Don’t Blame the Algorithm, Blame Your English Teacher.
When someone who is driving under the influence causes an accident, who is to blame? Is it the vehicle? Or is it the driver? I think we all agree that the latter is a more appropriate explanation, so here is a more controversial question — when misinformation and disinformation are spread online, who is to blame? Is it the algorithm? Or is it social media users who un/intentionally share false information? I get it. It is human nature to put the blame on everything and everyone but ourselves. Well, here is someone who you should shift the blame towards — your English teacher.
The American public school system outlines learning objectives for every subject taught in grades K-12, and teachers are expected to create lesson plans that target these learning objectives. In the State of Texas (and perhaps nationally), students learn how to distinguish facts from opinions in the 7th grade. This presumably means that individuals over the age of 13/14 who have schooled in the system should be able to analyze any given passage to determine whether it is factual. Unfortunately, this is far from the case, especially within the context of social media. An article published by the Center for American Progress mentions that a large proportion of users spread misinformation because it either aligns with their views or they do not care to fact-check, meaning that many users may be unaware that they are aiding in the spread of fake news. So where did we go wrong? Here is what I think: English teachers are trained to utilize long and boring passages to teach literary devices and skills, which has become harder for students to engage with as technology proliferates. Social media algorithms have managed to maintain our attention by constantly refining the information illustrated to us based on our online identifiers, which has made it easy to believe and spread false information. Educators must determine creative ways to maintain students’ attention enough for the objectives to be honed and applied outside of the classroom, pertinently on social media.
Being an educator has taught me one thing: your students’ success is heavily dependent on how much you integrate their interests in the course material. When students found out that I had 20,000+ followers on Instagram, I noticed a swift change in their behavior in the classroom and towards me. I quickly realized that I could leverage this to encourage participation in the classroom, and I was marveled at the significant impact my hypothesis had on their learning outcomes. Since my students were constantly on Instagram and Twitter, I incorporated these platforms in my lessons to meet my learning objectives. Whether it was using Cardi B’s hit song “Bodak Yellow” to distinguish literary devices or asking students to analyze a tweet to determine whether it was based on factual information, students had opportunities to intellectually engage on social media, which presumably made it easier to apply this skill when the spread of false information exacerbated years later.
Educators have a duty to equip students with tools to navigate the world in a meaningful way. Specifically, English teachers (in countries where English is a primary language of course) play a pivotal role in shaping the way we communicate and process information. This inevitably means that as technology is ever-growing and younger generations increasingly depend on social media, it would behoove the public school system to incorporate these platforms as a learning tool in the classroom. Behavioral and psychological studies suggest that our attention span is very low, and only increases when we are interested in the activity we are engaged in. So here is a suggestion — instead of using boring and outdated textbooks to learn course objectives, English teachers should try supplementing this with pre-approved tweets and social media posts to complete the same tasks. At worst, there will be no difference in your students’ learning outcomes and their behavior on social media. But at best, this can completely change your students’ learning trajectory, and have strong implications on the long-term mitigation of misinformation and disinformation online. The reality is that the old-fashioned lecturing style that involves a teacher standing in front of the classroom and reading through a PowerPoint has proven to be ineffective in this technology-driven generation. The good news is that we can leverage social media to achieve the same learning objective in a more interactive manner.
Social media algorithms have certainly facilitated the spread of misinformation and disinformation online. But let’s be clear — it is social media users who continue to spread false information, not the algorithm itself. Instead of blaming the algorithm, let us restructure our public school system to equip our students with tools to better navigate this technology-driven world.