The fight to take back The Hype Machine

It was not with surprise but rather with disgust that I read the news of what happened  at the Capitol this past week. I wrote that “it is a hard and sobering fact that white supremacy is alive and well, endorsed by one of the most powerful people in the world.” Emboldened by the outrage coming from the United States, I implored teachers to fight with unrelenting compassion against the lies spread by xenophobic racist hate-fueled speech. As the media’s powerful white narrative and biased treatment become more overt through comparisons to Black Lives Matter protests, it has left me questioning how do we, as teachers, fight against these messages.

 

This is a case for critical literacy.

I have spent the last few weeks reading Sinan Aral’s The Hype Machine: How Social Media Disrupts Our Elections, Our Economy, and Our Health–and How We Must Adapt. Linking data and statistics to social media shifts, The Hype Machine is a fascinating expose on the dire consequences of our online behaviour and consumption. Aral concludes that we are the driving force for what is put into the ‘’Hype Machine’’ and subsequently what it spits out. We are responsible for the content we create and consume.

If this is the case, then as teachers, we are tasked with reconfiguring how our students view and create media. To navigate the “Hype Machine” effectively, students should be encouraged not to be a passive consumer but rather to actively question the beliefs and the assumptions that underly the how texts are created. Sandretto (2006) describes this process of critical literacy as “a critical thinking tool that encourages readers to question the construction and production of texts” (p. 23). It is the ability to find embedded discrimination in media and to  question representation, inclusion and exclusion. (Blake, 2016) Beyond this, critical literacy acts as a way of actively reading and interpreting the world through a critical lens. So, what does this look like in the “Hype Machine” and how do we, as educators, encourage these behaviours in the students we teach? Below are three suggestions.

 

Broaden their Horizon

The Hype Machine is designed to show us what it believes we want to see. This is fed not only by our past viewing habits (time spent, interactions with content and potential commentary) but also by the people we interact with. In his book, Aral conclude that the phrase “Birds of a feather, flock together” could not be truer, as our social media platforms aim to push us into large homophilous groups. In this way we become the target of specific media, advertising, and content. We what we see confirms our biases. This is how fake news stories are proliferated, how bigotry is spread and how a group of people came to believe their violent insurrection was a necessary revolution. Their world view was curated through The Hype Machine.

One way to expand our world view is to be exposed to people and content we may not see otherwise. As teachers we have the duty of pushing our students to question why they are being shown content, to ask who the audience is and why Facebook, Twitter or Instagram think they should see this content. The second responsibility is to show students new content. This may be in the form of a film study, an artist, a geographical location, or historical event that students may know nothing about. Through this you may also push students to question their own curated realities.

 

Depth over Breadth

Another function of The Hype Machine is that it values immediacy and breadth over depth. This isn’t necessarily a product of the technology, but rather an example of our society’s values amplified through how we consume media. As a society, we want quick, easy, entertaining content. We opt in for apps that allow us to get the gist of a book, without actually having to spend the time reading it. It is for this reason that I have friends who will listen to e-books on 1.5 speed. We are hungry for the maximisation our content consumption. As a result, we have lost the art of deep learning. This has led to a lack of critical consumers, engaging not only with what is easiest but also what is the most entertaining. It is no wonder then that people are quick to buy into sensationalism, with fake news stories being 70 percent more likely to be retweeted than true stories. Aral and his colleagues at MIT stated that “falsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth, in all categories of information.” (Aral, 2018)

So, are our classes an antidote for this society or a reflection of it? I know the ease with which I will plan a lesson of bite-sized entertaining activities in order to maintain engagement. My challenge to you is how do we push against the need to entertain and begin creating learning experiences that require deeper levels of engagement and critical thinking, that require time, effort, and commitment.

 

Valuing Compassion

What we need to remember is that social media is a tool and whilst it often feels that we are being controlled by The Hype Machine, tools only have an impact when they are used. That means whilst social media has the ability to fuel riots, it also has the ability to foster compassion and to be a force for good. Vitriol may course quickly through the veins of the Hype Machine, but it starts with an idea. As educators, we have the ability to rewrite this narrative, to change the idea.

If the Hype Machine spits out what we put in, then the messages we put in MUST be positive. If we want to reframe our social media world view to reflect the best of our society, we must aim to be the best. It is simple. Feed your students with positive messages, messages about their ability to enact change, to make a difference and fight against the tides of injustice. Teach them to not only consume compassionate content but to create it. This starts with you, with the messages you share with your students. Ask yourself: what are some positive ways in which I can encourage my students and let them know that they are valuable.

 

With each of these three actions, encourage students to be critically literate, to question “why am I seeing this? How can I go deeper into this story? And what messages are not present here?”.

These questions end with our students, but they begin with us.

If we want to see real revolution, the kind enacted by critically engaged citizens, we must first broaden our horizons, deepen our thinking and radiate compassion.