Social media and public pedagogies of political mis-education

Ben Williamson


Over the past few months the close knit relationship of education with software and data has become a defining feature of political life in democratic societies. In a year that has seen ‘post-truth‘ named as word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, social media fueled by big data has been blamed for creating deep political polarization. At the same time, the organization of formal education has itself been accused of increasing inequalities and widening a gap in the worldviews between young people who leave education with high-status qualification and those who do not. What is the link?

The education gap
Both the UK’s Brexit referendum and the US election have raised significant questions about education. One question was about why, on average, people with fewer educational qualifications had tended to vote for the UK to leave the EU, or for Trump to take the presidency despite his lack of political experience, while those with more qualifications tended to vote the other way. A new ‘education gap’ has emerged as an apparent determinant of people’s political preference. This education gap has begun to raise concerns about divisions in democracy itself, as the political scientist David Runciman has argued:

The possibility that education has become a fundamental divide in democracy—with the educated on one side and the less educated on another—is an alarming prospect. It points to a deep alienation that cuts both ways. The less educated fear they are being governed by intellectual snobs who know nothing of their lives and experiences. The educated fear their fate may be decided by know-nothings who are ignorant of how the world really works.

Of course, plenty of wealthy educated people in the UK voted out of the EU, and voted for Trump in the US. But statistics from both votes did indicate significant population differences in terms of educational qualification, in relation to a range of other social factors, in determining voting patterns.

Significantly, the statistics from the EU referendum indicate that the vote for leaving the EU was concentrated in geographical areas already most affected by growing economic, cultural and social inequalities, as well as by physical pain and mental ill-health and rising mortality rates. The sociologists Mike Savage and Niall Cunningham have vividly articulated the consequences of growing inequalities for citizens’ political participation:

There is ample evidence that political dynamics are being increasingly driven by the dramatic spiraling of escalating inequalities. To put this another way, growing economic inequalities are spilling over into all aspects of social, cultural, and political life, and that there are powerful feedback loops between these different spheres which are generating highly worrying trends.

Education, of course, is itself highly unequally distributed in terms of how well children achieve in schools, in ways that reproduce all sorts of social, cultural and economic inequalities. The increasing separation of children from more or less affluent backgrounds, and according to geographical locales and social and cultural contexts, is part of the dramatic spiralling of inequalities observed by sociologists. The kind of political polarization that materialized during both Brexit and the US election is the result of the related dynamics of education, geography, economics, and cultural and social networks, and the feedback loops between them.

It would be naive to suggest that those people with fewer qualifications are somehow to blame for not being critically aware of how their perspectives were being sculpted by populist propaganda during these campaigns. Anxiety among highly educated elites about the consequences of a lack of political awareness are far from novel. Moreover, the challenge here is to reconcile the polarizing interests of both those who are highly educated and those who are less educated. As Savage and Cunningham concluded, ‘the way that the wealthy elite are increasingly culturally and socially cocooned, and the extent to which large numbers of disadvantaged groups are outside their purview is deeply worrying.’ In their view, a kind of educated ignorance is the problem.

In the EU referendum and the US presidential election alike, neither side appeared to have any deep awareness of the other or of the deep-seated social issues that led to such distinctive and divided patterns of voting, as David Runciman explained:

Social media now enhances these patterns. Friendship groups of like-minded individuals reinforce each other’s worldviews. Facebook’s news feed is designed to deliver information that users are more inclined to ‘like’. Much of the shock that followed the Brexit result in educated circles came from the fact that few people had been exposed to arguments that did not match their preferences. Education does not provide any protection against these social media effects. It reinforces them. … [T]he gap between the educated and the less educated is going to become more entrenched over time, because it … represents a gulf in mutual understanding.

This point raises the other question, which was couched much less explicitly in terms of education. This concerned the role of social media in filtering how people learned about the issues on which they were being invited to vote.

Personalized political learning
The issue of how social media has participated in filtering people’s exposure to diverse political perspectives has become one of the defining debates in the wake of Brexit and the US election. An article in the tech culture magazine Wired on the day of the US election even asked readers, uncharacteristically, to consider the ‘dark side of tech’:

Even as the internet has made it easier to spread information and knowledge, it’s made it just as easy to undermine the truth. On the internet, all ideas appear equal, even when they’re lies. … Social media exacerbates this problem, allowing people to fall easily into echo chambers that circulate their own versions of the truth. … Both Facebook and Twitter are now grappling with how to stem the spread of disinformation on their platforms, without becoming the sole arbiters of truth on the internet.

The involvement of social media in the spread of ‘post-truth politics’ points to how it is leading citizens into informational enclaves designed to feed them news and knowledge that has been filtered to match their interests, based on data analysis of their previous online habits, what they have ‘liked’ or watched, what news sources they prefer, who they follow and what social networks they belong to.

