As a scientist with many ties to the field of education, I hesitate to prescribe additional standards to our teachers. However, I fear there is an important element missing from the current standards on social studies, one that affects the lives of every person using social media, including K-12 students, increasing division among Americans.
I am talking about manipulation of social media by malevolent parties that intentionally hide their identity in order to spread propaganda.
For example, Reddit, one of the most-used websites in the nation, is frequently the target of attacks by subtle “trolls” who seek to divide us and cause us to believe that extremist views are held by more people than they are.
Just in recent days, it came to the attention of a “subreddit” (think category) called /r/Minnesota — which in theory is by, and for, Minnesotans — that the subreddit has had infiltrators undertaking regular attempts to influence, dishonestly, the views of Minnesotans. Since at least 41,000 people use /r/Minnesota, this is important.
These issues are not new, as anyone paying attention knows. Russia funds a huge network of trolls to do this very thing across many different social media networks, including Reddit, Facebook and Twitter. This is why special counsel Robert Mueller has recently charged rich Russian nationals with election interference.
But it is important to realize this is not just happening on national platforms; it is happening even at the local level, as the infiltration of /r/Minnesota attests.
That’s why it is so important to educate our youths about such activities, to help them become skeptical and to place little faith that anyone is who they say they are online. Bizarrely, when I (a 36-year-old) was growing up, we assumed everyone online was pretending to be someone else. But now, despite significantly greater ease of access to tools to disseminate poisonous and persuasive viewpoints from fictitious people online, we seem to take people at their word to a much greater degree.
This needs to change. Many teachers have a great way of helping students determine good vs. bad sources online — the CRAAP test, which teaches students to evaluate the currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose of a source.
To help prevent Minnesotans from becoming even more divided due to the actions of malicious outsiders, I think we need a new standard that does something similar for social media comments. I don’t have a good acronym, but there are a few things that anyone reading a political comment should ask:
1. Do they personally know the commenter?
2. How old is the account of the commenter (often trolls use new accounts)?
3. Does the account have any verifiable personal information?
4. Where else does the commenter comment?
5. Does the commenter seem to have only one thing to say?
By getting into the habit of asking these questions, we can better protect ourselves and the cohesiveness of our great state.
Jeremy Chacon is a microbial ecologist at the University of Minnesota.