Maybe it’s not Twitter, maybe it’s Snapchat, Instagram, or Facebook. It doesn’t matter which platform someone might think of first. Whichever site, the question is just how often do people get information there. Probably more often than they’ll want to admit, but they aren’t alone.
According to Pew Research Center, a 2019 study found that 54% of adult Americans got their news “sometimes” or “often” from social media, with the most common source being Facebook. Another Pew study found that two-thirds of U.S. adults say they’ve seen their own news sources report facts meant to favor one side of the political spectrum. Those two facts when put together create a frightening picture for the general public. However, this is no accident.
Recently, there’s been a buzz around Netflix’s newest documentary, The Social Dilemma, a documentary interviewing the creators of the public’s favorite social media platforms. They peel back the layers of mental gymnastics these companies use in order to manipulate their audience.
“It’s the gradual, slight, imperceptible change in your own behavior and perception that is the product,” says computer scientist Jaron Lanier. Psychology is deeply ingrained into social media with the intent to keep people scrolling using a term called ‘growth hacking’. Growth hacking is subtle, positive reinforcement that encourages people to keep scrolling. Developers have found that this is the best way to keep people moving from one post to another and only showing them what they want to see. It has created an illusion, a dangerous illusion, that everyone agrees with everyone about certain issues about which the public is actually divided.
So, what does this mean for the education system?
Education has become part of the political playing field. A simple Google search or televised political debate can perfectly articulate the many threads tethering the American education system to electoral debates. This is largely because everyone has different ideas regarding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of why we teach what we teach. Should we change that school’s name? Should we abolish standardized testing? Do we want to value growth or proficiency? This is also where it starts for many people, the subtle shift in ideals from that of their peers or their family, whether radically or just barely.
“Each individual has their eyes opened by what they see and that becomes their thought process,” said DA guidance Counselor Shaneka Ferrell. “This statement rings true as students become older and more invested in the world of politics.”
“There’s always that ‘teachers should be teaching this instead of that’ or ‘I could’ve learned X, Y, Z, and I didn’t.’ It’s not like I don’t understand where they’re coming from, it’s just we can’t teach everything,” says U.S. History teacher Alison Swartz. This comes as no surprise, it’s not uncommon for teens to criticize the education process, as many of them feel like they don’t learn necessary life skills or truthful retellings of history.
In the end what it boils down to is this: in a generation that thrives on social platforms to communicate and share information, it’s only natural for information to be twisted and skewed to fit a certain narrative. However, when everyone has a different narrative on their homepage, disagreements and disconnects become all the more common and as of right now, we have no way to stop it.
“If we don’t agree on what is true, or that there is such a thing as truth, we’re toast. This is the problem beneath other problems, because if we can’t agree on what’s true, then we can’t navigate out of any of our problems.” (Tristan Harris, The Social Dilemma, 2020)