Social Justice in a Post-Truth World

This post, co-authored with Alec Couros, originally appeared on the Canadian Education Association Blog.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) recently declared “post-truth” to be the 2016 Word of the Year. According to the OED, “post-truth” relates to or denotes “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

In recent years, we’ve clearly seen the confusion that results from so-called “fake news,” and the at-times devastating effects of misinformation. In December 2016, for instance, the spread of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory (which has been proven false), related to U.S. Democrats’ supposed involvement in a child-sex ring, eventually culminated in a man opening fire in a restaurant that was supposedly linked to the ring; the full account of the spread of the lie is traced on the Pizzagate Wikipedia page (note that Wikipedia articles are crowd-edited – this page was accurate as of February 8th, 2017, but may have been updated since then). Unfortunately, social media often acts as a vehicle for spreading lies; in particular, racist, sexist, and homophobic posts circulate freely and are legitimized by those who share them.

The digital spaces in which our students live, learn, and play are not immune to or sheltered from hateful posts and images. Consequently, today, perhaps more than ever before, we as educators have a serious responsibility to address social justice issues in online spaces – even if the resulting discussions are uncomfortable or controversial.

Education Canada Magazine

Image courtesy of EdCan Magazine

SILENCE CAN SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS

As teachers, we know that if misbehaviour isn’t addressed, students will quickly learn that the behaviour is acceptable. The same goes for the false or hateful content that kids find in the digital world. If no one speaks up, children will have no reason to question the hurtful things that they see – and no reason not to join in. When it comes to social justice issues, silence is complicity.

Of course, educators can’t be present in every online space, but we can model ethical, justice-oriented behaviour in the digital spaces we do occupy, which could mean anything from posting about current social justice issues on a personal blog to sharing articles or resources that promote equity on a class Twitter account. We might also bring online spaces into the classroom for critique and comment, perhaps by screencapping a problematic Facebook post and working as a class to construct an appropriate response. Without these actions, we risk raising a generation of young people who have neither the skills nor the desire to fight back against injustice or to work toward a better world.

MISINFORMATION IS A DANGEROUS THING

Digital literacy, and in particular the ability to discern whether an online source is trustworthy and accurate, has always been important, but as the Pizzagate example shows, it is even more critical in a post-truth world because the consequences of believing falsehoods can be dire. Misinformation and fake news can be used to perpetuate hateful and/or hurtful actions toward particular groups; for instance, the fictional “Bowling Green Massacre was used by the Trump administration to justify banning all refugees and immigrants from several Muslim-majority countries. Additionally, as Garry Kasparov tweeted, “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.” That is, sometimes the spread of fake news is intended to tire us out to the point of no longer questioning what we are told, which can be exceptionally dangerous (look into the Milgram Shock Experiment for clear evidence of this).

Thus, as educators, we must learn how to evaluate and verify digital sources so that we can teach our students to do the same. This involves learning about and then teaching students tips and tools that can be used to identify problematic or false content, and bringing digital articles and images into the classroom for critique. For example, students might be asked to fact-check a list of terror attacks that U.S. president Donald Trump has claimed were not adequately reported by the media, in order to determine the veracity of the claim (hint: there are several major issues with the list). Of course, in order to bring these ideas into the classroom, it is necessary for educators to seek out, explore, and hopefully address these issues in online spaces themselves.

In a post-truth, digital world, it’s no longer acceptable for educators to sit on the sidelines claiming to be neutral. Hateful, hurtful misinformation can no longer be left unexamined and unchallenged. Rather, as teachers, we have the responsibility to fight back and to show our students how to do the same.

#PrivilegeGate, or, How I Unwittingly Provoked a Troll Army

Yesterday, I tweeted this study about white privilege:

The tweet got a few likes and a few retweets, mostly from other professors in my faculty. I moved on. The study’s findings aren’t unexpected: they are in line with my own experiences working with pre-service teachers on topics of race and privilege, and they line up with other research about typical responses to learning about white privilege.

Today, I opened Twitter to find that I had 65 notifications, all from people responding to my tweet in various troll-like ways (most of which, ironically, included denial of white privilege and endorsements of meritocracy).

The responses ranged from cryptic comments to derogatory personal attacks, most apparently stemming from my tweet being retweeted by Twitter user @Nero to his 116K followers. Some of the worst include these gems: Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.47.44 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.47.28 PMScreen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.46.58 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.45.26 PM

Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 6.32.41 PM Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.46.29 PM

And my personal favourite: Screen Shot 2015-12-01 at 2.49.21 PM @Nero didn’t actually comment on my tweet, but judging from his other tweets, it seems likely that he wasn’t retweeting me to signal his approval; scrolling through his recent feed, I found this tweet, which suggests that I’m not the only one who has experienced this:

This isn’t my first encounter with Twitter trolls, and I have a fairly thick skin; as well, a little digging also told me that most of the accounts in the troll army have few followers, and some are likely fake or paid accounts set up specifically for the purpose of trolling. Nevertheless, I found the situation a bit unsettling. At the very least, it paints a pretty depressing picture of the state of society. Also, it’s hard not to wonder if the reaction would have been the same had I been a white male tweeting the same article – I’m inclined to think that the answer is a resounding “no,” given the female-targeted responses to the Gamergate controversy.

But what’s more unsettling to me is that the trolls’ responses are likely an effective intimidation technique for most people. It makes it a whole lot less appealing to discuss social justice issues online when you know you’re setting yourself up for this type of hateful personal attack. As an educator, I am a huge proponent of speaking out about these types of controversial issues on social media, and I encourage my pre-service teachers to do the same, but this encouragement now needs to come with a warning about the potential ramifications.

