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How to Talk About Social Media and the Capitol Insurrection: A Guide for Teachers

By Alyson Klein — January 19, 2021 7 min read
Photo illustration shows social media symbols and crowds of people stirred to action.
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When rioters attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, students saw firsthand the power of social media to threaten or protect the foundation of American democracy.

President Donald Trump was banned from Twitter and Facebook for his role in using those platforms to fuel the violence. Ordinary social media users helped spread his baseless accusations of widespread election fraud throughout cyber space.

The entire episode presented educators who focus on digital citizenship and media literacy with yet another teachable moment. For students in Matt Wood’s social studies class, the big takeaway is best summed up by one influential figure: Spider-Man.

The “great power” of being a social media user “comes with great responsibility,” Wood, a teacher at Leman Middle School in West Chicago, a suburb of the Windy City, told his students, parroting the phrase from the blockbuster superhero film. “Social media is good and bad, and it’s revealed the best and the worst of us. [Its] power could be used in a scary way.”

To be sure, many of the images of the mob riot at the Capitol that were shared on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other platforms are tough to look at for many people. But they spark clear questions that teachers should discuss with their students, said Michelle Chiulla Lipkin, the executive director of the National Association for Media Literacy Education.

“We want them to understand the systems that were in place that allowed this to happen,” she said. Students should consider: What role do you think social media played in this insurrection? Do you think social media platforms could have done a better job of keeping on top of the threat before it exploded? What hashtags were trending? In particular, how did the hashtag “stop the steal,” which alluded to unsubstantiated claims of election fraud in several crucial states, get started and how did it spread?

Asking questions for students to discuss—rather than telling them what is right or wrong—can help to present the debate in a less emotional way, particularly in places where many students may sympathize with Trump supporters, she added.

Should Twitter and Facebook Be Able to Ban a U.S. President?

There’s also a rich debate to be had over whether Trump, a sitting president, should have been barred from two of the most popular social media platforms, Twitter and Facebook. Was it really a violation of free speech, as some claim? Or was it simply a violation of the platforms’ user agreements?

“It’s clear from much of the conversation on Twitter and other networks that the “great majority of [social media users] don’t understand in any way, shape, or form policies that are in place” governing social media, Lipkin said.

Twitter and Facebook are private companies that “can do whatever the hell they want,” she explained. But students can talk about whether the social media giants made the right call in booting a sitting president from their platforms. Teachers, she suggested, might want to divide their classes in two and have each group argue either for or against the move, citing evidence from the companies’ user agreements.

Students can also consider whether “the CEO of a private tech company” should have the “power to decide whether Trump keeps his account or not,” said Ioana Literat, an assistant professor of communication, media, and learning technologies design at Columbia University’s Teachers College. “How do we feel that [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg has this power? And if we don’t like it, what’s a better process?”

By the same token, Parler, a social media site where many of the rioters planned their attack on the Capitol, has been effectively taken offline. Apple and Google stopped selling its app in their online stores and Amazon nixed the company’s web hosting services. Parler was started, in part, to counter some Trump supporters’ perceptions that broader platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, were unfairly censuring their content.

“Parler is going to be the bastard step-child everybody points to and says this whole thing was Parler’s fault,” said Conor Murphy, a social studies teacher at West Genesee High School in Camillus, N. Y. But, he said, platforms like that can gain traction partly because of the lack of media literacy in schools over the past two decades.

Since Parler’s effective shutdown, many of the groups that want to disrupt the peaceful transfer of power to President-elect Joe Biden have taken to using encrypted sites. That’s something Heather Monson’s history class at United Township High School in East Maline, Ill., discussed. She asked her students: “Why would the [rioters] want to post somewhere that’s encrypted?”

Why Students Need to Listen Outside Their Own Echo Chambers

Teachers can also use the Jan. 6 Capitol riot to remind their students that the goal of social media companies is to keep people engaged for as long as possible. That often means showing them posts that confirm their own opinions, as opposed to exposing them to a broad range of arguments and viewpoints.

“Social media has really shown a light on that echo chamber,” said Whitney Crews, a teacher at E.J. Moss Intermediate School in Lindale, Texas. “That constant back and forth of it just being the same perspective as yours. How do you ever grow if you’re constantly surrounded by the same views?”

Crews had her students examine how the riot was covered by other countries and how foreign leaders–from countries ranging from Germany to India to Iran–reacted to help give students a broader perspective. Her class also discussed the connection between being part of a virtual angry crowd and then later an actual violent mob.

“Strength in numbers on social can turn into a mob mentality, where you may think or say or do something that you may not ordinarily do in real life,” Crews told her students. She asked: Would the insurrection have even happened without social media?

Meanwhile, David Bosso’s students at Berlin High School in central Connecticut wondered how history might be different if German Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s had access to the same social media tools in use today.

And Wood used the events of Jan. 6 to talk to his students about the different kinds of words used on social media to describe what happened. Was it a “protest? Demonstration? Riot? Insurrection? Sedition? Coup? Civil unrest? Civil war?”

And who seemed to be using which of these words?

Wood asked his students–many of whom are English-language learners–to look up the definition of each of those words, and then to talk about which they felt best described what happened. The students ultimately settled on “insurrection.” Wood told them that they picked the same word House Democrats chose in their impeachment resolution, which passed Jan. 14.

Students Advised to Fact-Check Social Media Posts Before Sharing Them

The storming of the Capitol also provided yet another example of why social media users need to carefully fact-check information they see on Facebook, Twitter, and other sites, especially before sharing it.

For instance, there were reports that four people had been “murdered” at the Capitol, Monson said. But when she had her students dig deeper, they found that one person had a heart attack and another had a stroke. One was a Capitol police officer who was killed by rioters. Her students talked about the impact of people sharing incorrect information.

Teachers should also emphasize the broader context surrounding events that they may only see in videos online, Lipkin said. For instance, one video shows a Black Capitol Police officer, later identified as Eugene Goodman, trying to slow down a mob of mostly white insurgents running up a staircase.

At first glance, it almost looks like he’s running away from the rioters, Lipkin said. But upon further viewing–and with some additional information from reputable news sources–it is revealed that he’s steering them away from lawmakers.

“What you choose to believe is going to affect society,” Monson said. “I want them to have a sense of the great responsibility of social media,” because reposting misinformation “can reach a wider scope.”

How Extremist Groups Could Use Social Media Images for Recruitment

Another point for class discussion: The insurrection itself was largely planned on social media. But it also appears, at the same time, some participants were enticed by the reaction they knew the Capitol invasion would get on those same platforms, said Peter Adams, the senior vice-president for education at the News Literacy Project, a nonprofit that helps educators teach students how to evaluate information.

“A lot of it was motivated by social media,” he said, noting that one of the rioters, Tim Gionet, who goes by the screen name “Baked Alaska” was live-streaming the event on DLive, a video platform favored by the far-right. Gionet received some $2,000 in tips from his fans for his role in the riot, and even got advice from fanson how to avoid the Capitol police, according to the New York Times.

Teachers may ask students what the rioters might get out of posting on social media. One possibility, Adams floated: “The images are going to take on a life of their own and motivate Neo-Nazis, white supremacists, misinformation groups,” he said. Those groups will use the event as a “recruiting tool and a rallying cry.”


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