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Cyber Civics Offers Lessons Essential to Future Voters

How to talk to kids about this presidential election is big news (a Google search for this topic yielded 3,650,000 results). Certainly this is important, but personally I’m tired of talking to anybody about this election and more interested in turning the event into one big fat teachable moment that will help these future voters. The past 18 months have vividly demonstrated the pivotal role that media, in all its forms, plays in both shaping public opinion and driving citizens apart from one another. According to Pew Research Center, a majority of U.S. adults—62%—get their news via social media, filling a void left by fewer and fewer newspapers where real editors check for quaint items like facts and truth. In addition to being fed a media diet that includes a generous helping of bull, our consumption is further distorted by social media that largely reinforces our existing worldviews, which is why so many woke up scratching their heads last Wednesday morning. While it’s convenient to blame Mark Zuckerberg for this phenomenon, the truth is we should be smarter about how today’s “media” works, otherwise we find ourselves in a connected world that’s more disconnected than ever. That’s why students need and deserve a relevant civics education that teaches them how citizenship and government is influenced by “media” they will increasingly make and share. Here’s what future voters should know: Future Voters Should Know That With Rights Come Responsibilities. While the First Amendment grants citizens the right to freedom of speech, today more than ever it is important for students to understand that with this right comes a tremendous responsibility. That’s because when we “speak” on social media we potentially reach and influence large invisible audiences. For example, just this week a woman in West Virginia referred to Michelle Obama as “an ape in heels” in a Facebook post that quickly spread across the U.S. and to international media outlets. While the author of the post did apologize, the Internet was not so forgiving. An online petition was quickly circulated and the woman (plus the local mayor who responded favorably to the post) both lost their jobs. This incident provides an excellent example of how important it is to teach students about the responsibility that accompanies the right to free speech.

Future Voters Must Learn “Media Literacy” Skills (this is the ability to be a critical media consumer and producer). In Education Week’s “3 Critical Competencies for the Future - Preparing Students to Thrive in 2020,” author Beth Holland identifies “media literacy” as the first of three critical competencies imperative to a student’s future success. Holland writes,

LIVE video and social media dominated this election. It turned every citizen into an unfiltered, un-fact-checked reporter of political events. Combined with Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, blogs, and even the major media outlets, technology presented a plethora of biased - and unbiased - views that had neither editing nor filtering. This phenomenon gave us an Internet littered with fake news.

Even though Facebook and Google announced they will be cracking down on fake news, Internet users still need to know how to detect and ignore misinformation should they encounter it. This is harder to do than it sounds. For example, this past summer a website that looks entirely legitimate upon first blush—WTOE 5 News—posted that “news outlets around the world” were reporting that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president. I remember seeing this headline in my own Facebook feed and would have believed it had I not been teaching C.R.A.P. Detection lessons to 8th graders for the past seven years. A media literate citizen would know, with a little digging, that WTOE 5 News is actually a fake news site masquerading as local television news outlet. Kids equipped with news filtering skills will be less likely to fall prey to bogus information like this—and that will be good for all of us.

Future Voters Should Understand How “Filter Bubbles” and “Echo Chambers” Work. News and information today is served up to us via social media networks, websites, apps, and more that use algorithms to customize our online experience to our own liking. Because this is still a relatively new thing, “filter bubbles” or “echo chambers” can creep up on unsuspecting Internet users. StoryDisruptive’s Lara Hoefs explains this in “Why the Election Results Shocked Us: Our Blue and Red Bubbles,”

The media landscape which we live in today has created a perfect storm where we all have got lost in either our progressive blue or conservative red filter bubbles. Within each of our bubbles, we not only heard only the things we wanted to hear, but we also shut out what was happening within the opposing bubbles.

It is vital for young Internet users to understand how filter bubbles happen in the first place. They need to know how their online behaviors help create these bubbles via the personal information they provide, the friends and followers they choose and the ones they block. They should know that bubbles are further influenced by click behaviors, location, search history, even “likes” and “shares,” and that all these seemingly innocent actions shape what media serves back. Having this knowledge from the moment they start using the Internet can empower young people to be more proactive in keeping themselves out of these insular bubbles in the first place. Who knows, they may even create better algorithms in the future. That’s Not All There are so many more lessons essential to educating a democratic electorate influenced by its media—that it’s hard to know where to start, but here is a partial list:

  • Recognizing “click bait”

  • Knowing how “data mining” works

  • Identifying stereotypes in media

  • Understanding how images are “photoshopped” or manipulated

  • Recognizing “ads” embedded in news feeds and in search results

Last year, while teaching one of these lessons, I overheard a girl in my class asking another why they had “Algebra” five days per week and “Cyber Civics” only once. “I’ll use these lessons,” she said, “way more.” So What Can YOU Do?

  • Advocate for modern day “civics” to be taught in your school. This includes lessons on media literacy.

  • Remember, every “like” or “share” in social media is akin to a “vote.” Be a responsible citizen and check your sources. Know that your online behaviors shape the information you get. Educate yourself and then explain this to your kids.

  • Comedian John Oliver talks about media literacy in this video (at 9:55). At the end he issues a call to support non-profit organizations whose work is timely and critical. Here are two he missed: The National Association For Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) and Media Literacy Now. Both are headed by passionate leaders who work tirelessly advocating for lessons that teach students to be excellent media consumers and producers. Please help support their work.

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