POLITICS
03/06/2017 12:27 pm ET

An Army Of Sophisticated Bots Is Influencing The Debate Around Education

Education policy is not immune to fake news.

If you’ve only read about the Common Core State Standards on Twitter or fringe blogs, you might think that they were designed to indoctrinate kids against Israel, promote homosexuality and turn children into tools of the federal government. 

Now, in a new interactive website called hashtag Common Core, researchers are shedding light on how some common myths about the controversial set of education standards gained traction on social media ― and some of it has to do with an army of online bots.

Common Core, a set of math and literacy benchmarks used to educate students across the country and hold them to uniform standards, has critics on the left and the right. Liberal opponents say the standards help perpetuate a toxic school culture that overemphasizes standardized testing. Conservative opponents see them as an example of federal overreach that obliterates local control over education. On Twitter, these viewpoints are often taken to the extreme. 

For several years, university researchers have been watching how the debate surrounding Common Core has played out on Twitter. Between 2013 and 2016, they analyzed about 1 million tweets to understand how the social network was changing political discourse in America ― not only as it related to Common Core, but in a much larger sense. 

Their discovery wasn’t pretty. Three years before “fake news” became a mainstream issue, fabrications and misinformation had already intensified the degree of polarization around Common Core. As the media landscape became increasingly vast and fragmented, news consumers seemed to seek out ideas that reinforced their preconceived notions, and alternative news sources spread easily discredited misinformation about the controversial standards.

One of the researchers’ more disturbing findings is that a grassroots group called Patriot Journalist Network came to dominate the Common Core discussion on Twitter by spreading hyperbolic or false claims through the use of sophisticated “Twitterbots.” The bots would mechanically tweet messages from the accounts of PJNET members whether or not they were online. (PJNET’s network of conservative Twitter activists reaches approximately 21 million Twitter accounts, the researchers found.)  

Members of PJNET ― which is led by Mark Prasek and affiliated with a for-profit church in Florida ― also participate in organized online events called hashtag rallies where they tweet out pre-produced messages at the same time.

“This reflects how the whole way that advocacy groups are getting way more sophisticated, more technological and utilizing social networks to really hone and magnify their advocacy messages,” said Jonathan Supovitz, study author and professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

PJNET did not immediately reply to a request for comment from The Huffington Post.

Meanwhile, Twitter may be giving people access to more information, but not necessarily more knowledge, the report concludes. 

“The paradox here is we have more information and more viewpoints, but this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re making better decisions. Each individual has to be their own arbiter about what’s true and not true,” said Alan Daly, a report author and professor at the University of San Diego, California.

But even though extreme opponents of Common Core came to dominate the discussion on Twitter, Common Core State Standards are still dictating what and how children learn in most places. Common Core’s opponents never developed truly viable policy alternatives. 

Common Core ultimately “won the policy war,” Supovitz said. 

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Rebecca Klein covers the challenges faced in school discipline, school segregation and the achievement gap in K-12 education. Tips? Email: Rebecca.Klein@huffingtonpost.com.

 

 

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