professional careers. 

Of course, disinformation and propaganda are relevant challenges for society, not just for journalists, so during the course we talk about the challenges we face in our daily lives as well. Students are beginning to have a clearer understanding of how people who are not confronted with this, and who do not have specific professional knowledge, respond to the media to explain the challenges and issues of propaganda to them. 

What impact can disinformation and propaganda have on interpersonal relationships? 

We all have friends, acquaintances, relatives who may believe in conspiracy theories, sometimes falling victim to disinformation and propaganda. During the course, I see that this is becoming a pressing challenge. The challenge is quite sensitive because we are talking about family relationships, with parents, with grandparents. In this course, we try to find answers on how to talk to someone whose thinking is affected by harmful information. Of course, there is no easy answer to this question – we are all trying to find ways and principles together. 

How do you talk to people who believe in media outlets affected by propaganda and disinformation? 

Talking to those who believe in conspiracy theories is exceedingly difficult. Where is the problem if a person believes in conspiracy theories? When you start talking to a person and try to convince him that it is nonsense, he incorporates you into his conspiracy theory, begins to think that he does not accept the conspiracy theory because he has his own interests or some mysterious force behind you, and so on. The advice is quite simple, try not to convince the conspiracy theory to be nonsense, but to show him alternative information for the person to think about. It is important to show the internal logical contradictions of conspiracy theory. It is more effective than simply saying that the conspiracy theory is wrong or stupid, because then a person immediately takes a defensive position, not wanting to listen. 

Is the course planned to be further developed (taught in the autumn semester of 2022/23)? 

The course has been running for the second year and will continue to be taught. Whoever puts it in, I hope to keep the traditions created during the course. 

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