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Ich bin ein censor? State Department-German collaboration promotes misinformation cops in schools

U.S. Embassy in Berlin funded similar activities as those that got State Department's Global Engagement Center in trouble with Republican lawmakers. One curriculum punished kids for considering COVID lab-leak theory.

Published: January 18, 2024 11:00pm

The State Department loves video games – at least those that appear to train children to parrot the agency's preferred narratives.

The U.S. Embassy in Berlin funded similar activities as the agency's Global Engagement Center (GEC), each using "inoculation theory" to metaphorically vaccinate the public against disinformation and promote private groups that police so-called "wrong-think."

That's according to a sprawling investigation by the conservative Media Research Center, which posted select portions of materials it obtained through Freedom of Information Act and state public records requests, as well as from overlooked public sources.

Republican lawmakers are investigating the department for GEC's funding of the U.K.-based Global Disinformation Index, which in 2022 released a report on what it considered the 10 riskiest online news outlets for disinformation. All of those on the list were conservative or libertarian leaning, which critics say was an attempt to blacklist them and cut off advertising dollars. 

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton is suing the State Department for allegedly interfering with Texas law through its efforts with GDI and the U.S.-based fact-checking group NewsGuard.

Secretary Antony Blinken also told staff abroad to promote the GEC-funded game "Cat Park," which teaches children to treat populism as disinformation, in local schools.

The embassy's public affairs section, meanwhile, sponsored seminars for European Union-funded organizations whose curricula promote anti-misinformation video games and instruct children to promote "social justice." 

They include lessons by Konstantin von Notz, a German Green Party politician who oversees the nation's intelligence agencies, helped lead the youth-focused "No Hate Speech Movement" and pushed through a public-funding ban on a popular opposition party, MRC said.

The purported misinformation includes the legitimacy of the COVID-19 lab-leak theory, now favored by the FBI and Department of Energy as more plausible than the wet-market theory.

The seminars, coordinated with the University of Rhode Island’s Media Education Lab, promoted products for NewsGuard and Ad Fontes Media, both of which rate the purported reliability of news media but like GDI overwhelmingly ding right-leaning sources.

"The State Department provided a perfect demonstration of the Rhode Island Lab’s ability and the resources it could bring to the table," MRC said in its report. The agency didn't respond to Just the News queries.

The "Medialogues on Propaganda" effort is documented in the URI lab's final report, which says more than 700 educators participated in seminars from June 2021 to April 2022. It was designed to help teach media literacy in response to "new forms of propaganda and disinformation [that] are compromising the quality of people’s democratic decision making." 

It gives case studies of teachers who incorporated the training into their own school districts, including Florida's Palm Beach County, where students were directed to use the Ad Fontes "Media Bias Chart" in a "game-based activity utilizing Minecraft to build media literacy, social emotional learning, and English proficiency skills for English Language Learners." 

"Multiple educators who gave testimonials on the Ad Fontes website appear to have not divulged their use of the censorship tool to their employers," MRC said.

Other participants included the University of Wurzburg's Media Education and Educational Technology Lab, which virtually hosted the seminars, and Media Literacy Now, a U.S. nonprofit that advocates "systemic change in K-12 education," promotes and tracks state-level media-literacy legislation and served as the "fiscal agent for this project." 

MLN and Ad Fontes have a "strategic affiliation" that includes sharing personnel and MLN receiving 10% of Ad Fontes "Media News Nerd and News Nurturer Memberships." MLN then "pressure[s] school districts into purchasing Ad Fontes products," but their connections were left out of each group's presentations during the seminars, MRC said.

Never defined in the final report, the term "media literacy" is "nebulous and amorphous, providing Media Literacy Now and the Rhode Island Lab cover when they need to obfuscate their agenda," MRC's investigation said.

It obtained a fundraising pitch from MLN that called media literacy "the only antidote to misinformation," invoking "widely misrepresented" information about COVID, "racial justice, and even a presidential election."

A poster reading "ACAB," meaning "All Cops Are Bastards," is visible in an image from a racial justice protest that MLN used as the header for its summer 2020 newsletter.

The group is aware of the potential optics of its message, as illustrated by a 2022 exchange between MLN President Erin McNeill and the URI lab's founder Renee Hobbs, also a member of MLN's advisory council.

McNeill asked Hobbs to "steer away from" language in a "position statement" Hobbs helped draft for the National Council of Teachers of English that called on educators to "identify and disrupt the inequalities of contemporary life, including structural racism, sexism, consumerism, and economic injustice," so that students become "empowered change agents."

"It stirs up opposition that is not necessary, because it becomes evident they [NCTE] have an agenda beyond literacy," McNeill wrote, pointing to negative attention to the statement in The Washington Post. Yet McNeill herself characterized a Texas media-literacy law as "censorship of teachers" because it didn't force students to take 1619 Project lessons.

Another seminar featured Berlin-based Tactical Tech, which receives EU funding and partners with the Goethe Institute, the German government's cultural institute; European Schoolnet, composed of dozens of education ministries; and six nonprofits funded by progressive megadonor George Soros's Open Society Foundations.

The URI lab's final report describes the presentation by Tactical Tech's Daisy Kidd. She touted its Data Detox Kit, which promotes NewsGuard's plug-in and EU's brochure that describes the "anti-vaccination movement and climate change denialism" as "[p]seudoscience and conspiracy theories [that] certainly enjoy each others [sic] company." 

Kidd promoted another Tactical Tech curriculum called The Glass Room, which describes the "frictionless design" of social media platforms as a boon to misinformation and faulted Telegram especially for "unlimited sharing" and no content moderation. One of its interactive games penalized students for giving credence to the lab-leak theory – that COVID leaked from China's Wuhan Institute of Virology. 

Yet another EU-funded group, MEET Tolerance, got a seminar to tout its curriculum "that increases aware use of media among economically and socially disadvantaged youth (aged 13-19), including migrants and refugees." 

A lesson targeting older students says that "usually" those denying they are racist "share clearly racist opinions" and recommends a book with an unambiguous title: "The New Racism: Conservatives and the Ideology of the Tribe."

A seminar participant who became "affiliated faculty" with the URI lab created a "Justice in Your Backyard" program in her northern Washington school district that MRC called "eerily similar to MEET Tolerence’s [sic] 'media producers' scheme." 

It teaches students to "find and use credible sources" to "create a message that will inspire a call to action when it comes to topics of social justice!"

Students created projects soliciting donations for gun-control and youth transgender advocacy groups, criticizing measures that conservatives promote as election integrity, and calling on peers to demand police-free schools.

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