Tom Cowin PhD Student, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex
Rob Dickinson, PhD Student, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex
Prager University is a leading organisation of free online educational information… or is it? PragerU is a registered 501(c)3 organization that promotes far-right politics and it is by no means a university. The deceptive nomenclature is one of many tactics deployed by PragerU to misinform and manipulate the American populace into far-right radicalisation. Rob Dickinson and Tom Cowin, co-founders of the FRAMES Project (a research project based at the University of Sussex that studies far-right propaganda), discuss their developing research and their recommendations for taking action against misinformation.
Searching “what is critical race theory?” on Google or Youtube brings up many explanatory videos. Nestled in amongst John Oliver, PBS, the Washington Post, and Reuters is a video with a pleasing pastel thumbnail and chunky graphics, from what appears, at first glance, to be a university––PragerU.
PragerU, however, is not an accredited institution of higher learning. Rather, it is a non-profit media platform instrumentalising university branding and credibility to peddle far-right propaganda. It invites unassuming viewers, its prospective “students,” to learn from authoritative presenters about important contemporary issues like the debates around critical race theory. Underneath this slick veneer, PragerU explicitly works to manipulate its audiences. Our forthcoming article, “CRT-Reactionism and the Role of PragerU in a Contemporary Moral Panic,” will discuss how PragerU’s manipulation serves to radicalise unsuspecting viewers and explicitly encourage them to participate in the far-right moral panic over the teaching of critical race theory in public schools. With an annual budget reaching $50 million and over five billion views, PragerU represents a threat, spreading misinformation throughout the US. Its presenters are drawn from the length and breadth of the American right, bringing together Reaganites, Neocons, Tea Partiers, Trumpists, and those even further right.
PragerU and the Far-Right
PragerU legitimises mainstream and extreme presenters alike by giving them the same platform, the same branding, and access to the same wide audience. This allows viewers to sleepwalk from the centre-right to the furthest margins, all without leaving PragerU’s channel. We introduced PragerU to academia in our initial article on PragerU and its role in radicalising the US
(“The Kids Are Alt-Right”). In that article, we demonstrated PragerU’s centralised position within the right-wing media system, disseminating (mis)information on everything from Israel-Palestine, biographies of key figures from America’s past, trans rights, and, of course, critical race theory.
In our forthcoming publication, we argue that analysing PragerU’s content is one of the best case studies for understanding far-right methods to incubate CRT panic. The methods we’ll examine are PragerU’s wide-reaching, relentless advertising, as well as its position between mainstream and extreme content. Together, these factors lend PragerU immense agenda-setting capabilities. This, combined with the organisation’s primary platform for disseminating information––YouTube––PragerU strips complex topics down to the bare essentials to drive moral panic. As a result, PragerU’s 5-minute video series offers distilled versions of the far-right’s arguments and central talking points.
By analyzing PragerU’s strategies and methods, we’ve found that PragerU mobilises panic by constructing an “American orthodoxy” ideology and presenting left-wing politics and issues as deviant. In doing so, Prager U indirectly encourages viewers to embrace and defend this orthodox ideology and reject supposedly radical and deviant leftist politics. This pushes viewers further to the right. In the case of the moral panic around CRT in public schools, PragerU’s orthodoxy is constructed by:
- mythologising history through a far-right narrative as the only legitimate telling of America’s past
- individualising history to erase the success of collective action
- fear-mongering about the supposed deviant left.
We explore these processes in more depth in our forthcoming article, which will soon be published on a preprint server as it undergoes the arduous journey of publication.
A key takeaway from this article is the significant threat PragerU poses to US public education. The original intent of PragerU was to replace supposedly leftist universities, which it labels as “indoctrination centers.” PragerU’s efforts thus far have been two-pronged, by seeking to use its content to 1) shift K-12 and university curricula and 2) appeal to young audiences.
PragerU’s first and most consistent tactic has been to try and get their content into schools and universities. In its earlier years, PragerU’s target audience was teenagers (middle schoolers to college freshmen), and this demographic remains the ideal viewers of the core 5-Minute videos. PragerU’s relentless advertising still targets this demographic––as we ourselves know only too well from their personal experience of being bombarded with PragerU ads.
But PragerU’s target demographic has been getting steadily younger. In recent years, PragerU has hired “influencers” to target Gen-Z youth. Even more worrying, PragerU has recently
introduced content that directly targets children and encourages parents to homeschool using PragerU-approved materials and curricula. This new style of content includes cartoons, arts and crafts (“make your own American flag!”), and game shows. PragerU also produces its own Resources for Educators and Parents (PREP). They even provide a sample anti-CRT policy for parents to take to PTA meetings. More information on this aspect of PragerU is available in our recent blog post for the Human Restoration Project, “The Alt-Education Pipeline: PragerU.”
The FRAMES Project
In 2020, we founded the FRAMES Project to study far-right propaganda in the United States, with a specific focus on PragerU. This project began as a result of the incessant far-right targeted advertising we experienced. For Rob, it was clear that he was being targeted as a young white man who enjoys video games and YouTube––profiling him as someone ripe for radicalisation. The manipulation was ham-fisted and deeply annoying. Since Rob was interested in the far-right as a researcher and held personal beliefs quite far from the right, he was able to spot the manipulation and avoid it. Unfortunately, such advertising generally works well for PragerU, as it continues to spend nearly $10 million annually on new adverts. PragerU has even become the shorthand, a cultural signifier, for annoying, unwanted advertising among online forums.
