When everyone's on Twitter and Facebook, it's harder to keep ed discussions factual

by Alan Wechsler

On Board Online • October 23, 2017

By Alan Wechsler
Special Correspondent

Remember the old adage about misinformation: "A lie can go halfway around the world before the truth has the chance to put its boots on?"

In today's world of instantaneous communications, social media and fake news, a lie can spread much faster than that. That's why school board members and district administrators need to be prepared to deal with the onslaught of misinformation, fake news and instant outrage that is an unfortunate side-product of a digital world.

The ninth annual Pre-Convention Communications Workshop provided guidance to about 150 district representatives. During four hours of discussion, experts helped prepare attendees for a world where, for better or for worse, everyone has a voice.

After a session by citizen participation expert Hans Bleiker on how to work with the community on projects that generate strong opposition (see sidebar), Michelle Marasch Ouellette, assistant professor in journalism and public relations at SUNY Plattsburgh, picked up on the theme of managing community opposition with the title of her presentation, Managing Chaos.

"It used to be only a few trained people could control the flood of information, and you could rely on them," she said. "Now everyone can communicate, and this can cause problems."

Examples abound. A student accidentally cuts himself with a craft knife in shop class on the same day that police happen to be in school during a "meet a cop" event. The student is sent back to class with a Band-Aid. But thanks to a few social media posts, the event turns into a "student stabbing" on the rumor mill that is the internet.

More serious examples included "news" that a school was being put up for sale; that students weren't allowed to watch President Trump's inauguration; that teachers are brainwashing students to be liberals (or, in some cases, to be alt-right members); or that a district's curriculum promoted Islam and described the Boston Tea Party culprits as "terrorists."More serious examples included "news" that a school was being put up for sale; that students weren't allowed to watch President Trump's inauguration; that teachers are brainwashing students to be liberals (or, in some cases, to be alt-right members); or that a district's curriculum promoted Islam and described the Boston Tea Party culprits as "terrorists."

Her takeaway: no district is immune from the potential for damage from misinformation spread via social media. That's why districts need to monitor and be present on social media, and respond to rumors as soon as possible.

"We need to be part of this conversation," she said. "Ignoring it doesn't protect us. It merely ensures us that we won't be heard."

Another example of the danger of ignoring social media: several years ago, health organizations around the nation ignored a popular rumor that the Zika virus was caused by vaccinations, not by a virus. Today, one in five Americans believes the incorrect vaccination story, she said.

What can board members and administrators do? The first step is listening. There are a variety of apps available that can help monitor Twitter, Instagram and other popular social media sites. For instance, Tweetdeck can be used to hunt for tweets that mention a school district by name or a hashtag being used by the district or its parents, teachers and students. It can also look for tweets sent in from a specific geographic area, such as the district.

Hootsuite, a paid program, provides even more robust monitoring. The app Social Bearing can even analyze Facebook or Twitter postings to determine if they're positive or negative (but it's not always trustworthy, she added - for instance, it counted posts in Lake Placid during foliage season as negative for using the word "fall").

She offered some guidance for responding to misinformation, based on the type. An "unhappy customer," for instance, could be reached with an offer to discuss the matter privately. A "misguided" correspondent could be corrected with the facts.

And the more malicious writers - "ragers" and "trolls?" It's best not to engage them, she said, and one should certainly not stoop to their vitriol in terms of a response. But ignoring them also has its risks. "Treat them with dignity and respect," she said. "Correct, but do not engage."

She noted that anger was the most popular emotion raised by Twitter. But the second, she said, was awe. "Build messages that create and inspire awe," she said. "If you can do that, you can create magic."

Roy Gutterman, director of The Newhouse School's Tully Center for Free Speech at Syracuse University, spoke during the presentation about fake news. He gave a quick history of the issue - and it's not as new as you think, he said. One famous example is William Randolph Hearst's "yellow journalism" articles of 1898. Hearst, who famously said, "You furnish the pictures, and I'll furnish the war," helped draw the United States into the Spanish-American War with his articles blaming a Spanish mine for blowing up the USS Maine in Havana. In fact, the cause of the blast was never learned.

Today, fake news is usually found on the internet or promoted via social media. It's a term President Trump has embraced to try to delegitimize stories in newspapers and television he sees as critical. In fact, most professional journalists are trained to seek the truth and report it as such, and follow a code of ethics to minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent, he said.

Recent polls show only a third of Americans trust the media to be accurate and fair, but also that a majority of Americans thought fake news had an impact on the last election.

As a result of this issue, a program called the News Literacy Project is currently engaged in educating public school students about the First Amendment and how news works. Gutterman suggests that all districts could teach students to be critical readers of news - to read beyond the headline, check out the author, question the sources of the article as well as the publisher, and otherwise double-check the validity of a news source to ensure it's true.


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