As a teacher of first year composition, I believe (like all teachers) that students need to read and be exposed to high-quality, complex arguments written by reputable sources. This seems more important than ever given our recent election in which teachers, academics, and “the media” are decrying our “post-truth” world (Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 “word of the year”) in which the truth is not nearly as important as one’s personal or emotional beliefs. Because most of my students are coming of age in this atmosphere, one of my most important obligations is to expand their knowledge through the use of quality sources. While I never ask my students to personally agree or disagree with what they are reading, we still sit down to evaluate source using a series of quality tests. This test assesses measures including the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy, and purpose (often referred to as the CRAAP test).
In attempting to meet the educational goals that I believe are important for my students, I have often shied away from discussing social media as part of our conversations on source evaluation. This is mostly because I recognize that student knowledge of social media vastly outstrips mine, but it is also because studies have shown that students spend somewhere around fifty minutes a day on Facebook alone, and far more than that behind screens throughout the day (Stewart). Therefore, my previous goal was to move students a bit further away from social media and towards other more critically engaging forms of media.
That goal changed near the end of last year when I was astonished to learn that a majority of Americans get at least some of their news from social media (Gottfried and Shearer). Less astonishing but even more problematic is the fact that some of that news is fake or helps to create echo chambers in which readers fail to see political beliefs and arguments of their opponents. Most of us are versed at least a bit with Eli Pariser’s argument on filter bubbles, in which he points out that websites such as Facebook rely on algorithms to examine the stories users click on (or the stories users closest friends have read) and offers news based upon these clicks in their news feed (37-38). Such a system is increasingly allowing fake news or filter bubbles to proliferate, and can be very damaging to those who do use social media as a primary source of news.
So what is a teacher of media and critical reading and thinking to do? We certainly can’t get our students off of social media, nor do most of us want to – it remains an excellent tool for literacy engagement. However, I am only beginning to wrap my head around how to teach students to be critical readers of social media. Some ideas that I have so far involve going well beyond the CRAAP test – we have to assume students will be well off the beaten path of The New York Times when they are assessing stories. We will have to work with students to pull media and stories from their social media for analysis as a first step. We have to begin to help them understand that their media and forms of literacy matter and can change things as important as an election.
Additionally, my goals for this year are reinforcing student understanding of all news as a product of a creator – someone who may have left out certain facts or viewpoints. We will discuss the biases seen in articles, both those that appear visible and those that may be unconscious. We will have more discussions about power and authority and how both the creator and the audience must see beyond the face value of the message to analyze what issues of power are at play and what the creator has to gain from that production. We will see if we can confirm news on other sites and discuss how these stories have been “spun.” We will talk about the filter bubble and try to unearth examples of it. We will talk about the importance of social media and other platforms as transformative spaces for both professional journalists and for people like students to be creators and transmitters of news and the power and responsibility that this brings. I may also change my end-of-term creative project, traditionally a remixing of an argument essay into a visual form, into one in which they are the creators of social media news and must acknowledge their biases, their audiences, and their power as a creator.
Undoubtedly, developing a curriculum around the new challenges that social media news brings to the classroom will be an ongoing process, as social media certainly changes faster than our teaching can. However, developing such a curriculum is of the utmost importance. Learning to engage productively in social media and Web 2.0 goes well beyond an individual need to develop solid literacy practices, but is also important for an American democracy that prides itself upon first amendment rights of free speech and freedom of the press. As our interaction with media is rapidly changing, we must prepare our students to be thoughtful and engaged readers and thinkers now more than ever. Yet I am hopeful that our students are prepared and excited to face these new media challenges and will work with us to create the type of literacy and media education that they as digital natives need.
Gottfried, Jeffrey and Elisa Shearer. “News Use Across Social Media Platforms 2016.” Pew Research Center, 26 May 2016. http://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/13/2016/05/PJ_2016.05.26_social-media-and-news_FINAL-1.pdf
Pariser, Eli. The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing what We Read and How We Think. New York: Penguin, 2011. Print.
Stewart, James. “Facebook Has 50 Minutes of Your Time Each Day. It Wants More.” The New York Times, 5 May 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/06/business/facebook-bends-the-rules-of-audience-engagement-to-its-advantage.html.