How Automated Tweets Helped Shape the Common-Core Debate

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — March 13, 2017 3 min read
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If you’ve been following the Common Core State Standards on social media, especially Twitter, you may have noticed a number of not-so-gradual sea changes.

At first, the people most engaged in the debate about the standards—both supporters and opponents—were involved with education in some way. By 2016, however, the common core was the subject of passionate social media campaigns led by people who weren’t affiliated with particular education policy groups or schools. And defenders of the standards became increasingly outnumbered and outvoiced online by staunch opponents of the standards, both liberal and conservative, who increasingly framed the standards as problematic or even dangerous.

A group of researchers affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education has been studying the social media conversation about the Common Core State Standards since 2013. They recently published their findings on a website called Hashtag Common Core.

The researchers studied nearly 1 million Tweets posted by some 190,000 Twitter users with the hashtags #CommonCore, #ccss, and #stopcommoncore during several time spans between September 2013 and April 2016.

Their findings offer evidence of a number of broader trends in information and politics. For instance, the researchers observed that consumers of political information online are becoming increasingly segmented, and that fabricated news stories about the standards have been circulating online for years.

Digital Warfare

One of the most striking findings: The conversation about the common core online was shaped by a sophisticated approach to online activism that has implications for other social and political issues.

At one point, over a quarter of Tweets related to the common core were tied to the Patriot Journalist Network, a conservative group that organized “hashtag rallies” and helped its members automate and schedule messages to maximize their voice in conversations about topics that included abortion and Israel as well as the common core. Many of the Tweets bear the hashtag #PJNET. But the report’s authors write that the network largely flew under the radar of journalists.

The Washington Post highlighted the way the strategies used to shape the discourse around the common core have been and will be used around other issues, including the potential confirmation of federal appeals court judge Neil Gorsuch to the U.S. Supreme Court. Mark Prasek, the founder of the Patriot Journalist Network, is well aware of the power of social media to shape dialogue: He told the Post “We’ve got a gun, and we’re waging digital warfare.”

Powerful language

The overall volume of Tweets related to the common core grew over time. And the origin and content of those Tweets evolved. While at the beginning of the study, 40 percent of individuals Tweeting about the standards were from outside education, by the end 70 percent of the message-senders were from outside education. Impartial education-focused journalists, including Education Week’s @StateEdWatch, became less prominent in the social network around the common core as the number of outside Tweeters grew.

The researchers also tracked the way Tweeters used language to heighten the impact of their Tweets. They lay out different “frames” of Tweets from opponents of the standards that appealed to their audiences: For instance, an anti-government frame appealed to conservatives; a business frame, which described the standards as a way for big businesses like publishing companies to benefit, appealed to liberals.

For more on the way Twitter shaped the standards, check out the Hashtag Common Core website. It’s an unusually interactive presentation of academic research and includes essays and graphs of the social impact of various Tweeters alongside descriptions of findings and takeaways.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.