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What Hath We Wrought?

This morning’s eponymous keynote by Danah Boyd was, in a word, bracing. Like a cold bucket of water, Boyd’s thesis – our current media literacy efforts may very well backfire in today’s polarized environments – dampened the mood after yesterday’s uplifting speech by the president of Paul Quinn College.

But Boyd’s words were no less important to hear. Take a trip down the rabbit hole with me and see if you agree.

Boyd’s research into the relationship between technology and society spans the better part of two decades, the last two years of which a deep dive into propaganda, competing media narratives, and radicalization via common web research practices.  The upshot? It’s easier to lose your bearings than you might think, and as educators, we may well be complicit.

Take the impact of language, she proposes. Those working in or benefiting from education police the vernacular of society, and political correct neologisms are the tip of the iceberg. Speaking well (note adverb, peeps) signals belonging in the elite of society; those of rough-hewn tongue beyond the polished city gates know who they are, and what’s more, know the mark of their exclusion. They’re not happy about it, she claims. Both sides claim the right to deride the other’s elitism or inarticulateness, respectively, which only deepens the divide.

The 2016 presidential election nurtured these grievances, forcing a new equilibrium. Fake news and alternative facts became buzzphrases, and educators have scrambled in their presence to inoculate their students from their effects. Boyd sees a road to hell here paved with all manner of good intentions.

Consider, for example, the faith placed in media literacy efforts in our age of fake news, troll factories and twitter-fed sensationalism. The journalism of the pre-web era is struggling for audience and understanding in a realm where conspiracies, brazen lies and clickbait can fill your search results – in fact, they may overwhelm the old guard, legitimate sources. She challenges educators to ask themselves a simple question: if we’re teaching students to question everything, how can we be surprised if they question the veracity of the sources on whom we’ve given the imprimatur of fact, truth and reliability?

At root, she claims, is a question of epistemology – how we know what we know – refracted through a prism of partisanship, and even straight-up mental illness. The internet, and social media in particular, have created an atomization of viewpoints under the banner of individualism. Think of it this way: unlike a dinner table or a community event where free speech polices its margins, the web offers the craziest wingnut a soapbox and the tools to be heard. By skillfully manipulating the levers of social media, these trolls can gaslight the public to consider, in the case of mass shootings, what would have once been taboo: the notion that survivors speaking out for gun control are ‘crisis actors.’

It matters not at all, in Boyd’s words, that their assertions are ‘bullshit,’ because the damage is done. A seed of doubt has been planted in the minds of those exposed to such lies. It’s a short jump from exposure to Google search to the list of whackjob websites peddling hate, obfuscation and lies. There’s a 90-minute documentary online about how Sandy Hook was faked and the parents are all paid stooges, if you need to see it to believe it.

And make no mistake, Boyd admonishes: these websites are not poorly put together. The neo-Nazis and their extremist ilk have produced slickly-produced sites, masterfully edited videos and – most perversely of all – a community for the outcasts who find them. Take the red pill they proffer and stick around in Wonderland, as Morpheus put in 1999’s ‘The Matrix,’ so you can see the world as it really is. One of the finest online courses in communication studies Boyd has ever seen was offered by an extremist website that aims to deprogram those bought into the establishment news media’s worldview.

And where did these young extremists, by and large, learn their craft? They learned it from us, she said. We taught them how to use the tools of media without grounding their use in an understanding of epistemology. Just calling something a fact is not enough, since students need to understand that facts can be interpreted. We have opened the Pandora’s box of technological obfuscation, and our most aggrieved students  and adults are weaponizing the haze.

Can this situation get any worse? Yes, it can. Just try convincing someone who’s bought into a lie that they’re wrong, Boyd states, and you’ll watch your interlocutor dig their heels in deeper. Students as well as adults exhibit the same rigidity in the face of what they consider alternative facts, even if you’re speaking the language of established science, fact and knowledge. Your efforts are seen as the very form of propagandizing that the wingnuts feel they’re bravely resisting. The hero’s journey, it seems, can take some ironic turns in Wonderland.

I wish I could assure you that Boyd had left us with a hopeful conclusion, but she didn’t. The strategies for defusing this situation are unclear, and we are all going to have to experiment. How we learn to squeeze this genie back into its bottle will determine how our public discourse rises, falls or splinters further.


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