How Social Media has aided my Professional Teacher Development

For all teachers, professional development is an integral and increasingly mandatory part of the job. Attending seminars, conferences and professional development sessions are among the ways which this has traditionally occurred. The use of social media such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as online communities such as Google+ is another avenue of professional development and discussion which is rapidly gaining popularity. The ability to converse with educators the world over on any teaching-related topic is one which many teachers are finding invaluable. Through blogging, podcasting, forums and more, a wide variety of opinions, perspectives, experiences and knowledge can be easily expressed, published and shown to fellow educators.

Though not everyone may agree, I have personally found social media, particularly Twitter to be an invaluable tool in my development as a teacher, for several reasons. One of these reasons is that it is a veritable treasure trove of resources, if one knows where to look. Being able to connect to teachers, education researchers, policymakers and other stakeholders from around the world has been extremely useful in helping to develop and refine my thoughts about teaching. Being able to read, discuss and learn from experienced, accomplished and credentialed educators from around the world has helped my professional development professionally. It has not only helped me learn about teaching and to clarify my thinking, it has also helped me to consider teaching strategies, perspectives and opportunities not possible through my university course, teaching placements and local professional network alone. In particular, my learning about topics such as classroom and behaviour management, topics which receive relatively little attention in university courses, has occurred primarily through articles, research papers and discussions which I have found mainly through Twitter. These resources, which I would never have found out about had I not been an active social media user, have given me a great deal of confidence leading into placements and arguably an advantage over my fellow pre-service teachers. For the teacher with initiative and drive, social media can make a huge difference in developing as a teacher.

Among the most important of these connections I have made has been with VoicEd Canada, an online radio station based in Canada dedicated to discussing teaching in its many facets. Connecting with VoicEd Canada through live web chats and podcasting, something which would have been almost impossible only a few years ago, has opened many possibilities in terms of professional development. Being able to expand my professional network to include teachers from the other side of the world has been immensely rewarding and beneficial for my development as a pre-service teacher. Most importantly, talking to educators on VoicEd about problems which all pre-service teachers face, such as lesson planning, classroom management and managing time and the stresses of the profession has helped my development greatly.

Naturally, social media is not without its issues. Too often, debate and discussion on education-related issues can break down into tribalism and personal abuse, as is often the case on any topic.  Poor standards of behaviour and communication which would never occur or be tolerated in a classroom or school setting are often accepted online. Debates on critical issues such as curriculum, classroom management and education policy suffer as a result. For social media to remain a useful tool for professional development, it is incumbent on us as teachers to remain civil, professional and courteous online as we are offline.

The Orlando Shooting and the polarised response

The Orlando shooting, as now appears to be the norm when such a tragedy occurs, has resulted in a deeply polarised response on social media and through society in general. Once, such incidents would unite communities in mourning and grieving. In the wake of Orlando, however, people of all political stripes wasted no time in reducing the shooting to a single cause, even before facts pertaining to the shooting have been verified and confirmed. On the political left, it has been framed primarily as a result of a lack of gun control. On the political right, the attack is seen as further confirmation that the West is losing the fight against Islamist terrorism. Each side blames the other for enabling the attack to happen, resulting in further entrenching and division. Responses from political leaders in America have reflected this. President Obama and presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in the aftermath of the shooting, called for tighter gun control. Presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, meanwhile, excoriated Obama and Clinton for not acknowledging the role of ‘Radical Islam’, calling for their resignations for not doing so.

As more facts and information come to light, it has become clear that there are several factors at play behind the actions of Omar Mateen. Firstly, the attack was jihadist in nature, with Mateen having pledged allegiance to ISIS in a 911 call made during the shooting. Mateen had been investigated by the FBI since 2013 as a sympathiser of the Boston bombers as well as to Al-Qaeda, though he was not believed to be directly connected to any of these groups. The attack is also directly homophobic in nature, despite attempts by some in the media to downplay this element of the attack. The targeting of the Pulse nightclub was a calculated, intentional move on the part of Mateen. It is important to acknowledge this in addition to the link between Mateen and Islamism. As former Islamist turned counter-extremist Maajid Nawaz argues, the strand of Islamism which Omar Mateen prescribed to is deeply homophobic in nature.  The attack occurred as a result of Mateen being ‘angered’ by the sight of two men kissing. In the months prior to the attack, he had attended a speech by radical preacher Farrokh Selakeshfar, who declared that ‘Death is the sentence’ for homosexuals.

There are also important issues raised in respect to mental health as well as firearms access. According to his ex-wife, Omar Mateen had issues with bipolar disorder and would regularly beat her. Mateen also allegedly had issues with steroid abuse. Despite these issues, Mateen worked as an armed security guard for several years. Even as he was being investigated by the FBI, Mateen was still able to easily access firearms, including the AR-15 assault rifle used to carry out the attack. This particular rifle has also been behind several other major mass shootings, including the San Bernardino shooting late last year, as well as the Aurora and Newtown shootings.

