A critical media education approach: using the concept of representation to teach about social media.
Are the ‘key concepts’ of media education still relevant in an age of social media? To what extent do they need to be reformulated, or even replaced? In an earlier post, I made the case for a critical media education approach to social media. This is the third of four posts in which I take each of the media education key concepts and think through how they might be applied in teaching this area. (If you’re not familiar with this key concepts approach, you can find a very straightforward summary here, and some approaches to assessment here.)
In this post, I’m looking at the concept of representation; and I’ll be referring primarily to platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. I begin by re-stating a few of the most important emphases here, and considering how far they might apply to social media. I then briefly suggest a few topics or strategies for teaching, primarily at upper secondary (high school) level. This is not intended to be comprehensive or definitive: it’s very much provisional, work in progress. I’m keen to receive feedback, via the old-fashioned medium of e-mail.
The concept of ‘representation’ is one of the founding principles of media education. By definition, media do not offer us a transparent ‘window on the world’, but a mediated version of it. They don’t just present reality, but re-present it. Media representations therefore inevitably invite us to see the world in some particular ways and not others. They are bound to be biased rather than objective.
This is self-evidently the case with social media as well. When we post images of ourselves, when we tweet about a news story (or about what we had for breakfast), or even when we share content we have found elsewhere, we are making choices. We are deciding what to show or not to show; we are telling stories or making arguments; and we are often initiating or continuing a dialogue with other users. We are not only representing aspects of the wider social world; we are also representing ourselves – making claims about the kind of person we are or would like to be, and inviting others to see us in particular ways.
Representation is a complex and contested issue. In many cases, it’s very hard to make absolute distinctions between truth and falsehood. We can certainly identify inaccuracies and misrepresentations, and even blatant lies; but in most instances, it’s just not that simple. Furthermore, we need to take account of audiences here. For the most part, media do not simply deceive people into mistaking representations for reality. People also compare media with their own experiences and with other knowledge: they make judgments about how truthful they are, and hence how far they can be trusted.
Studying representation is obviously political. It means looking at what is included and excluded, and at how these things are put together, in order to make claims about the world. We need to consider whose stories and arguments these are: whose views of the world are represented, and whose are absent. Studying representation involves analysing how different social groups are represented, and whose interests these representations serve.
For example, questions about how social class, gender and race are represented – and indeed how these things are defined and marked out – are bound to be central concerns. However, we need to look beyond some of the simplistic claims that are often made about this. Studying representation is not just about spotting stereotypes and condemning them. What counts as a stereotype or a negative image for one person might not do so for another. Meaning isn’t just there in the text: it depends upon the receiver, and on the context.
For all these reasons, studying representation is challenging. It isn’t a simple matter of comparing media representations with the truth – even assuming that we could agree what that is. Rather, it’s about critically examining how representations claim to tell the truth – how they establish their authority, their credibility and their authenticity. There’s a significant overlap here with the concept of media language: the focus is on the ‘rhetoric’, on how representations are trying to persuade us of their own validity.
All this also applies to social media, whether we are ‘simply consuming’ or actively participating – whether we are reading or watching or listening, or posting or sharing or just ‘liking’. Indeed, in some ways, social media bring the issue of representation into even sharper relief. In the world of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, there are no editors or publishers or broadcasters: the intermediaries or gatekeepers who control access to other media – and who claim to guarantee its quality and reliability – are no longer there. Within (very few) limits, we can create and distribute whatever we want. This disintermediation makes it harder to know who to trust, especially in a situation where there is so much more material available – although of course, that’s not to say we should trust the gatekeepers in older media either.
In the world of social media, we come to rely on recommendation or reputation. You like that, so you will probably like this; this person recommends this other person; and so on. However, this can be highly problematic. Recommendation partly depends upon the operation of algorithms, which are controlled by social media companies, not least in the interest of maximising their profits from advertising. Reputation can quickly become a kind of popularity contest; establishing authority can be simply a matter of drawing as much attention to yourself as possible. In the early days of social media, some people referred to this as ‘the wisdom of crowds’ – although in the age of Twitter mobs, we might want to take a more sceptical view.
Questions for teaching
Here again, many of the approaches media educators have used in relation to ‘old’ media can also be applied here. What stories about the world, or about our immediate personal lives, do we create through our selection of images on our personal Instagram feeds or Facebook profiles? How do celebrity bloggers (or micro-bloggers on Twitter) attempt to establish their credibility and reputation? How do witness videos captured by ‘citizen journalists’ claim to be authentic, and what do they omit? How do people proclaim or represent their membership of social groups online – in everything from large-scale campaigns like MeToo and Black Lives Matter, right through to individual self-portraits?
