This post is a guest post by Jonathan Supovitz, co-director of the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (cpre.org) and a professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education.
When Donald Trump used Twitter as a key part of his political campaign, education policymakers must have wondered what role social media would play in the new political environment. Some important clues can be found in an analysis of the Common Core debate on Twitter, just released by the Consortium for Policy Research in Education on an accessible, visually engaging and interactive website (www.hashtagcommoncore.com). After all, the Common Core is the first major education policy to come to life in the social media age. The previous major reform, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), was signed into law in 2002, before the first Like on Facebook (2004), before the first video upload on YouTube (2005) and before the first tweet on Twitter (2006).
Our investigation of the Common Core examined nearly one million tweets by almost 190,000 distinct actors from September 2013 to April 2016. This encompassed the key period during 2014-2015 when public support for the standards was declining and becoming increasingly partisan. The website investigates major trends in action over time, the key events that caused spikes in activity, the psychology of the major factions and the strategies of the most influential participants.
We found that social activists from outside of education, whom we call the activist public, increasingly came to dominate the Common Core debate on Twitter. Rather than focusing on the merits of the standards themselves, their exchanges on Twitter largely reflected a proxy war over other politically-charged education issues, like opposition to a federal role in education, a fear of data mining, opposition to testing and the role of for-profit business in the public sector.
Perhaps a harbinger of the new era, the activist public did not feature members of the more established interest groups and think tanks that have long sought to influence educational policy, but rather, were more ideologically driven grassroots individuals who used a range of savvy technological and social network strategies to interact and reverberate their messages through the Twittersphere.
Our work points to three important trends that are reflected in the story of the Common Core on Twitter. First, the way in which information is produced and publicized in society is undergoing a dramatic transformation. Comparing the media environment of the NCLB decade and the Common Core era is illustrative. During the implementation of NCLB, the professional media was increasingly splintered. Cable TV gave rise to news channels with both conservative (i.e. Fox News) and liberal (i.e. MSNBC) slants that courted different audiences. Reporting of events increasingly blended with the opinions of pundits and surrogates. Yet, even as this splintering of the media occurred, there remained a professional media which were the ‘official’ sources of information disseminated to Americans.
The rise of social media has changed the landscape in profound ways. Stories that become ‘news’ are increasingly introduced into the public’s consciousness through unverified alternative sources via the internet and social media. This loosening of the hold of the professional media has led to broader reporting of activity and events, but also has the effect of increasing unsubstantiated, exaggerated and even outright fake news stories. In our investigations of Twitter activity on the Common Core, we identified numerous questionable online ‘news’ organizations, which used this legitimacy to push particular ideological slants. For better and worse, the information spigot has opened wider, but what comes out is often wholly unfiltered.
Second, fueled by technology, the strategies of advocacy groups are becoming increasingly powerful. Our analyses uncovered several clever technology-based dissemination strategies by advocates – such as BotNets that integrated robo-tweeting approaches and social network tactics, and hashtag rallies that brought people together online to get a topic trending – which demonstrate the growing sophistication of advocates as they capitalize on the social and technological power of networking mediums. These strategies help to explain how the opponents of the standards came to dominate the political conversation and contributed towards turning the tide of public opinion.
Third, the audiences that consume “content” are becoming increasingly segmented. One consequence of the customization of information sources and the increased sophistication of advocacy strategists is that they offer people easily consumable materials that reinforce their prior beliefs and protect them from discordant views. People naturally gravitate towards those who hold similar perspectives to their own and, in a world of choice, we are attracted to information sources that are popular with the people with whom we are most comfortable. The internet and social media have exacerbated this phenomenon to the point that we may now be living in a world where members of different sub-communities get most of their information and share their own ideas only with people who hold similar beliefs. This fragmentation into homogeneous subgroups is a sort of voluntary social segregation that reifies prevailing beliefs.
The splintering of people’s personal, political and cultural experiences provides us with fewer opportunities to be exposed to the ideas and views of others – the very thing that makes us more understanding of different perspectives. In fact, there is abundant research to show that people who only interact with those who share similar views become more polarized in their perspectives, regardless of whether they are liberal or conservative, than those who have opportunities to hear alternative viewpoints.
In this environment, we must ask what are the institutions that create the common experiences that bring our diverse perspectives us together as a collective nation. Politics might be one, but increasingly the information we get about civics, which shapes our views about issues and candidates, is not shared. We might think of popular culture or sporting events as unifiers, but these do not exactly provide an opportunity to share diverse views. Jury duty is certainly one of the few remaining civic duties where we engage with a cross section of different people from society. And the only other area that I can think of where the polyglot of Americans come together for a shared experience is public education. Public education may be one of the last bulwarks against the disintegration of the body politic.