There is another, less discussed aspect of this attack and similar ‘lone wolf’ attacks, which is that of radicalisation occurring as a result of disenfranchisement and resentment at society, often related to an individual’s failure in their own life. These individuals, sometimes referred to as the ‘lost boys’ of society, seek revenge in dramatic, violent fashion in order to settle these grievances. This often includes attaching themselves to an extremist ideology, such as white nationalism or Islamism among others. In this instance, Omar Mateen attached himself to a radical Islamist ideology as a means of enacting this revenge. Such occurrences of this type of violence have increased in recent years and do not appear to be lessening any time soon. As well as the issues this raises for society in general, the ‘lost boy’ phenomenon also poses an issue in terms of national security. These individuals can easily be radicalised, yet are hard to track down, as they are often not directly tied to a larger organisation.

Whatever angle you look at the Orlando shooting, the incident raises hard questions for society. The attack simultaneously involves jihadist terrorism, homophobia, mental health and firearms access issues as well as broader national security issues and questions of civil society. All of these are polarising, divisive issues in society on their own, let alone dealt with simultaneously in the context of an event such as the Orlando shooting. For any progress to be made on any of these fronts, a mature, honest and nuanced dialogue is essential, which does not reduce events like Orlando to a single pet issue. Given the ever more polarised and partisan nature of discourse and debate in society, however, this appears to remain unlikely.

Facebook Trending Topics and Political Bias

A recent article on Gizmodo alleges that Facebook selectively chooses topics to appear in its ‘trending news’ section. This is despite Facebook claiming to utilise an algorithm which automatically selects the most posted-about news topics to appear in this section. In the article, a former Facebook employee explains how the ‘trending news’ section is subjectively selected by workers, sometimes including suppressing certain news items from the section based on the political persuasion of the particular news item. The article goes on to explain some of the specific details of the trending news curation by workers. Among these details includes claims that news on politically conservative topics and people were prevented from appearing in the trending section, even if they were among the most posted about topics on Facebook at a given time. News about Facebook was also prevented from appearing in this section. Additionally, non-trending topics were alleged to have been placed in this section, even if they were not near the most posted-about news topics.

In order to dispel concerns from conservative politicians and media figures, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg last week met with key conservatives in order to explain the situation. In the wake of the meeting, reaction among conservatives who attended the meeting was mixed. Some conservatives, such as CNN commentator S.E. Cupp and The Blaze’s Glenn Beck believed the meeting to be a positive and productive one. According to them, common ground was met and Zuckerberg took their concerns seriously. Other conservatives were more sceptical about Facebook and Zuckerberg’s promises to ensure conservative news was not being suppressed. Among those at the event with this view include the editor of conservative website, the Daily Caller and Fox News analyst Tucker Carlson. He admonished not only Zuckerberg but also Glenn Beck, accusing him of ‘sucking up’ to the Facebook CEO.

The allegations, if true are significant and a cause for concern. A website with the reach and influence of Facebook plays an important part in the news cycle and in societal discourse. One of the cornerstones of Facebook’s success as a website is as an open platform for publishing and for sharing news and information. This is also how Facebook has consistently presented itself since launching. If Facebook is now curating news on its website in a subjective manner, it is within its rights to do so as a private company. However, Facebook must clearly and openly state this to users in the interests of openness and fairness. At present, it appears that Facebook has people subjectively choosing which news appears on its trending section of the website, while at the same time claiming it is objectively chosen via an algorithm. In this sense, Facebook is operating more like a traditional news outlet rather than a news aggregator.

In order to remedy this problem, social media outlet Twitter recently created the Moments page, a human-driven aggregate of news items based on human interest stories separate to the objective, algorithm-based Trending topics on a user’s Twitter feed. As a result of this current situation, it may well be the case that Facebook soon looks to emulate Twitter’s Moments in one form or another. Regardless, it is important that Facebook remains an unbiased news content aggregator, and even more important that it does not attempt to suppress news items based on its political slant.

Brussels, Lahore, Ankara and responses to terrorism

The last week alone has seen multiple large-scale terrorist attacks occur throughout the world. Last Tuesday, terrorists killed dozens and injured many more in attacks throughout Brussels, Belgium. On Friday, ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a football stadium in Iraq, killing 29. Just yesterday, the Taliban conducted an attack on Christians celebrating Easter in a park in Lahore, Pakistan. In the last month, there have been several other jihadist attacks throughout the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA).

By now, there seems to be an almost formulaic response to these attacks, particularly on social media. In the immediate aftermath of these attacks, the attacks will be condemned and denounced. Often, a hashtag or an image of some description will go viral, as a way of claiming solidarity with the victims of said attack. After a period of time, many social media users, as well as certain progressive commentators, will insist that the attacks have ‘nothing to do with religion’. Instead, they will argue that other grievances, such as lack of economic opportunity or discrimination are the primary causes of radicalisation and terrorism. This is despite the perpetrators behind the Brussels attacks coming from a comfortable middle-class background, as well as the majority of European-based jihadists also coming from a similar background.

