Social Media Meets Civics in the 21st Century Classroom

High school students using laptop in classroom
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Educators teaching civics during the presidency of Donald Trump can turn to social media to provide teachable moments and have conversations with students about America's democratic process. Beginning in the election campaign and continuing through the presidency, there have been many teachable moments in the form of 140 characters that come from the personal Twitter account of President Donald Trump. These messages are clear examples of social media's growing influence on American foreign and domestic policy. Within a few days, President Trump may tweet about a range of topics including immigration issues, natural disastersnuclear threats, as well as the pregame behavior of NFL players

President Trump’s tweets are not bound to the Twitter software platform. His tweets are then read aloud and analyzed on news media outlets. His tweets are re-published by both paper and digital newspaper outlets. In general, the more incendiary the tweet from Trump’s personal Twitter account, the more likely the tweet will become a major talking point in the 24-hour news cycle.

Another example of a teachable moment from social media comes from the admission by Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg that campaign ads could have been purchased by foreign agencies during the 2016 presidential election in order to shape public opinion.

In coming to this conclusion, Zuckerberg stated on his own Facebook page (9/21/2017):

“I care deeply about the democratic process and protecting its integrity. Facebook's mission is all about giving people a voice and bringing people closer together. Those are deeply democratic values and we're proud of them. I don't want anyone to use our tools to undermine democracy."

Zuckerburg’s statement indicates a growing awareness that the influence of social media may need more oversight. His message echoes a caution offered by the designers of the C3 (College, Career, and Civic) Frameworks for Social Studies. In describing the important role of civic education for all students, the designers also offered the cautionary note, “Not all [civic] participation is beneficial.” This statement alerts educators to anticipate the growing and sometimes controversial role of social media and other technologies in the future lives of students. 

Beneficial Civic Education Using Social Media

Many educators themselves use social media as a part of their own civic life experiences. According to the Pew Research Center (8/2017) two-thirds (67%) of Americans report getting their news from social media platforms. These educators may be included in the 59% of people who state that their interactions on social media with people of opposing political views are stressful and frustrating or they may be part of the 35% who find such interactions interesting and informative. Educator experiences can help inform the civic lessons that they design for their students.

Incorporating social media is an established way to engage students. Students already spend much of their time online, and social media is accessible and familiar. 

Social Media as Resource and Tool

Today, educators can readily access primary source documents from politicians, business leaders, or institutions. A primary source is an original object, such as audio or video recordings and social media is rich with these resources. For example, the White House YouTube account hosts the video recording of the Inauguration of the 45th president.

Primary sources can also be digital documents (firsthand information) that were written or created during the historical time under study. One example of a digital document would be from the Twitter account of Vice-President Pence in reference to Venezuela in which he states,"No free people has ever chosen to walk the path from prosperity to poverty" (8/23/2017). Another example comes from the Instagram account of President Donald Trump:

"If America comes together – if the people speak with one voice – we will bring back our jobs, we will bring back our wealth, and for every citizen across our great land..." (9/6/17)

These digital documents are resources that educators in civic education to call attention to specific content or to the role that social media has played as a tool for promotion, organization, and management in recent election cycles. 

Educators who recognize this high level of engagement understand the great potential for social media as an instructional tool. There are a number of interactive websites that are aimed at promoting civic engagement, activism, or community involvement in intermediate or middle schools. Such online civic engagement tools can be the initial preparation for engaging young people in their communities to get involved in civic activities.

In addition, educators can use examples of social media to demonstrate its unifying power to bring people together and also to demonstrate its divisive power to separate people into groups. 

Six practices for incorporating social media

Social studies teachers may be familiar with the "Six Proven Practices for Civic Education" hosted on the National Council of Social Studies website. The same six practices can be modified by using social media as a resource of primary sources and also as a tool for supporting civic engagement. 

  1. Classroom Instruction: Social media offers many primary document resources that can be used to spark debate, support research, or take informed action. Educators must be ready to provide instruction on how to evaluate the source(s) of texts that come from social media platforms.
  2. Discussion of Current Events and Controversial Issues: Schools can access current events on social media for classroom discussion and debate. Students can use social media texts as the basis for polls and surveys to predict or to determine public response to controversial issues.
  3. Service-Learning: Educators can design and implement programs that provide students with hands-on opportunities. These opportunities can use social media as communication or management tool for more formal curriculum and classroom instruction. Educators themselves can use social media platforms to connect with other educators as a form of professional development. Links posted on social media can be used for inquiry and research.
  4. Extracurricular Activities: Educators can use social media as a means to recruit and continue to engage young people to get involved in their schools or communities outside of the classroom. Students can create portfolios on social media of their extra-curricular activities as evidence for college and career.
  5. School Governance: Educators can use social media to encourage student participation in school government (ex: student councils, class councils) and their input in school governance (ex: school policy, student handbooks). 
  6. Simulations of Democratic Processes: Educators can encourage students to participate in simulations (mock trials, elections, legislative sessions) of democratic processes and procedures. These simulations would use social media for ads for candidates or policies.

Influencers in Civic Life 

Civic education at every grade level has always been designed to prepare students to be responsible participants in our constitutional democracy. The evidence suggests that what be added to the design is how educators explore the role of social media in civic education.

The Pew Research Center lists recent high school graduates (ages 18-29) as choosing Facebook (88%) as their preferred social media platform compared to students in high school who rank Instagram (32%) as their favored platform.

This information indicates educators must become familiar with multiple social media platforms to meet student preferences. They must be ready to address the sometimes outsized role social media plays in America's constitutional democracy. They must bring perspective to the different points of view expressed on social media and teach students how to evaluate the sources of information. Most importantly, educators must provide students practice with social media through discussion and debate in the classroom, especially when the Trump Presidency offers the kinds of teachable moments that make civic education authentic and engaging.

Social media is not limited to our nation's digital borders. Roughly one-quarter of the world's population (2.1 billion users) is on Facebook; one billion users are active on WhatsApp daily. Multiple social media platforms connect our students to networked global communities. In order to provide students with critical skills important for 21st century citizenship, educators should prepare students to understand the influence of social media and to be able to communicate using social media on issues both national and global.