Can Your Students Recognize New Forms of Propaganda?

Renee Hobbs Image for EL

Many of us recognize political propaganda when we encounter it at election time. But every day, teachers and students come across new forms of propaganda online. Are your students learning about the many forms of contemporary propaganda, or do they only get access to 20th century examples? In particular, there are two new forms of propaganda that everyone should learn to recognize: trolls and sock-puppets.

Troll is the term used for humans and computer programs that attack people on social media networks like Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Trolls often create multiple identities online to hurl abuse at people or ideas they dislike. Trolls combine intense, emotional messages with the power of personalization to attack opponents. They can irreparably harm people and ideas by spreading lies, distortion, and hate. For example, the Turkish government employed more than 6,000 trolls to organize online lynch mobs against journalists who critiqued the country’s leader.

Automated trolls can redistribute a large volume of messages, helping ideas to “trend” and tricking unsuspecting people into thinking that there is widespread opposition to an idea, when in fact, it’s all bought and paid for by one agent.

Such fake trends can then be amplified by television newscasts and newspapers, which validate the trends further. Because trolls attack opponents to make people think that many people share a certain opinion or belief, trolls can interfere with the process of public discourse and distort the formation of public opinion.

Sock-puppet is the term used to describe the use of a fake online identity, as in a sock pulled over a hand to create a persona. Students may be familiar with the MTV reality show Catfish, which tracks down people who have used fake identities to develop romantic relationships online. These people are sock-puppets.

Sometimes a sockpuppet is an organization that is anonymously funded by a third-party source to create information and transmit messages that align with the organization’s interests and goals. Sockpuppets are often used in politics and business to create the illusion of a widespread opinion about products or social issues among ordinary people. For example, sockpuppets may manipulate Wikipedia content to spread a favorable message for their client. Sockpuppetry is a manipulative way to obscure the political interests of businesses.

Governments sometimes use sockpuppets as well. For example, in 2014, the government of Norway paid $5 million to a nonprofit organization to produce information designed to influence top officials in the White House. The nonprofit organization was serving as the sockpuppet for the Norwegian government, which wanted to convey ideas to U.S. leaders without being on the record for it.

These new forms of propaganda are effective because people are strongly influenced by the opinions of ordinary people. We generally rely on people we respect to

influence our thinking—and we don’t like to go against what we perceive to be the majority view because we might be ostracized.

Propagandists use these normal aspects of human nature to advance their strategic communication goals—and so trolls and sock-puppets contribute to the prevalence of dangerous distortions of information. Such practices bad for democracy, and they are bad for education. That’s why, more than ever, teachers and students need to build media literacy competencies by teaching critical-thinking skills with these forms of contemporary propaganda. Read more about how to teach students to be media literate in my article in the November 2017 issue of Educational Leadership. 

Renee Hobbs ( is a 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, where she co-directs the Graduate Certificate Program in Digital Literacy. Follow her on Twitter @reneehobbs.