While these responses are undoubtedly well-intentioned, it does not sufficiently address the nature of or the extent of the threat of Islamist terrorism. In particular, one of the elements of much of the coverage surrounding Brussels and related attacks is an unwillingness to acknowledge Islamism, political Islam and jihadism as being the root cause behind these attacks. Without acknowledging this ideology openly and honestly, it is not possible to properly combat the ideology at an intellectual level. I have written about the issue of acknowledging the Islamist ideology behind these terrorist attacks previously, after last November’s attacks on Paris. Honest coverage and free debate are essential in formulating an effective response to such attacks. This is, of course, not to blame all Muslims, however. It is essential that in these debates, the ideology of Islam and Islamism is separated from Muslims who practice the faith. Blaming all Muslims would be just as counterproductive to combating jihadist terrorism as completely ignoring the link between Islamism and these terrorist attacks.

In the wake of the Brussels attack, another claim was widely circulated on social media, which was that similar attacks in places such as Ankara, Turkey and elsewhere around the same time went unreported. Not only is this untrue, such claims also fail to comprehend why Western media outlets would focus more on Brussels than somewhere like Turkey or some of the other attacks throughout the MENA region. Brussels on the one hand is a major European capital, and is also home to the headquarters of the European Union’s major political institutions. These buildings were among the targets of the Brussels terrorists, a clear statement of intent by ISIS towards the West and its political institutions. It is understandable, therefore, that Western media outlets would give precedence to this attack over the one in Ankara, particularly given other attacks by ISIS affiliates in Western European countries in recent months. For those of us in the West, there is simply more of a cultural connection to Brussels than Ankara. To pay attention to one attack more closely does not mean disparaging the victims of the other.

Social Media Hoaxes and Disinformation/Podcast Announcement

The issue of hoaxes and disinformation within news and current affairs, particularly on social media, is an issue I have been exploring for a while now. A large portion of my History Honours thesis which I wrote last year, concerning the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, concerns this topic. Within this thesis, I explored how distorted and falsified information, often starting on social media, would be reported on, legitimised and subsequently presumed to be truthful. Apart from this specific example, however, the issue of disinformation, hoaxes and false information is an important and increasingly prevalent one on social media.

Social media disinformation and hoaxes occur in a variety of ways. One of the most common ways in which this occurs is through viral hoaxes, often on topical or controversial issues. On sites such as Facebook, this often takes the form of a post on a topical issue such as vaccinations, terrorism, climate change, or a geopolitical issue. A large factor for this occurring is the way in which Facebook is set up and how it prioritises certain posts appearing in a newsfeed over others. According to an article from the Washington Post, people who are inclined towards sharing conspiracy theories over Facebook and other forms of social media tend to post much more frequently than other users, despite there being relatively few users who think this way. In addition, these users are often organised and work together closely, helping to push these type of posts across the site, resulting in viral posts. On Facebook for example, a very popular and consistent hoax is about Facebook supposedly asking for a fee to maintain a private profile. Some users feel threatened by this idea, regardless of there not being any evidence of this actually being planned, so create and share posts warning of this coming fee, as a way of comforting or protecting themselves from this perceived threat. This effect of seeking out information and forming posts which fits a predetermined narrative, despite evidence, is known as confirmation bias. Other people, having seen this and also becoming nervous at the prospect of a fee, share the viral post too, despite it being false, which furthers the effect of confirmation bias. Eventually, the hoax has attained such a reach and has been posted so many times that many users simply accept the hoax as being true, due to an echo chamber effect.

For the average user, it can be difficult to determine what is true and what is not. Sites such as Snopes.com help to debunk many of these viral hoaxes and conspiracies, though it cannot keep up with every hoax and false post going around. These examples underscore the need to be careful before sharing a news item or a viral post on social media, to prevent the spread of false or distorted news and information. Take just a few minutes to research and get some background on the topic in question. If possible, find another source which can verify and confirm claims being made

Social media manipulation is not just done by individuals, however. Some governments, such as the Russian government during the Russia-Ukraine war, have employed similar tactics in order to influence and manipulate social media debate of an issue. Throughout this war, the Kremlin has been sponsoring ‘troll houses’, buildings where hundreds of people work around the clock creating blog pieces, writing comments and creating memes which support Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The evidence of this can be seen in the comments section of any Facebook, Youtube or other site’s comment section which reports or comments on this conflict, including in this article describing the troll house phenomenon. This deliberate manipulation of information for propaganda purposes in a modern context is often referred to as information warfare. In an upcoming podcast I am working on, I expand on this topic in much more detail.

As I alluded to earlier, the subject of this post is one which I will be discussing in much more detail in a soon to be released debut episode of podcast I am working on. The podcast, which will be co-hosted by myself and Tom Price will examine contemporary political and international issues, as well as exploring various historical topics. Those of you familiar with podcasts such as Foreign Policy’s The Editor’s Roundtable podcast or Dan Carlin’s Common Sense podcast will particularly enjoy this podcast, though the subject matter will appeal to anyone with an interest in contemporary politics, geopolitics, current affairs and history.