Is there enough diversity in your social media?

By Torrey Trust
October 19th, 2015

As we consume more social media, our perspectives are getting less diverse. That’s a problem — for us and for students

PLCs-communitiesEd. note: Innovation In Action is a new monthly column from the International Society of Technology in Education focused on exemplary practices in education.

diversity-socialmediaOnce, while living in Santa Barbara, a small but jolting earthquake hit close to home. I went directly to Yahoo and Google to see what I could learn. Surprisingly, I could not find any useful links or information. So, I turned to Facebook, where my news feed was overflowing with comments, links, and resources about the earthquake.

Since then, I’ve started using Facebook and Twitter to learn about all kinds of recent events and news happening nearby and around the world. And I’m not the only one using social media sites in this way. According to the Pew Research Center, more than 50 percent of American adults get their news from social media sites, and this percentage is much higher for Millennials.

It turns out there’s a reason behind the trend. One of the benefits of getting the news from your digital networks is that you don’t have to search for, or filter through, various news sites to find the news that is most important to you. Facebook friends and the people you follow on Twitter often have similar interests, opinions, and attitudes as you. So when someone from your digital network shares a news story, you’re more likely to be interested in reading it compared to the other stories that you come across on news sites. This saves you time and energy and also allows you to stay up-to-date on the latest news.

Or does it?

Did you hear about the multiple black churches that were set on fire in the south after the Charleston shooting? Or, did you hear about the police shooting of the unarmed Native American, Corey Kanosh? What about the fact that the Los Angeles City Council approved a law that encouraged authorities to seize and destroy the property of homeless people?

Too many people are getting hurt and too many lives are being destroyed and we often don’t even hear about these events. At the 2015 Digital Media and Learning Conference, Van Jones made a poignant comment, “We pretend to have diversity in the United States. We don’t. We have bubbles that touch.” This is exactly what is happening in social media sites. We cultivate networks of people who are like us and who share the same news articles that we would share. When people who are very different than us are hurt or hurting we may not even realize it because we live and learn in a bubble.

However, social media can be more than a space for likeminded individuals to connect, it can be a game changer (think Ice Bucket Challenge or #YesAllWomen). It can enlighten people, encourage conversations, and facilitate action. It can be the place where, together, we redefine what “mainstream media” is and who controls information and knowledge.

The first step in using social media as a tool to create change is gaining awareness. Awareness of who is or isn’t in your network. Awareness of the resources that you can use to expand your knowledge and access diverse perspectives. Awareness of how mainstream media is skewing ideas and concealing events that may not be of interest to the “general public.”

Next, we all need to actively seek out diverse perspectives, ideas, and people to join our networks. Diversity is essential for innovation and transformation. This can easily be done with social media by following Twitter hashtags (e.g., #blacktwitter, #climatechange, #LatinosUnidos, #autismawareness), following grassroots media sites on Facebook and Twitter, and by joining social media groups and discussion forums that challenge your perspective and knowledge.

And, finally, it is important to start asking questions and engaging in critical conversations—should Los Angeles authorities be allowed to take away the makeshift homes of homeless people? Why is the media only focusing on the negative riots in Baltimore? Why are so many unarmed minorities being shot by police? What are we doing to address climate change?

Feigning ignorance is no longer an option. Social media sites provide a multitude of ways to break out of your bubble, connect with individuals with diverse perspectives, and create lasting change that can improve the lives of many people.

The ISTE Standards for Students recommends that teachers provide opportunities for students to:

  • Develop cultural understanding and global awareness by engaging with learners of other cultures.
  • Locate, organize, analyze, evaluate, synthesize, and ethically use information from a variety of sources and media.
  • Identify and define authentic problems and significant questions for investigation.
  • Use multiple processes and diverse perspectives to explore alternative solutions.

These are standards that encourage awareness, diverse perspectives, critical thinking, and problem solving.

In the age of social media learning, it is essential for both teachers and students to develop digital citizenship skills in order to become critical consumers, distributors, and producers of the news. In his book, Digital Citizenship in Schools, Mike Ribble identified digital literacy, digital communication, and digital etiquette as three of the nine elements of digital citizenship. According to Ribble, it’s important for teachers and students to understand how information is exchanged in social media sites (digital communication), how to learn in a digital society (digital literacy), and how to identify the rules and norms that shape knowledge in social media sites (digital etiquette). These three skills can help individuals become more informed and mindful social media users who know how to evaluate popular news, identify gaps, seek out diverse perspectives, and ask thought-provoking questions.

Now it’s your turn. Scan your Facebook and Twitter feeds and examine the news articles that your friends and followers post. Who are the people sharing these articles? Do your friends and followers seem to share the same type of news? Do they share news from the same outlets? What types of questions come to mind as you read these articles? How can you engage in critical conversations about the information presented in these articles? How might you find articles that present different perspectives?

Answering these questions will help you develop your digital citizenship skills and become a more informed consumer of the news. The next step is to think about how you can help your students develop these same skills.

torrey-trustTorrey Trust, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of learning technology in the Department of Teacher Education & Curriculum Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Follow her @torreytrust.