Luckily, the Internet isn’t all bad. I received several messages of support:


I think that last one sums it up nicely. We still have a long way to go, but we’re on the right track.

Edtech…for social justice?

I spent some time yesterday reading about and then discussing the Rachel Dolezal situation. Amidst the “Can you be transracial?” argument (which I think is nicely addressed here), another question arose – is it possible to black people to “pass” as white in the same way that Ms. Dolezal “passed” as black – which led to a lengthy and rich discussion of race, dominant narratives, and identity.

 And this led me to think about the amazing possibilities offered by the Internet and by social media for rich thinking that is informed by a constellation of viewpoints from across the globe. At a barbeque the other day, we were discussing Chatroulette, which not everyone present had heard of. When one friend commented that he had learned something new about the Internet that day, another recalled the Samuel Johnson quote, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Replace the word London with the word Internet (well, and replace man with human), and you have some sort of metaphor for the ethos of our time. The Internet is constantly offering something new and different, and there is tremendous potential in that.

This obviously isn’t to say that rich thought sprang up as result of the web. But our ability to connect with others and to be exposed to conversations that might once not have reached our social circles has been exponentially amplified. Because of Twitter, the world has been able to follow the complex conversations going on about Rachel Dolezal. Earlier that week, the world got to laugh at the #distractinglysexy hashtag (including my personal favourite below) while also taking a closer look at sexism and stereotyping in the sciences.

And the connectedness that comes with the Internet also offers incredible possibilities for addressing issues of equity and social justice. Social media can make uncomfortable knowledge more accessible to the mainstream; it allows for things like articles about colourblind discourses or cartoons about white privilege to provide more accessible explanations of social justice issues and to circulate among wider audiences. The availability of streaming apps like Periscope and the ubiquity of phone cameras leads to increased accountability and awareness of issues that were once ignored by mainstream media (like the recent police violence recorded in McKinney, Texas). 

So now we need to work on extending this to the classroom as well. Just the other day, my colleague Alec Couros tweeted this call for edtech to promote social causes:

There is lots that we can be doing. To start, you can take a look at this list of resources related to technology, social justice, and storytelling – and if you have something to add, leave a comment. But we can also reimagine the very idea of technology in education: Audrey Watters’ recent post on the idea of “edtech” (ed-tech? EdTech?) is a reminder of the wide range of meaning that has been/can be associated with the term. So let’s take the loose meaning of edtech and work to associate it with justice and equity. Let’s reimagine edtech models to include the new goal of technology integration: Equitable participation with the aim of social justice.

SAMR mod.001

Adventures in Stigma and Depression

In many ways, this post has been a long time coming. In some ways, it started way back last summer when I read Nicholas Provenzano’s post about depression. It surfaced again on Bell Let’s Talk Day when a former student posted this personal story of his own journey, and just this past week when I read this story about a professor’s public discussion of his battle with mental illness. And I am reminded of it in small ways on an almost weekly basis, when I talk to my students about whether teachers with particular marginalized identities should speak out to act as role models for students (though this generally comes up in the context of LGBTQ teachers’ responsibilities to come out to students), or when students confide in me about their own struggles with mental health. But up until this point, the terrible stigma surrounding the issue has kept me quiet. Until now.

I struggle with depression. There. I said it.  

It’s okay to be depressed. It does not make me weak, or unreliable, or a burden.

I was diagnosed with major depression when I was a teenager. Since then, my mental health has been consistent only in its inconsistency. I have periods – days, months, even years – of happiness, and I also have periods of deep sadness, or even just numbness (perhaps best described in the awesomely illustrated blog, Hyperbole and a Half). It is a battle I know I will fight for the rest of my life. I am, thankfully, a person who functions well even on my worst days – I get out of bed, I feed myself, and I carry out my daily activities. Others aren’t so lucky.

Perhaps this revelation doesn’t come as much of a surprise to some people. If Twitter used an algorithm, it would probably already have diagnosed me: I read and share quite a bit about mental health. But I have never felt brave enough to bring myself into the story. And then a couple weeks ago I read this wonderful article about depression, identity, and medication. For the first time, I could really see my own experience in the author’s story – and it was an incredible feeling. I felt a little less alone in my depression. And then I thought, why have I never acknowledged my own struggle publicly? Of course, that’s an easy answer. To quote Peter Railton, the brave professor who spoke out about his own depression:

“I know what has held me back all these years. Would people think less of me? Would I seem to be tainted, reduced in their eyes, someone with an inner failing whom no one would want to hire or with whom no one would want to marry or have children? Would even friends start tip-toeing around my psyche? Would colleagues trust me with responsibility?” 

But as I often tell my students, saying nothing at all is a form of complicity – it creates a null curriculum that silently screams: “We do not speak of mental illness.” And this is no longer acceptable for me. To quote the insightful Dr. Railton again, “Why should I contribute to making it harder for others to acknowledge their depression and seek help?”

Photo Credit: katiahildebrandt via Compfight cc

So instead of struggling in silence, I am speaking out. I am using my own privilege to try to break down some of that ugly stigma. It’s okay to be depressed. It does not make me weak, or unreliable, or a burden.

 Ultimately, will this post make a difference? Perhaps, or perhaps not. In the end, everything we share online is sent out into cyberspace to await its uncertain fate – will it go viral, or will it fade away into the annals of Internet history? We share, perhaps, in the vague hope that doing so will be a comforting experience: that the globalization of grief made possible by social media might lead to increased empathy, to support from strangers, to the creation of new connections, and ultimately to a better humanity. And maybe, just maybe, my post will give another person the courage to speak out. We can only hope.