‘Platforms like Twitter and Facebook now provide a structure for our political lives,’ Phil Howard , a sociologist of information and international affairs, has argued. He claims that social algorithms allow ‘large volumes of fake news stories, false factoids, and absurd claims’ to be ‘passed over social media networks, often by Twitter’s highly automated accounts and Facebook’s algorithms.’

Since the US election, it has been revealed that Trump’s campaign team worked closely with Facebook data to generate audience lists and targeted social media campaigns. Added to this, other more politically-activist social media sites such as Breitbart and Infowars have actively disseminated right-wing political agendas, reaching audiences that count in the tens of millions, as  Alex Krasodomski-Jones has detailed. ‘Computational propaganda’ involving automated bots spreading sensationalist political memes across social media networks have further compounded the problematic polarization of news consumption. Facebook and Twitter now accelerate the spread of fake news or sensationalized political bias through mechanisms such as trending topics and moments, which are engineered to be personalized to users’ preferences.

Clearly there are important implications here for how young people access and evaluate information. Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller of the think tank Demos wrote a report 5 years ago that highlighted a need to teach young people critical thinking and scepticism online to ‘allow them to better identify outright lies, scams, hoaxes, selective half-truths, and mistakes.’

But the debate is not just about how to protect young people from online trolling, propagandist bias and fake news. Just as with the debate about the education gap, it’s important to note that people from across the political spectrum, whether highly educated or not, are all increasingly ‘socially and culturally cocooned’ as Mike Savage and Niel Cunningham phrased it. Education and social media are both involved in producing these cocooning effects.

The sociologist of social media Tarleton Gillespie wrote a few years ago about how big data-driven social media creates not just ‘networked publics’ who cohere together online around shared tastes and preferences, but ‘calculated publics‘: algorithmically produced snapshots of the ‘public’ around us and what most concerns it. He argued that search engines, recommendation systems, algorithms on social networking sites, and ‘trend’ identification algorithms not only help us find information, but provide a means to know what there is to know and to participate in social and political discourse.

Algorithmic calculations are now at the very centre of how people are learning to take part in political and democratic life, by filtering, curating and shaping what information and news we consume based on calculations of what most concerns and engages us — the logic of social media personalization now applies to political life. In other words, we are now living in a period of personalized political learning, whereby our existing political preferences are being reinforced by the consumption of news and information via social media and our participation in calculated, networked publics, with the consequence that  alternative perspectives are being systematically curated out of our feeds and out of our minds.

So seriously is this problem being taken that, in the fallout from the US election, it has been reported that a team of ‘renegade’ Facebook employees has established itself to deal with fake news and misinformation, although Mark Zuckerberg has denied Facebook had anything to do with it. The web entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly has suggested it would be a mistake for Facebook to reinstate human editors — whose alleged political bias was itself the centre of a major controversy not so long ago — but to design more intelligent techniques for separating information from sensationalist misinformation:

The answer is not for Facebook to put journalists to work weeding out the good from the bad. It is to understand, in the same way that they’ve so successfully divined the features that lead to higher engagement, how to build algorithms that take into account ‘truth’ as well as popularity.

Expect the quest for truth-divining algorithms to become a dominant feature of technical development in the social media field over the next years. Google in Europe, for example, has already announced support for a startup company that is developing automated, real-time fact-checking software (called RoboCheck) for online news. The appeal of apparently objective, impartial and unbiased truth-seeking algorithms in post-truth times is obvious, though as recent work in digital sociology and geography has repeatedly shown, algorithms are always dependent on the choices and decisions of their designers and engineers. The ‘social power of algorithms‘ such as those of Facebook to intervene in political life may not easily be resolved by new algorithms.

Public pedagogies of political mis-education
The post-truth spread of misinformation twinned with the magnification of political and social polarization via social media platforms and algorithms is at the core of a new public pedagogy of political mis-education. Public pedagogy is a term used to refer to the lessons that are taught outside of formal educational institutions by popular culture, informal institutions and public spaces,  dominant cultural discourses, and public intellectualism and social activism. Big data and social media are fast becoming the most successful sources of public pedagogy in the everyday lives of millions around the world. They are educating people by sealing them off into filter bubbles and echo chambers, where access to information, culture, news, and intellectual and activist discourse is being curated algorithmically.

The filter bubbles or echo chambers that calculated publics inhabit when they spend time on the web are consequential because they appear to close off access to alternative perspectives, and potentially lead people to think that everyone thinks like they do, shares their political sentiments, their aspirations, their fears. This is further related to, reproduced and exacerbated by  social inequalities in education, economics and cultural access. Doing well in formal education or not now appears to be a determinant of which kinds of social networks and calculated publics you belong to. ‘The educational divide that is opening up in our politics is not really between knowledge and ignorance,’ David Runciman argues. ‘It is a clash between one worldview and another.’

