Ethics and Social Media: Part I

There is no easy answer to the problem of ethics and social media use, as any Google search of “online harassment” or “fake news” or “post-truth” will show, but it is clear there is a problem. The quick circulation of information, the ease of response, the design of our sites, the algorithms, the filter bubbles that result, the etc. the etc. the etc. All of the availabilities of our technology make it easier to spread misinformation, whether that be for the purpose of a particular political agenda or to build a profit (as was the case with teens in Macedonia during the 2016 election).

Despite the mainstreaming of terms such as post-truth and misinformation, I believe it’s important to keep in mind that our relationship to social media and online communication (as writing instructors) shouldn’t just be a warning against the circulation of fake news. Such teaching, as I will bring up later in another response, is problematic since it positions our technology affordances as only ever bad. It is the same form of pedagogy that insists, very problematically I add, that students should never turn to Wikipedia because it is ‘unreliable,’ when Wikipedia could in fact be a productive starting point for research since it contains both a general overview as well as the citations, often from scholarly sources, that helped to create that overview. The same problem comes into focus when technology is viewed only ever as a distraction, or only ever as making us stupid, or only ever as [insert negative adjective]. Such teaching approaches technology from a simplified and problematic determinist perspective (see Nancy Baym’s Personal Connections) rather than understanding larger cultural context.

Instead, I believe (as I am thinking/writing-through in my dissertation right now) that we need to attend more carefully to a holistic understanding of ethics in our communication as well as how ethics is defined in relation to the digital, multimodal technologies we depend on to compose. Right now, it’s not just a problem of what information is true or false (as the word post-truth signals); instead, it’s a much deeper and more complex issue wrapped-up into how we understand our responsibilities to each other, how we understand our responsibilities as citizens, how we value research, how we think about the information we circulate, and how we communicate to/with/through our composing technologies.

For this next series of posts, I hope to share some of the ways I’ve integrated an emphasis on social media and ethics into the FYC classroom. I’m sharing this work more publicly now out of some requests from other instructors and colleagues for activities and readings that cover this subject (though admittedly I’m also hoping these posts will help me think through my dissertation). So hopefully this is helpful to someone out there other than myself.

Since misinformation is one of the major conversations going on right now with social media (though, I want to emphasize again that this is not the only concern we should be having), I’ll focus this post on that.

Below are details for one activity that tackles 1) fact-checking online truths, myths, and rumors and 2) developing context through understanding the political leanings and context of a particular media source.

I usually complete this activity after:

1) Spending some time readings and discussing the effects of algorithms and filter bubbles

2) Discussing research and the range of credibility that difference sources offer

3) Practicing multimodal rhetorical analysis of websites



Before starting, split the class up into 5 different groups (or into groups of no more than 4-5). Once in their groups:

  • Ask students to discuss what they know about internet myths, fake news, and the term “post-truth.” Have them name and provide specific examples from their experience.
  • Ask students to make a list of the different strategies they themselves use to check for the credibility of online texts. NOTE: I usually have each group write their list on a Google Doc, and then I’ll combine all the strategies at the end of the class into a single, shared document.
  • Then ask each group to create a mini-presentation for the class that analyzes and describes the purpose of the website their group was assigned and how it may relate to concerns of credibility and context.

Optional follow up writing assignment: If most of your students use social media (I always complete a poll during the first week of class to see if they do) then create an assignment that asks students to find a trending story that seems questionable or is polarizing in some way. Have them fact-check these stories by reviewing multiple forms of sources (sources can be social media, mainstream news, blogs, memes, scholarly articles–whatever they can find on their story). Then have them write a response that describes their experience.

NOTE 2: Depending on how much time your course sessions are, it may be best to structure this lesson over a couple of days. 

That’s it for now. Now go out and encourage more rhetorically & technically-savvy online participation.