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Combatting Digital Polarization

Cross Polarization

I’ve already written about the spread of fake news and how to work to stop it. And given what happened this weekend is D.C. and that most people who see fake news believe it, it is imperative that we work to improve the way we read and consume media and “news.”

Mike Caulfield, whose research and efforts I mentioned in my last post, has just launched a new tool and resource for educators and students: The Digital Polarization Initiative. The initiative is supported by the AASCU’s American Democracy Project, but anyone from any school is welcome to participate.

So what is digital polarization? According to Caulfield it is a “catch-all term” that includes:

  • The impact of algorithmic filters and user behavior on what we see in platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, which tend to limit our exposure to opinions and lifestyles different than our own.

  • The rise and normalization of “fake news” on the Internet, which not only bolsters one’s worldview, but can provide an entirely separate factual universe for readers to live in

  • The spread of harassment, mob behavior, and “callout culture” on platforms like Twitter, where minority voices and opinions are often bullied into silence.

  • State-sponsored hacking campaigns that use techniques such as “weaponized transparency” (a term I learned from the excellent Zeynep Tufekci) to try and fuel distrust in democratic institutions.

So how does this project help our students combat these forces?

The primary purpose of this wiki is to provide a place for students to fact-check, annotate, and provide context to the different news stories that show up in their Twitter and Facebook feeds. It’s like a student-driven Snopes, but with a broader focus: we don’t aim to just investigate myths, but to provide context and sanity to all the news – from the article about voter fraud to the health piece on a new cancer treatment.

I spoke with Caulfield last week, and one of the reasons he chose a wiki format for the site is because it forces students to collaborate, listen, relate, prioritize, and compromise. Rather than the “stream” web we are so used to (with blogs and various social media platforms), the wiki format provides an opportunity for students not just to learn critical digital literacy and research skills, but also how to work together in an online environment.

The site has three areas: News Analysis, Source Investigation, and Course Materials on Digital Polarization. He is looking for students to participate, with the oversight from a faculty or staff. I’m planning on doing this next semester in my Applied Digital Studies class, but Caulfield sees this as a cross-disciplinary initiative; students in any discipline could work on news analysis and source investigation related to what they are studying.

If you are interested in participating, you can email Mike at michael.caulfield@wsu.edu with a description of your class and/or assignment, as well as how many students will be participating.

How do you see incorporating this initiative into your teaching?

Image cross polarization by frankieleon licensed CC-BY 2.0 

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