When Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter Drive Controversial Conversations

Spring 2020

By Nate Green

Social media, not schools, has emerged as the place where students discuss controversial events and ideas, a trend that teachers and parents need to address proactively. From politics to school discipline, from sexual harassment to racism, when our school community stumbles into disagreement, our students debate in polarizing spaces without adults present. As educators and school leaders, we have to accept that we cannot graduate responsible citizens without directly addressing the problems created by social media.

As a teacher who wants to be there to help students through social and political strife, I frequently find that my students have already expressed their opinions and aired their differences on social media before they arrive in class, and I'm never privy to the details. This fact makes those controversial topics hard to cover in my classroom for a number of reasons. First, we’re not all starting from the same point. Some students know more than others in terms of what’s been posted, and all of them know more than I do. Second, it means that many of the students have already publicly taken sides on any given issue via those online posts. When students have already voiced support for a side and know they’re not alone, it’s harder for them to listen to others, compromise, or change opinions. And other students are less likely to engage a student who has already staked out a position.

Fundamentally, I believe that students should have as many controversial conversations as possible face-to-face and—if we can swing it—with an adult present. I feel fortunate that that’s how I learned how to articulate opinions supported by evidence and how to disagree civilly. Through conversation, I figured out how I felt about contentious issues. Productive conversation incorporates body language, and face-to-face conversations promote empathy and understanding. And it’s crucial to have an informed mediator present to help facilitate a fair, civil, and factual conversation. If those conversations take place in the classroom, a teacher can push students to use evidence and to find common ground. An educator can help students see and consider the additional nuances and complexities of a controversial conversation. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening.

Instead, students are using Snapchat, Instagram, and Twitter to discuss controversial issues. Here’s how that tends to go when something controversial happens at school or in the world. A student (or group of students) takes a stand on the issue in a public setting or in a public post. Then, other students react to it by responding to the individual directly or indirectly by posting their own commentary online. On Snapchat, that can happen semi-publicly with a story or more privately with a “private story.” On Twitter, that often happens via “private Twitter”—smaller Twitter networks where students connect only with their close friends and where students rant about things that irk them. Frequently, when controversy arises in these spaces, students screenshot the altercation and send it to group chats for further discussion (often leaving out the initial participants)
During a community meeting, a campus club did a presentation on Flint’s water crisis where they mentioned and explained the term “environmental racism.” Before students arrived at my next class, not 10 minutes later, there were already memes circulating on Twitter and Snapchat by students who ridiculed the concept of environmental racism (and their classmates who worked to raise awareness) by posting an image or emoji of a tree and writing “the trees are racist” and many variations of that message.
When this happened, I was incredibly disappointed. I was upset with the content of the post, as it showed that students were ill-informed and unwilling to listen to their peers. And, I was upset by the us versus them mentality that resulted from the meeting and was exacerbated by the posts. Before anyone had considered the topic thoughtfully, each student had staked a position by “liking” a post. It’s hard to get students to understand context and reconsider a position through instruction and discussion once they’ve already connected themselves to a cause on social media. I was also upset that this all happened digitally rather than face-to-face. Digital interaction allows students to confine themselves to their own polarized network with friends who are more likely to support them. And finally, I was upset that no adults in the building were aware of these posts. If they’re not aware, they can’t create the time to host a conversation to help students articulate their opinions (in more than just a meme-style post) and respond to each other civilly.

The event described above made me wonder how frequently these topics and responses emerge online among our students without adults having any idea that it’s happening. Spoiler alert: It’s common! Unfortunately, there are a number of triggers that result in students gravitating toward digital spaces with networks of like-minded peers to address contentious issues. And all of these issues hurt teaching and learning in our classrooms and erode the values of our school community.

