Developing a critical media education approach to teaching social media: some concluding reflections.
This has been the year of the ‘techlash’. Over the past few months, there’s been a significant shift in the public debate about social media. Fake news, addiction, hate speech, data harvesting, cyberbullying… the litany of digital ills gets longer by the day.
Amid all these controversies, there have been growing calls for young people to be taught about social media. One of the latest examples of this was the European Commission report on fake news and ‘online disinformation’, which recommended that member states should support programmes of media and information literacy in schools. A couple of months earlier, the UK Children’s Commissioner was calling for young people to be taught about the emotional impact of social media, especially as they transition to secondary school.
To be fair, both these reports recommend a range of other measures, including the regulation of social media companies. But when it comes to education, the discussion often seems to stop there. Once we’ve neatly passed the buck to teachers, we no longer have to think about what and how they might actually teach, or the support they might need in doing so.
I can also recall, some months ago, reading an article in the unlikely location of the Daily Telegraph, which suggested that it might be a good idea to have a new subject in schools where students would learn about the internet and social media. It could have sub-topics like identifying fake news, internet safety, cyber-bullying, the dark web and how to use the net to its potential, the writer suggested.
Well, I have news for these people. There is already such a subject, at least in UK schools: it’s called Media Studies. And yet unfortunately it’s a subject that the likes of the Daily Telegraph have spent many years vilifying, on the basis of nothing more than prejudice and ignorance.
Of course, Media Studies – and media education more broadly – is about much more than fake news and internet safety. But what it can do is help to set topics like these within a broader, and more coherent, critical framework. Rather than fragmentary, knee-jerk responses to passing waves of concern, it provides a rigorous conceptual basis for teaching and learning, and it has a long history of methods that actually work in the classroom.
However, in my view, media educators have been somewhat wrong-footed by the rise of digital and social media. Ten years ago, some were enthusiastically revelling in the participatory possibilities of Web 2.0. Critical Media Studies, they told us, was old-fashioned and patronizing: what we needed was a rebranded version, Media Studies 2.0, which would celebrate the liberating potential of new media. Others – myself included – were very critical of that argument at the time. And in the age of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, it seems that we have been more than vindicated.
Of course, Media Studies needs to take account of new media, but it shouldn’t be dominated by them. We need a historical approach, and we need to understand social media in the context of the whole range of media. Yet the crucial point here is that we won’t just learn by doing – merely by participating in the world of Twitter and Facebook and the rest – as the advocates of Media Studies 2.0 seemed to suggest. If we’re going to develop a critical approach, we need a set of concepts, a body of knowledge and some analytical tools.
This is particularly important given that social media are so ephemeral. Companies, trends and controversies wax and wane, perhaps more rapidly than they did in the age of ‘old’ media. For example, Facebook currently enjoys a kind of monopoly – it claims to be used by almost one third of the entire world population – but after the events of the last few weeks, it’s interesting to speculate about whether it will still be here in ten years’ time. If we’re going to teach about this rapidly changing world, we need a coherent set of principles, rather than just an arbitrary list of content.
In my view, the media education key concepts (media language, representation, production, audience) continue to serve that function. As I’ve suggested, some of them (especially ‘audience’) may need some broadening or rethinking. But they encompass most of the issues I would want to address in teaching social media, including most, if not all, of the issues that currently attract the most controversy
Setting such issues in this wider conceptual framework should help teachers to get beyond the limitations of mere finger-wagging (don’t do this, don’t do that), which is characteristic of a good deal of teaching about internet safety. For instance, I’ve suggested that we need to teach about cyberbullying in the broader context of studying how we all behave online. If English teachers can use literature and creative writing to teach about the emotional dimensions of growing up, I don’t see why media educators can’t also teach about these more personal and intimate dimensions of social media use.
In this series of posts, I’ve been trying to explain what this might look like in practice. In doing so, I’ve taken each of the concepts in turn, although of course they overlap. In teaching, one would be more likely to take particular examples or case studies and apply all of the concepts. For instance, fake news involves questions about representation, but we also need to address aspects like production (the economics of fake news) and audience (for example, questions about belief and credibility). Likewise, it makes sense to teach about a practice like microblogging (such as Twitter) by considering the relationships between each of these dimensions: how the platforms work economically, how people engage with them, how the form constrains and makes possible particular kinds of communication, and how this results in particular ways of representing the world.
One obvious objection here is that these issues barely feature on the recognized syllabus for Media Studies, at least in the UK. I’ve said more than enough elsewhere about the damaging nature of the government’s recent ‘reforms’; but it’s strange to note how old-fashioned the examination boards’ new specifications already seem in this respect, only a year or two since they were first drafted.
For example, there is only a vague inclusive reference to ‘online media’ in the Eduqas specification. OCR has ‘online, participatory and social media’, but its examples are of newspaper websites (the Mail Online and the Guardian). Social media are not on the list of nine media for compulsory study, and the ‘set texts’ chosen by the boards do not include any examples of social media platforms.
This isn’t to say that teachers won’t teach about this area. It’s hard to imagine teaching about news, for example, without addressing so-called fake news or the use of social media. Nevertheless, the main focus is bound to be determined by the boards’ specifications. In my view, this is another reason why boards (or indeed the government) should not be in the business of specifying content in the first place. It should be left to teachers to select relevant content, in relation to defined theoretical areas or conceptual issues.
When it comes to the requirement to teach ‘theory’, especially at A-Level, the situation is now quite absurd. The examination boards have left us with a motley collection of theorists, of whom only three have anything to say about social media. Two of them (Gauntlett and Shirky) are perhaps more charitably described as popular commentators rather than theorists; and, like the third, Henry Jenkins, they are highly optimistic cyber-utopians. One could argue that we need some proper theorists here (if we have to have Butler and Baudrillard, then we can probably have Manovich); but the real point is that students need to be able to interrogate and challenge ‘theory’. Thus, Jenkins’s ideas have been vigorously contested, for example by Christian Fuchs; but the exam boards and the government seem to want us to teach theory as a set of bullet-pointed ‘facts’.
Finally, I’m struck by the fact that my proposals for teaching have not included very many practical, creative activities in these posts. This might just be a failure of imagination on my part, but it may also reflect a broader historic shift in thinking about the relation between theory and practice in media education.
I’ve always been an advocate of students getting involved in practical media-making. Back in the day, this wasn’t easy: it was technologically challenging, and there was never enough equipment to go around. In the 1980s, most students had few opportunities to do creative things with media outside formal educational settings. The situation today is very different: most students are able to do the creative work outside the classroom. The more urgent need now is to provide opportunities for critical thinking.
However, there is a problem here, which is similar to that which teachers encounter in teaching computer games. Not all students will be equally interested or invested in social media – or at least, they might use social media in very different ways, for different purposes. There are important differences here in terms of access and cultural capital, but also in people’s inclinations and preferences (and perhaps also in terms of gender and social class). Dealing with this diversity of experience in the classroom is likely to prove a continuing challenge.
I’d very much like to thank Jenny Grahame of the English and Media Centre for acting as my sounding board on this series of posts.