In an age where highly educated people and less educated people are being sharply divided both by social media and by their experience of education alike, serious issues are raised for the future of education as a social institution itself and the part it plays in supporting democratic processes. Existing educational inequalities and the experience of being parts of calculated publics in social media networks are now in a dynamic feedback loop. The public pedagogies of social media are becoming mis-educational in their effects, polarizing public opinion along different axes but most especially between the highly educated and the less educated.

Forms of measurement using data have long been at the core of how governments know and manage populations, as the sociologist David Beer has demonstrated in his work on ‘metric power.’ Today, the measurement of people’s interests, preferences and sentiments via social media, and the use of that information to feed-back content that people will like and that matches their existing preferences, is leading to a form of calculating governance that is exacerbating divisive politics and eroding democratic cohesion. Via social media data, people are being educated and governed according to measurements that indicate their existing worldview, and then provided access to more of the same.

As Brexit and the US election indicate, increasingly people in the UK and US are being governed as two separate publics, with many of the less-educated incited to support political campaigns that the more-educated find alien and incomprehensible, and vice versa. The philosopher Bruno Latour has described them as ‘two bubbles of unrealism,’ one clinging to an imagined future of globalization and the other retreating to the imagined ‘old countries of the past,’ or ‘a utopia of the future confronting a utopia of the past’:

For now, the utopia of the past has won out. But there’s little reason to think that the situation would be much better and more sustainable had the utopia of the future triumphed instead. … If the horizon of ‘globalization’ can no longer attract the masses, it is because everyone now understands more or less clearly that there is no real, material world in the offing corresponding to that vision of a promised land. … Nor can we count any longer on returning to the old countries of the past.

Education has long reinforced these utopias of unrealism — we’ve been teaching and learning in ‘post-truth’ times for years. Contradictory policy demands over the last two decades have pointed simultaneously towards an education for the future of a high-skills, globalized knowledge economy (as reinforced by global policy actors like the OECD), and an education of the past which emphasizes traditional values, national legacy, social order and authority. Social media algorithms and architectures have further enabled these utopias of unrealism to embed themselves across the US and Europe.

The mis-education of democratic society by the public pedagogies of big data and social media is being enabled by algorithmic techniques that are designed to optimize and personalize people’s everyday experiences in digital environments. But in the name of personalization and optimization, the same techniques are leading to post-truth forms of political mis-education and democratic polarization.

Sociologists have begun asking hard questions about the capacity of their field to address the new problems surfaced by Brexit and Trump. The field of education needs to involve itself too in this new problem space, in order to probe how young people are measured and known through traces of their data from early age; how their tastes and preferences are  formed through the dynamics between imagined utopias and social media feedback loops; how these relate to entrenched patterns of educational and other social inequalities; and how their sense of their place and their futures in democratic societies is formed as they encounter the public pedagogies of big data and social media in their everyday lives. How, in short, should we approach education in post-truth times?

Image credit: Quapan
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6 Responses to Social media and public pedagogies of political mis-education

  1. Bethan Mitchell says:

    This is really interesting and I can relate to the activities on social media. I defriended someone the other day because they posted something supporting Trump. I keep doing it by unfollowing or hiding posts, then I think everyone agrees with me. I also think that although social media can exacerbate the isolation of like-minded groups, it also creates new spaces. I feel safe in my group to express myself in terms of things like feminism and political leanings. I don’t know where I would have had this space in the past without being associated with groups that I don’t feel I belong to.

  2. educationstate says:

    If algorithmically social media is providing things we want to hear/read/see, then the problem is as much about the person’s education and experience off-line as it is on – unless we think FB and Twitter are forming minds from tabula rasa. The problem is that for decades now schools and to a lesser extent universities have concentrated less on inquiry and more on content for passing exams. This creates populations rich in knowledge but poor in deciphering it and so as we have seen, we stick with what is familiar (family, community) rather than with what is warranted. Social media is exacerbating this situation not creating it, I would argue.

    • I agree that social media are exacerbating existing problems that come from the social organization of education itself, and all the inequalities that flow from that. But then social media also has its own public pedagogies, which also perform an educative function outside of formal ed institutions, and now appear to create feedback loops that reinforce increasingly polarizing worldviews formed as young people are sorted by achievement.

  3. Pingback: Important Topic: Social media and public pedagogies of political mis-education | code acts in education | teaching knowledge and creativity

  4. Pingback: Fake news: is media literacy the answer? | David Buckingham

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