The Big Takeaways

The Common Core was the first major education policy reform to come to life in the social media age. The previous large education reform, No Child Left Behind, was signed into law in 2002, before the first Like on Facebook (2004), before the first video upload on YouTube (2005), and before the first tweet on Twitter (2006). Thus, the Common Core faced a distinctly different political environment.

Our cutting-edge research examined almost one million tweets about the Common Core from about 190,000 distinct actors across the 32 months between September 2013 and April 2016. Our findings show how political debate in the age of social media is being transformed in substance, sophistication, and strategy. By examining contemporary political debate through a combination of social and psychological perspectives, we reveal insights into the way the world works that are often hidden in plain sight.

Amongst the important takeaways that our work illuminates are:

  1. The Common Core debate on Twitter reveals how social media is transforming political discourse in America.

The rise of social media has changed the political landscape in several profound ways. Most directly, stories that become ‘news’ are increasingly introduced into the public’s consciousness via alternative sources on social media. Using this avenue, individuals and organizations can disseminate information unvetted by formal sources. This loosening of the hold of the ‘professional’ media has led to broader reporting of activity and events, but also has the effect of increasing unsubstantiated, exaggerated, and even outright fake news stories. In our investigations of the Common Core on Twitter, we saw multiple examples of these phenomena at work and identified a number of alternative online ‘news’ organizations that used the legitimacy of news to overtly push a particular ideological slant. For better and worse, the spigot has opened wider, but what comes out is often wholly unfiltered.

  1. A social network perspective shows a vibrant world of expanded social interactions that are hiding in plain sight.

Social networks permeate the world and connect people with invisible bonds that form complex and subtle inter-relationships. Becoming more aware of the relational connections of these social networks opens up a rich set of interrelationships that include entire networks, naturally occurring sub-groups, and highly influential individuals who are prominent due to their social resources and strategic connections. In our investigations of the Common Core discussion on Twitter, we found that the pattern of social ties connecting these layers in the Common Core network were both active and sustained. The networks have both a specific content and structure, and it is in the interplay between these two that we gained many of the insights about how advocates in the space were operating and using the network principles to amplify and move their messages in order to draw maximum attention to their viewpoints. These invisible online and offline networks surround and influence us every day in ways we are seldom fully unaware. Absent a way to make these networks, their actors, and the activity visible, we would not fully grasp the breadth, depth, and growing influence of social networks on public opinion and social policy.

  1. The combination of social and technological advocacy strategies have ratcheted up the power of external political pressure groups.

Motivated Twitter users have begun to employ savvy strategies to further the influence and reach of their messages. Our investigations unearthed creative uses of BotNets (automated tweeting robots that exploit networked systems), the Twitter retweet function, and hashtag rallies (bringing people together online to flood the system with advocacy messages). These strategies show that invested parties are making a concerted effort to disseminate information in intentional ways with specific goals. These strategic technological methods are rocket-fueled by the power of network techniques, which take advantage of how social networks operate. Actors who capitalize on network concepts leverage sets of relationships, hubs of influence, and flows of opinion to move messages effectively through a system. The actors in this space who can fluently speak the language of networks are more able to position their ideas and spread their messages.  

  1. The consumers of political content are becoming increasingly segmented, reducing vital opportunities for engagement with ideas

The internet and social media provide people with a plethora of customized news and information sources. One consequence of this disparate range is that they provide people with all too comfortable spaces where they can consume only the information that reinforces their prior beliefs and protects them from alternative perspectives. While it is not surprising that people want the validation of information that confirms their prevailing views, the splintering of the professional and social media has accelerated the fragmentation of society into separate sub-groups, which live in increasingly disparate worlds. This fragmentation continually reinforces members’ belief, in a form of voluntary social segregation. In our research, we saw this phenomenon at work in the sub-communities that formed during the Common Core debate on Twitter. The behavioral choices of Twitter participants, in terms of who to follow and what to retweet and mention, revealed that people tended to interact far more with those who held similar views rather than with those from different factions.

One implication of the balkanization of peoples’ personal, political, and cultural experiences is that they are provided with fewer opportunities to be exposed to common stimuli – the experiences that unite us – and the ideas and views of others – the perspectives that makes us more understanding of different vantage points. Individuals who only interact with those with whom they share similar views become more polarized in their opinions, regardless of whether they are liberal or conservative, in contrast to those who have opportunities to hear multiple and alternative perspectives. And it is these continuous opportunities for discussion that form the bedrock of American democracy.

  1. Fake News is not news, but rather a longstanding problem, and the education sector is not immune.

The issue of fake news has received much attention since the presidential election of 2016. Our investigation, which spanned the 32 months from September 2013 to April 2016, showed that this is not a new issue. In one section of our website, we tracked the heartbeat of the Common Core on Twitter by examining which days produced surges in chatter related to the Common Core. When examining the peak days, we found several spikes in activity driven by the spread of fabricated news stories coming from pseudo-news outlets on the internet, such as Investors Business Daily and WorldNetDaily, which is on the Southern Policy Law Center’s HateWatch list. Overt fake news stories and their peddlers have a destabilizing impact on our ability to make informed decisions, and by shining a light these types of organizations, we seek to heighten awareness that seemingly reliable information may originate from corners unknown.

  1. Issue framing is a powerful way for advocates to appeal to the value systems of constituency groups to evoke their support.