As for Tom, who hails from the UK, his experience has been eerily similar. While PragerU has, thus far, focused on the US, it invokes British presenters, utilising the authority of British accents and the British empire to legitimise its brand. PragerU counts among its presenters Nigel Farage and Douglas Murray, both British conservatives. PragerU inhabits a niche corner of the American media that is tabloid-esque at times. However, similar kinds of misinformation, manipulation, and rightward radicalism are built into the mainstream UK media apparatus. One important distinction is that tabloids in the UK provide a veneer of entertainment rather than a co-opting educational and learning agenda, as attempted by PragerU.
The differences between PragerU and UK media pale in comparison to their similarities. Critical race theory is frequently co-opted on the UK side of the Atlantic, with familiar attacks leveraged against “woke universities” who unjustly demand that professors “decolonise maths” curricula. In the context of empire (and Britain’s inability to reconcile with its imperial past), talk of decolonising is seen as an attack on British identity, just as it is in the US. Here too, we can identify the same dynamics that PragerU exploits. According to the Statue Defenders, there is only one true history of the British empire, and critical race theory is a dangerous idea pushed by insidious liberals who seek to undermine the social order.
As we continue to study these techniques in multiple contexts, we are increasingly aware of how common these tactics are in our daily lives. From headlines about “woke universities,” to the advertising that bombards us between (and increasingly within!) recipe videos on YouTube, our lives are saturated by attempts to grab our attention. These tactics seek to change our emotional state and produce particular political actions. The American (and British) media landscape holds deep corporate interests, as well as far-right and liberal biases which impact the way we see (or are prevented from seeing) current events and contemporary politics.
 Statue Defenders are far-right counter demonstrators in the UK who frequently gather at Black Lives Matter protests. They position themselves between protestors and statues erected to memorialise British historical figures, such as Winston Churchill, who contributed to the oppression of Black, Indigenous, and people of the global majority.
Information Literacy as Resistance
Only through media and information literacy can we begin to recognise and interrupt the onslaught of misinformation. Critical information literacy is when people learn:
- about forms of manipulation
- how to recognise credible information
- how to identify trustworthy sources
- to question the information they receive
When information literacy is learned and applied, society will be far more resilient to misinformation. The American Library Association defines information literacy as the ability to “recognize when information is needed and… to locate, evaluate, and [effectively use] the needed information.” Information literacy is a direct and actionable way to defend yourself against manipulation.
PragerU and, more broadly, the right are identifying new political targets, and it is intentionally cultivating new moral panic. As alluded to above, the rights and lives of trans and non-binary people are a favourite target of the right, along with CRT. As such, learning to critically engage with media, diffusing moral panic, and building networks of solidarity are perhaps the most important tasks for the left today. Fortunately, ever-expanding online resource libraries exist to help individuals to develop their media and information literacy.
Coming Up Next…
Our first article on PragerU has been approved for publication in Patterns of Prejudice, a peer-reviewed academic journal dedicated to the study of historical and contemporary intolerance and social exclusion. Our second article on PragerU’s contributions to moral panic around CRT is in the process of publication, and we are writing a third article on PragerU’s contributions to the anti-vax movement and conspiracy theories surrounding COVID-19.
Most importantly, we are thrilled to be working on the first-ever academic volume on PragerU and its role in far-right radicalisation. A cohort of authors has been assembled, with production slated to begin in early summer 2023. Furthermore, we are delighted to announce that Stephanie Birch and Dr. Anthony Dunbar of the CRTcollective will be collaborators on this project, contributing a key chapter on the role of racial identities within PragerU’s radicalisation.
“Information Literacy.” American Library Association.
Dickinson, Robert and Tom Cowin. “The Kids Are Alt-Right: An Introduction to PragerU and Its Role in Radicalization in the United States.” Social Science Research Network, 10 Dec. 2021.
Dickinson, Robert, et al. “CRT-Reactionism and the Role of PragerU in a Contemporary Moral Panic.” forthcoming.
Antiracist Praxis & Critical Information Literacy. American University Library.
Dickinson, Robert and Tom Cowin. “The Alt-Education Pipeline: PragerU.” Human Restoration Blog, 20 Aug. 2022.
Tewell, Eamon. Putting Critical Information Literacy into Context: How and Why Librarians Adopt Critical Practices in Their Teaching. In the Library with the Lead Pipe, 16 Oct. 2016.
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About the Authors
Tom Cowin holds an MLitt. in International Political Theory and an MA (Hons) in International Relations and Modern History from the University of St Andrews. He is an Associate Fellow of the Higher Education Academy and separately holds a Level 5 Qualification in Leadership & Management. He is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the University of Sussex, researching the Tea Party and Occupy movements, far-right politics, and neoliberalism. Tom is a co-founder of the Far-Right Radicalisation in Alternative Media Sources (FRAMES) Project at the University of Sussex.
Rob Dickinson is an International Relations, Geography, International Development, and Policy professional with six years of academic experience in research, management, teaching, communication, and project management/administration. He is a Ph.D. candidate in International Relations at the University of Sussex, researching the Trump Administration and its relationship to neoliberalism. Rob is a co-founder of the Far-Right Radicalisation in Alternative Media Sources (FRAMES) Project at the University of Sussex.