AASCU’s American Democracy Project is excited to announce a new national initiative on digital polarization to be lead by our inaugural civic fellow, Mike Caulfield of Washington State University Vancouver. Mike is a longtime ADP participant and supporter, having been actively involved in our eCitizenship initiative established in 2009 when he was at Keene State College (N.H.) and since at WSU Vancouver. Mike’s expertise as WSU Vancouver’s director of blended and networked learning and his passion for advancing the learning of online communities and ensuring informed civic engagement make him well-suited to lead this new effort and to galvanize the ADP community around advancing student civic literacy in our digital and polarized age.
The Digital Polarization Initiative, or “DigiPo”, is an attempt to build student web literacy by having students participating in a broad, cross-institutional project to fact-check, annotate, and provide context to the different news stories that show up in our Twitter and Facebook feeds. The effort is spearheaded by Mike Caulfield. If you, your class, or campus project or organization would like to participate, complete this Google Form.
Read on to learn more about Mike, the Digital Polarization Initiative and how you can learn more and get involved.
Mike Caulfield is the director of blended and networked learning at Washington State University Vancouver, and ADP campus. He has an extensive background in both net-enabled learning and online political organizing. Since 2005 he has focused his energy on understanding how online communities and open resources can make students and citizens more effective and informed, most prominently at MIT as the first director of community outreach for the OpenCourseWare Consortium, but also as a founder of a number of local and hyperlocal online communities, and in numerous instructional design projects at Keene State College (N.H.) and WSU.
Mike has been described by George Siemens as one of “a few genuinely original people doing important and critically consequential work” in the field of educational technology. He has worked extensively with wiki inventor Ward Cunningham on applications of wiki to education. His work and thinking about the intersection of social media, politics, and civic literacy has been covered by The Wall Street Journal, TechCrunch, Bloomberg, Newsweek, and Vox. He is the current editor of the EDUCAUSE Review’s New Horizons column on emerging technology, and was a founding member of ADP’s eCitizenship initiative in 2009.
Outside of education, he is possibly best known as a co-founder of the 5,000 member online political community Blue Hampshire in 2006, a site described by Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas as “one of the most influential blogs in the nation”, and one of eight blog communities chosen in 2007-2008 for syndication by Newsweek’s Ruckus Project. Blue Hampshire ran from 2006-2014.
The Digital Polarization Initiative
The Digital Polarization Initiative, the effort Mike has chosen to advance as an ADP Civic Fellow, is a project and topic close to his heart, but he needs the help of the community to get it done, and he’s looking forward to working with members on it.
Interested? Read on.
What is Digital Polarization?
We’re using digital polarization as a catch-all term for a number of different trends that we are observing on the web.
- The impact of algorithmic filters and user behavior on what we see in platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which tends to limit our exposure to opinions and lifestyles different than our own.
- The rise and normalization of “fake news” on the Internet, which not only bolsters one’s worldview, but can provide an entirely separate factual universe for readers to live in
- The spread of “callout culture” and harassment on platforms like Twitter, where minority voices and opinions are often bullied into silence.
- State-sponsored hacking campaigns that use techniques such as “weaponized transparency” (a term from the excellent Zeynep Tufekci) to try and fuel distrust in democratic institutions.
In certain contexts, each of these things can be valuable. We like seeing news from people like us, even if that restricts our worldview a bit. The line between “fake news” and “minority viewpoint” is not always clear-cut. Bad behavior on the web sometimes need to be called out, and citizens have the right to call powerful people to account. State-sponsored hacking can be use to silence, manipulate, or punish political opponents, but may occasionally uncover important information the public deserves to know.
What we want to look at in this project, both through in-classroom and out-of-classroom activities, are three questions:
- What are the effects of these trends on our democracy?
- What are the underlying causes of these trends?
- If these trends require we act to address them, what can we do to address them, both as individuals and political agents? And how do we do that in ways that don’t destroy the democratic potential of the web?
We want to stress that this is a curriculum of questions, not answers. We’re hoping, for example, that students can also look into issues such as how calls for civility can lead to the “tone-policing” activist communities feel derail discussions at the same time that that students investigate how aggressively argumentative online cultures may discourage participation by certain demographic subgroups.
In the process, we are hoping our students obtain a deeper understanding of how web technologies shape their social and political environments, and learn that taking an active and critical stance toward these technologies can improve our society as a whole.
Students Analyze the News Subproject
We are in the process of putting together an array of projects that you can use to bring these issues into your classrooms and student activities.
We don’t have a cool and hip name for our first project yet. The idea of the project is that students are assigned to read various news articles they get through social media and fact-check them, posting them to a site that acts a bit like a student-powered Snopes. For the moment we’re just calling this “the students fact-check the news project that’s kind of like a student powered Snopes.”
The idea is that this activity could drop cleanly into a wide variety of classes. In a politics class, students might investigate claims about levels of voter fraud, or to what extent rates on ACA-provided insurance are increasing. While claims would be rated as true, false, unsubstantiated, or anything in that spectrum, students would also attempt to bring some nuance to the treatment of the topic. What we’ve found, for example, in our own work, is that many seemingly false claims do have a kernel of truth in them.
But the project doesn’t stop at politics. People in courses on nutrition, for example, could analyze the latest chocolate cures cancer story. Economics students could look at claims that home prices have returned to peak bubble levels.
There’s a couple crucial points to this. The first is that the students are doing real work that will be useful — what David Wiley calls “renewable assignments” as opposed to the disposable assignments we throw in the virtual trash each semester. The work the students do will help to repair our broken information environment and can be used by others.
Second, students will not only analyze the stories they find, but track them down to the source, and document how they spread across the network. We are in the process of both consolidating existing tools to help students do this, as well as creating some new ones.
Finally, since we will be doing this on a wiki, students will be forced to confront opposing opinions, and work together with others of differing views to come to a consensus analysis. In this way we model alternate mode of working on the web, that values engagement with others as much as individual expression. It’s noteworthy that on a web that is becoming more and more polarized Wikipedia is one of the few places on the web which is becoming less biased over time. Showing students this alternate mode of web work is central to the project’s goals.
We’ll be talking more about the “the students fact-check the news project that’s kind of like a student powered Snopes.” as we move forward with it. The hope is to have it up and running by mid-December and run a pilot of it in a half dozen schools by January.
In late spring, we’ll assess the pilot and go from there.
If you are interested in joining the pilot, please email Mike Caulfield at firstname.lastname@example.org. We can set you and your students up on the wiki, provide some course materials that outline what assignments might look like, and get you hooked into a teaching support group for the project.
We are working on other projects that professors can use in their classrooms to help students think through issues of digital polarization. And we’re in the market for more activities — let us know if you have some!
One simple resource we’d point out, to get a feel for the issues, is the Wall Street Journal’s Blue Feed/Red Feed which shows how different news on two personal Facebook feeds might differ depending on your circle of friends and algorithmic filters based on previous likes.
Activities could be as simple as reflecting on the differences in the timelines or as complex as running a similar experiment.
We’re also putting together a reading list on the various themes we outlined above.
Again, though, we’re just getting started on this project. Let us know your ideas, and we’ll work them into our materials.
Note: A wiki is being put together for the January launch, but you can view the current progress on the wiki here.