Political groups who seek to win an audience’s backing strategically choose to emphasize particular aspects of an issue in order to give their side an advantage and mobilize their constituencies. In our analyses, we observed a number of ways in which Common Core opponents framed the standards as a threat to children and used a range of metaphors to appeal to the value systems of a diverse set of constituencies. In our research, we identified five different frames: the Government Frame, which presented the Common Core as an oppressive government intrusion into the lives of citizens, which appealed to limited-government conservatives; the Propaganda Frame, which depicted the standards as a means of brainwashing children, and in doing so hearkened back to the cold war era when social conservatives positioned themselves as defenders of the national ethic; the War Frame, which portrayed the standards as a front in the nation’s culture wars, and in doing so appealed to social and religious conservatives to protect traditional cultural values; the Business Frame, which rendered the standards as an opportunity for corporations to profit from public education, a frame that appealed to liberal opponents of business interests exploiting a social good; and the Experiment Frame, which used the metaphor of the standards as an experiment on children, and in doing so appealed to the principle of care that is highly valued amongst social liberals. Collectively, these frames and the metaphors, and language that triggered them, appealed to the value systems of both conservatives and liberals, and contributed to the broad coalition, from both within and outside of education, which was aligned in opposition to the standards.

  1. Differences in the ways we process information may lead to misunderstanding rather than genuine disagreement.

The words we use reveal much about the ways we think and act, including our motivations, emotions, and thinking styles. By using sophisticated large-scale text mining techniques to analyze the Common Core-related tweets, we were able to measure the sentiments of the individuals that made up the different factions of the Common Core conversation on Twitter. When we looked across the factions, we found that each had distinct cognitive and emotional profiles. Furthermore, by examining these profiles across groups, we found that some of the frictions in the Common Core debate were not necessarily about disagreements over substance, but rather were due to misalignments in communication and understanding. Due to the varied ways in which people process information, participants in the conversation often struggled to communicate with those from different factions, not because of differences in their core beliefs, but because their modes of delivery were misaligned with the methods of reception of some audiences.

  1. Influence comes as much from who you know as from what you know, and increasingly, who you know determines what you know.

The simple number of followers for social media profiles is the standard metric to assess an individual’s influence. The greater the number of followers, the more influence one is thought to wield.   The follower metric now has both monetary and prestige value as resources flow disproportionately to those individuals based solely on the count of followers. Although many of these ‘opinion leaders’ “earn” their followers, there are a sizable number that engage in a host of behaviors to “game” the system. The internet is replete with ways to increase the number of followers, including the outright “purchase” of individuals or through other techniques such as creating social debt. The rounding up of followers and advertising on social media is a major industry estimated at $24 billion a year flowing into the pockets of highly followed individuals. However, our work suggests that while number of followers is just one metric of influence, and that there are a host of actors we who we identify in our work (including transmitters, transceivers, and transcenders), which do not necessarily have Kardashian-level followers, but never-the-less wield tremendous influence due to their set of relationships and interactions in social space that remain invisible unless illuminated by analysis.

Our work suggests that social influence spreads through connections, and these sets of ties are a powerful shaper of opinion. The idea that one’s opinion is shaped and honed through the ecosystem of relationships that surrounds us provides an additional perspective beyond the common notion that our opinions, and perhaps how we come to know the world, are properties solely of the individual. Our work offers a supplementary explanation as to how opinion is shaped and understanding is gained, expanding on the idea that it is less about what you know, but more about who you know and how those relationships influence, or even determine, what you know. The interplay between the individual and the network is a powerful and influential one, and examining just one or the other may limit our understanding.

  1. Twitter is a uniquely powerful tool for disseminating information, but its structure lends to manipulation.

Twitter is essentially a two-dimensional dissemination engine uniquely capable of instantaneously spreading information across the world as well as creating the structure for members to interact. Whether originating in Connecticut or Costa Rica, a tweet can be written, sent, read, and retweeted thousands of times in mere moments, essentially without barrier. With enough followers or social connections, or through the act of sending a resounding enough tweet, there are virtually no limits to how far, fast, and ferociously a message can travel.

However, for all its power, Twitter comes with a definite hitch. Due to its structure, individuals or groups can easily manipulate the environment, particularly when intent on furthering a specific message. Unlike a Facebook account, one or many Twitter profiles can easily be manufactured. Individuals frequently use pseudonymous accounts, and Bot programs to spread their message and amplify their voice. In this project, we found that there are groups who have discovered ways to co-opt genuine accounts to produce mechanized hubs that disseminate messages at regulated or random intervals. More than that, these groups are doing so in ways that keep their strategies hidden from view, making their participation seem random and coordination non-existent. The structure of Twitter is a powerful conveyor of information, but has weak safeguards against misappropriation and the spread of misinformation. NetCitizens beware.

  1. Paradoxically, even as we have more information available to us, we are less informed.

We are awash in data, information, ideas, and opinions in a way that is unlike any other time in history. Estimates are that the amount of data created in the last few years alone is more than during the entire course of recorded human history. Given the sheer volume of information that we receive, one would surmise that we would be more informed and, as a consequence, able to make better decisions. However, the opposite appears to be true. In this project, we saw how the sheer volume of data and opinion that floods over us each day leads to a hardening of opinion and a narrowing of perspective, as a host of conflicting information and diametric arguments muddy the waters.

The volume of data thrusts the ordinary citizen into the role of arbiter, forced to distinguish between fact, fiction, and falsehood without clear guidelines as to how to delineate these categories. This results in idiosyncratic rules for assessing the veracity of information and the notable rise of individuals and groups leveraging this new reality to move an agenda often beyond the scope of awareness. The findings from the #commoncore Project remind us of the growing reality that we spend more time in echo chambers, and the sounds that reverberate make us no more informed than when we entered. Ironically, the increase of information is not providing us with better insights, but rather fogs our lenses and distorts our focus.

Scene Number: 
Menu Label: 
Big Takeaways