Of course, much of the content that is shared via social media is derived from old media in the first place; and even much of the original content uses forms and genres that are familiar from TV, film, advertising and print journalism. The comparisons are worth pursuing. For example, what are the similarities and differences between YouTube vloggers like Zoella and TV shopping channels; between investigative shorts on Vice and mainstream current affairs; or between the kinds of self-promotion we see on Twitter of Facebook and more traditional forms of advertising? This is also a space to consider the practice of ‘remixing’ and ‘mashups’, especially where people rework existing media content to create contrasting or subversive representations.
However, this also applies to some of the more problematic forms of online content. The political propaganda that is created for extremist websites has much in common with older forms of propaganda; ‘hate speech’ occurs offline as well as online, even though it might have different characteristics when it occurs in anonymous online spaces; and online pornography needs to be understood in the context of a history of sexual representation that goes back to ancient times. For all sorts of reasons, we probably wouldn’t want to be using this kind of material in the classroom. But it is part of the social media environment in which our students are growing up, and isn’t going to go away if we just ignore it. Personally, I think the controversies around these issues are important topics to teach, not least because they tell us a good deal about wider changes in the media landscape. Students will undoubtedly be aware of these debates; and they should be critically examining the assumptions that are being made here, especially about the influence of these forms of media on young people.
Case study: ‘fake news’
Fake news is perhaps an easier topic to address here, although as I’ve argued elsewhere, there are some pitfalls to avoid. Here again, there are some fundamental questions about reliability and credibility that carry over from studies of ‘old’ media. Debates about bias, fairness and objectivity are very familiar ground for media teachers. There are now countless sets of recommendations available that might enable students to identify fake news – although not all of them are likely to be usable on an everyday basis. Social media obviously play a crucial role in disseminating fake news, and there are some specific questions here about how we assess the validity of online sources. Equally significant is the economic dimension: fake news can be understood as a form of clickbait, and there are strong financial motivations for those who produce and distribute it.
However, some of the recommendations that are being made here seem to oversimplify the issue. Some stories are self-evidently false, but in many cases it’s not simply a matter of telling truth from lies. It seems to be assumed that if we can identify fake news, then we will go back to real news and everything will be fine. What we need to understand is why people might be inclined to believe so-called fake news in the first place – and even persist in doing so when they have been told the truth. This isn’t to deny that there is a global ‘information war’ going on, but it does suggest that it’s not going to be easy for individuals to deal with it.
Here again I would argue that media educators also need to take step back: we need to be teaching about the controversies themselves – not least at a point where the charge of ‘fake news’ is being laid by people who might well be seen as its leading perpetrators. How – and by whom – is ‘fake news’ identified as a social problem in the first place? What kinds of claims are people making about it – for example, about its prevalence, and about its effects? Is it possible that fake news is a distraction from more fundamental problems?
Case study: self-representation
My second more extended example moves from the ‘macro’ to the ‘micro’. For social media enthusiasts, one of the most empowering possibilities here is to do with self-representation. Social media provide us with the means to represent ourselves – our experiences and perspectives, but also our bodies – in a wider public arena. How we choose to do this will reflect the affordances of different social media platforms: the versions of ourselves that we share on Facebook might well be different from those on Instagram, and different again on LinkedIn or on a school’s learning platform. These differences are partly to do with social context (and the likely audience), but also to do with the constraints of the platforms themselves.
We can examine selfies as a media genre, with its own distinctive media language, rules and conventions. However, we also need to analyse them as representations. Which aspects of the self we do choose to present or perform? Which gestures, poses and facial expressions do we adopt, and which clothes do we wear? What are the settings or occasions in which selfies are appropriate or inappropriate? What kinds of responses are we inviting, and how do we respond to other people’s self-images? As I’ve argued elsewhere, there are some interesting continuities between these practices and the wider world of media celebrity and reality TV; and there is also a long history of self-representation in the visual arts that is interesting to consider in this context. This is an area that really lends itself to practical exploration – for example, by creating images that break the rules in various ways, and exploring the consequences.
Of course, this is a controversial area. Critics tend to argue that this kind of self-representation is very far from empowering. It’s a form of self-objectification, which is especially oppressive for young women. Platforms like Facebook are routinely accused of promoting sexualisation, narcissism, and disorders like ‘body dysmorphia’. More broadly, the parading of one’s personal life in social media is seen to cultivate an unhealthy form of social comparison and competitiveness. These kinds of arguments reflect familiar anxieties about media effects, in which young people are often seen to be especially vulnerable. In my view, they tend to simplify the issues, not least by focussing on individual mental health rather than any broader changes that might be taking place in the social position of young people.
Yet whatever view we take on this, the primary aim of teaching about such issues is not to protect or warn young people against some harm we imagine might befall them. Here again, my preference would be to teach about these controversies themselves – to enable students to examine the kinds of claims that are being made, to analyse the underlying assumptions and the kinds of rhetoric that are being used, and to evaluate the evidence. In the process, media students should become more careful and more critical users of social media; but they should also learn to speak back to these wider public debates.