Trumpaganda: Class in session

University of Illinois to launch eight-week course on Trump’s use of Twitter, attacks on ‘fake news’

 President Trump at the U.S. Steel Granite City Works this summer, where he pointed to media reporters in the back and called them “fake news.” (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

President Trump at the U.S. Steel Granite City Works this summer, where he pointed to media reporters in the back and called them “fake news.” (One Illinois/Ted Cox)

By Ted Cox

Students at the state’s flagship public university are going to get a chance to study how President Trump uses the media for propaganda purposes.

Trumpaganda: The War on Facts, Press and Democracy is an advanced eight-week Journalism 460 course launching Oct. 22 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Taught by Associate Professor Mira Sotirovic, the weekly class “examines the Trump administration’s disinformation campaign, its ‘running war’ with the mainstream news media, and their implications for American democracy and a free press,” according to the course description.

“Previous American administrations have had a contentious relationship with the news media,” the course allows, “but the Trump administration’s conflict with the press is different in strategies and tactics, challenging Americans’ tendency to think of propaganda as something that doesn’t happen in democratic societies.”

“Propaganda is effective only if it is concealed and camouflaged as something else, such as news, advertisements or PR releases,” Sotirovic told the Daily Illini for a story published Monday, “and it is critical to learn how to detect propaganda and recognize propagandistic features of any communication, including presidential.”

Sotirovic joined Northwestern University colleague Christopher Benson in writing a chapter titled “Donald Trump ‘Tells You What He Thinks’” for the recent collection “Communication in the Age of Trump.”

Returning to the 2016 election, they found, “Trump’s populist campaign message expressed in tough talk was among many reasons for his electoral victory, creating an impression that Trump ‘tells you what he thinks,’ even when those messages had racist and sexist overtones.”

It cites the use of political code words and phrases going back decades: “Politicians have long exploited double talk to trigger racial sentiments, such as Barry Goldwater’s ‘law and order,’ Ronald Reagan’s ‘welfare queen’ and ‘war on drugs,’ George H. W. Bush’s ‘tough on crime,’ Bill Clinton’s ending of ‘welfare as we know it’ and Newt Gingrich’s labeling of Obama as a ‘food stamp president,’ without mentioning race.”

Quoting from Trump’s debates with Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton, the article draws attention to Trump’s use of code words and phrases like “law and order,” “stop and frisk,” and “illegal immigrants,” even as he demonized Chicago and threw Clinton’s own coinage “super-predators” back in her face. It eventually concludes: “Despite his overt denials, Trump’s dog whistle message is getting through.”

The article also draws on the Facebook comments on CNN’s page “that were most repeated, shared, or propagated by bots.”

One Illinois was one of the journalists outlets called “fake news” by Trump in his appearance in Granite City this summer, and we have also drawn attention to trollbots and phony accounts on Facebook.

Just Monday, in a Florida appearance, Trump suggested “stop and frisk” for Chicago and lauded police officers — without mentioning Friday’s murder conviction for Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke.

The course expands on that line of thinking and carries it into the present day. It also figures to concentrate on Trump’s unconventional use of social media like Twitter.

“As a candidate, Trump employed the most common propaganda device, name-calling, to define, degrade, discredit and destroy his primary opponents as well as the ‘fake’ news media,” the course description says. “By the second year in his presidency, President Trump’s rhetorical attacks on mainstream media continue — he has labeled them the ‘enemy of the people’ — and not only dominate his tweets but also are a centerpiece of his every press conference and public statement.”

Stephanie Craft, head of the Journalism Department in the College of Media, told the Daily Illini she thinks of it as one of the “pop-up courses” the college is offering “of interest to the broader university community, not just journalism majors.”