September 25, 2017

Private Twitter and Snapchat: the New Facilitator for Controversial Conversations in High School

In the last few years, I've witnessed the growth of social media as a tool for students to express controversial opinions in high schools, a trend that teachers, administrators, and parents need to be more proactive about addressing.

This blog post from Jodi Pickering inspired me to articulate my own thoughts on student conversations on social media. Her post, titled Red State, Blue State, is about her pen pal's project from students in schools with drastically different political bends. It's a great assignment, and a post worth reading. But I want to reflect specifically about this line buried in the penultimate paragraph, "I am told that there was a long group Snapchat last night, but no one will give me specifics. They exchange looks that imply that the details are not something I want to know."

I've been in that same position, where I know students have seen or expressed controversial opinions on political and social issues on social media, and I'm not privy to the details. This makes those controversial topics hard to cover in my classroom for a number of reasons. First, we're not all starting from the same point. In terms of what's been posted, some students know more than others, and all of them know more than I do. Second, it means that many of the students have already taken sides on any given issue via those online posts that have already occurred. Most of them know where their classmates stand before anyone has answered a question or offered an opinion in class. When students have already voiced support for a side and know they have support, it's harder to listen to others, compromise or change opinions.  And other students are less likely to engage a student who has already staked out a position.

Fundamentally, I believe students should have as many controversial conversations as possible face-to-face and--if we can swing it--with an adult present. I feel fortunate that that's how I learned how to articulate opinions supported by evidence, how to debate, and how to disagree civilly. Through conversation, I figured out how I felt about contentious issues. After all, it's essential to productive conversation to be able to witness someone's facial expressions, see them process information, and hear their tone. Those conversations promote empathy and understanding. And it's crucial to have an informed mediator present to help facilitate a fair and civil conversation. If those conversations take place in the classroom, teachers can push students to use evidence and find common ground. But that's not what's happening.

Instead, students are using Snapchat and private Twitter to discuss controversial issues. Here's how that tends to go: something controversial happens at school or in the world. For example, a student (or group of students) takes a stand on the issue in a public setting or in a public post of their own. Then other students react to it by responding to the individual or posting their own commentary to the individual's post. On Snapchat, that can happen semi-publicly with Snapchat stories or privately with Snapchat groups. On Twitter, that often happens via "private Twitter"--smaller Twitter networks where students only follow their close friends and only let their close friends follow them.

Here's one example to help you understand this process. A campus club did a presentation on Flint's water crisis where they mentioned and explained the term "environmental racism." Before the students arrived at my class five minutes later, there was already a meme circulated on Twitter and Snapchat by students who ridiculed the concept of environmental racism and their classmates who worked to raise awareness, writing "the trees are racist."

When this happened, I was incredibly disappointed. First, I was upset with the content of the post. It showed students were ill-informed and unwilling to listen to their peers and become informed.  Second, I was upset by the us vs. them mentality that resulted from the meeting and was enhanced by the posts. Before anyone had considered the topic thoughtfully, each student had staked a position by  "liking" the post.  It's hard to get students to reconsider their position through instruction and discussion once they've connected themselves to the cause on social media. Third, I was upset that this all happened digitally rather than face-to-face. Digital interaction allows students to run to their own polarized network with friends who are more likely to support them. And finally, I was upset that no adults in the building were aware of these posts, let alone hosting a conversation to help students articulate their opinions (in more than just a meme-style post) and respond to one another civilly. This whole event makes me wonder how frequently these topics come up and are hashed out online amongst our students without us adults having any idea it's happening.

Unfortunately, there are a number of other triggers that make students gravitate towards networks of like-minded peers to address contentious issues, all of which are bad for our school community.  For example, sometimes our school rolls out a policy that students disagree with and post about online. Our school has shut down student T-shirt ideas, modified themed dress-down days, and opposed national political decisions; these actions have resulted in angry, uncivil posts where students blame others (usually via subtweet) for being the reason something got changed or shut down. Other times, these controversies come from national politics or current events, for instance from Snap's Discover feature.

No matter how these controversial conversations start, having them online is dangerous to our school community. Obviously these online conversations are polarizing in a way that echoes the national problem social media has exacerbated; like-minded individuals are talking to one another. But even within polarized networks, disputes handled online often result in the loudest, most extreme voice being amplified. Online there's little room for complexity or nuance. It's not like people who have a complex understanding of a topic are eagerly posting in private Twitter. Private Twitter is for clashing through 140 characters or less. That often results in the loudest, most extreme, but often unreasoned, voices being amplified with "likes" even if those liking the post don't agree with it in its entirety. On the other hand, in face-to-face conversations--even those with like-minded individuals--the extreme statements get tempered by the group, by facial expressions, by tone, and by additional information (and space for more characters) that highlights the complexity of the issue.

More recently, my school (and many others) has been dealing with another controversial topic: national anthem protests. Once again, students express their disagreement with protesting students this online. Obviously, students who choose to sit during the national anthem or pledge of allegiance haven't been asked by others face-to-face about why they sit. Instead, other students make assumptions and post their opposition in networks where only like-minded friends can see their posts. Opposing groups' seeing each other's posts often doesn't result in a conversation, just polarization.  This is all happening as I write this.  How will schools address the problem? I'll attempt to solve this with a future post.

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