How Social Media Is Shaping Book Ban Debates

By Alyson Klein — March 14, 2022 3 min read
Amanda Darrow, director of youth, family and education programs at the Utah Pride Center, poses with books that have been the subject of complaints from parents in recent weeks on Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021, in Salt Lake City.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

From Huckleberry Finn to the Harry Potter series, parents have pushed to toss books they find objectionable out of school libraries for decades. But there’s a different, more organized feel to this latest wave of censorship—and the resistance to it.

The reason?

Social media, said author George M. Johnson. His memoir, All Boys Aren’t Blue, about growing up Black and queer, is one of the titles that parents have objected to, citing its discussion of sexual assault and its depiction of consensual sexual encounters.

“When Toni Morrison was getting banned 30 years ago, there was no social media, there was no instant reaction that she could make to a person challenging her book,” Johnson said during a panel discussion at the SXSW EDU conference in Austin last week that focused on efforts across the country to remove books from school libraries. Often, the targeted books are, like Johnson’s, written by authors who are LGBTQ, racial minorities, or both, and/or feature characters from those groups.

These days, social media can be a potent weapon in the fight against censorship, said Johnson, who identifies as nonbinary. Thanks to platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, “people can in real time say what our book means to them, people can really challenge those who are challenging our book.”

Of course, social media also “cuts both ways,” said Mike Hixenbaugh, an investigative reporter for NBC News and a writer and host of “Southlake,” a podcast that explores the culture wars in a small Texas city, including book banning. Parents challenging books in one town can get help and inspiration from like-minded people a few states away, he said during the panel discussion.

“It’s the same list of books that’s going viral,” Hixenbaugh said. Meanwhile, some books that feature similar scenes and storylines as the ones targeted for censorship remain under the radar, he said. “There are certain books that, if the parents knew about them, they would be going after them as well. They just haven’t made it on a list.”

“Like my second book,” Johnson chimed in, referring to We Are Not Broken, a novel published last year. “I’m shocked they haven’t found out [yet], but somebody will, and be like, ‘Oh, we got to get rid of this one too.”

According to a recent nationally representative EdWeek Research Center survey, school districts across the country have recently seen an uptick of requests to ban from schools books about LGBTQ characters, race, and racism.

Parents in some communities have argued that the books are inappropriate for children because they contain sexually explicit or otherwise inappropriate content, or teach white students to hate themselves. And 15 percent to 30 percent of teachers, principals, and district leaders agree with parents that some of that kind of content should be off-limits for K-12 students in books available in school libraries, according to the survey.

Parents square up against students in book ban debates

In general, social media has been a more-effective tool for those fighting against book censorship than for people trying to ban books, in part, because students can easily share their experiences with the titles on the ban list, Johnson said. “We’re watching the students have a voice and be able to utilize their voice.”

The SXSW EDU panel addressed how parents have stood up at school board meetings and read passages from All Boys Aren’t Blue that describe gay sex to argue that the text is pornography and therefore should not be allowed in schools. In response to those criticisms, the panel talked about how students at some of those same meetings have pointed to sections in the book on sexual abuse, saying access to that information gave them the courage to finally name their abusers.

“The power of that storytelling counteracts” the criticisms of those who want to see the book censored, Johnson said. “And I think more of those stories are making it into the world because of social media, [rather] than [just] the couple of parents who haven’t actually read the book yelling and screaming and trying to ban it.”


Recruitment & Retention Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Chronic Teacher Shortage: Where Do We Go From Here?  
Join Peter DeWitt, Michael Fullan, and guests for expert insights into finding solutions for the teacher shortage.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
Mission Possible: Saving Time While Improving Student Outcomes
Learn how district leaders are maximizing instructional time and finding the best resources for student success through their MTSS framework.
Content provided by Panorama Education
Reading & Literacy K-12 Essentials Forum Writing and the Science of Reading
Join us for this free event as we highlight and discuss the intersection of reading and writing with Education Week reporters and expert guests.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Curriculum What the Research Says The State of Driver's Education, in 4 Charts
Training requirements vary from state to state.
2 min read
Virtual driving simulation screen.
A screen from a driving simulation.
Jackie Niam/iStock/Getty
Curriculum How Florida's New School Librarian Training Defines Off-Limits Materials
School librarians will soon have to seek parent approval to order new books, and have to avoid books considered "indoctrination."
3 min read
Books line shelves in a high school library Monday, October 1, 2018, in Brownsville, Texas. The Brownsville Independent School District announced having been awarded a multi-million-dollar grant to revitalize libraries to encourage reading by school-aged children to improve literacy skills. It was stated in the meeting that money could also be used to replace aging furniture in some of the district's libraries.
Books line shelves in a high school library in Brownsville, Texas in 2018. In Florida, school librarians will be required to complete training this year that will include how to seek parent approval before they can purchase new books for school libraries and classrooms.
Jason Hoekema/The Brownsville Herald via AP
Curriculum What the Research Says How an Attention-Training Program Can Make Teens Better Drivers
A driving simulation created to tune up attention skills in young drivers with ADD could have wider benefits.
6 min read
Driver Training Simulator
A student uses a driving trainer simulator to sharpen attention skills.
Cincinnati Children's Hospital
Curriculum Q&A You Can Teach About Climate Change in Every Subject and Grade Level. Here's How
Math, foreign language, even art classes offer opportunities to build students' knowledge.
8 min read
Tree growing from a book with education icons floating above, focusing on climate change and curriculum