Sometimes our school rolls out a policy that students disagree with, and they post about it online. Our school has shut down student T-shirt ideas, modified themed dress-down days, and opposed national political decisions. These actions have resulted in angry, uncivil posts where students attack the school or blame other students (directly or via subtweet) for being the reason something got changed or shut down. Other times, these controversies come from national politics or current events, which our students often encounter through these same social media apps.
When the president ended DACA and committed to building a wall on the southern border, students fought it out digitally over who was welcome and who was not welcome in the country and, by extension, the school.
Political quarrels like this one can lead to long Instagram threads where students attack each other’s politics, race, socioeconomic status, and more. These disagreements disproportionately hurt our most vulnerable students. Behind screens, it’s easier to express disrespectful, unsubstantiated feelings, and it’s easier to dismiss opposition. It’s also easier to post something inappropriate and then claim you were joking if others call you out on it. This happens all too frequently in the digital spaces our students occupy.

In society at large, and in our schools, we’re seeing a rise in echo chambers—spaces where people learn from and exchange ideas only with like-minded individuals. Unfortunately, many of these spaces do not value the things schools and teachers do when it comes to discussion and collaboration: things like veracity, civility, humility, and empathy. Nevertheless, when controversial conversations begin online, our students retreat to their smaller, more private digital spaces—whether that’s a group chat, a Finsta or a private Snap story—to unload their most controversial opinions. And these echo chambers breed conformity, diametric thinking, tribalism, and, at their worst, radicalization.
One day, two students shared with me that they spent the last evening sitting together arguing back and forth with classmates about mass shootings, school safety, and gun control. While one student researched information, the other tweeted their opinions bolstered by this information. It went on for hours.
In addition to the problems of echo chambers online, it’s clear that our students are also suffering from confirmation bias, carefully cherry-picking facts to “win” an argument. Unfortunately, both in our schools and nationally, conversations have become zero-sum games in which one party “wins” and one “loses.” They’re trying to score points, measured by likes and retweets, and they are using simplistic tactics like memes and hypotheticals, which are exacerbated by the superficiality of much online conversation, to persuade passive onlookers.

No matter how these controversial conversations start, having them online polarizes our school community. Both locally and nationally, online disputes result in the loudest, most extreme voices being amplified. Bystanders promote extreme voices with “likes” even if those liking the post don’t agree with it in its entirety. And, those upstanders who disagree, or want to better understand the complexities involved before speaking up, often retreat into smaller networks or offline entirely. After all, these online conversations are antithetical to complexity.

The conversations incubated in echo chambers and waged by extreme voices equipped with confirmation bias lead to a number of assumptions about who is on which side of an issue and why. There is no context. Instead, tribe members attack a projected worst version of an opponent.

Finally, it’s important to understand that even after these debates occur online, it doesn’t drive students to meet and talk face-to-face the next day. On the contrary, they will literally walk past someone in the hallway that they were arguing with online the night before without saying a word. The next day, these disputes will move through the school via hearsay or screenshot, but rarely do the actual participants seek to clarify or further discuss, face-to-face, what was typed. As a result, these exchanges affect the learning in our classrooms for several days—and not just with the students involved.

Proactively addressing the problems described above requires us to pay attention to digital disagreements and endeavor to bring these issues into our classrooms for face-to-face conversations. Classroom conversations are a vital counterpoint to online echo chambers. Students are unable to confine their discussions to their preferred networks. Teachers can head off confirmation bias. And with face-to-face conversations—even with like-minded individuals—extreme statements get tempered by the group, by facial expressions, by tone, and by additional information (and space for more characters). These face-to-face classroom conversations highlight the seriousness and complexity of an issue. They promote empathy and they provide the space and support for participants to evolve their opinions as they learn more. Finally, and perhaps most important, moving these conversations off of social media and into the classroom teaches students citizenship via consensus and coalition building, which will help us graduate leaders equipped to move people and solve problems.
Nate Green

Nate Green (@MrShakedown) serves as the technology and instruction specialist at Flint Hill School, Oakton, Virginia, where he teaches two Innovation Department electives, Passion-Based Learning through Social Media and Internet & Inequality.