Rewriting the Rule of Engagement

Jonathan Supovitz
University of Pennsylvania
Consortium for Policy Research in Education

The smoke has cleared. The Common Core advocates badly lost the political battle on Twitter, but won the policy war. And the rules of engagement will never be the same again.

When we started following the Common Core debate on Twitter in 2013, there were a multitude of varied opinions represented. By the middle of 2016, the diversity of perspectives had largely boiled down to different shades of opposition. Based upon our analyses, opponents of the Common Core increasingly dominated the Twitter activity over time. Led by the concerted efforts of “Coach” Prasek and the Patriot Journalist Network (PJNET) “team”, who viewed the standards as a threat to social conservative values, opponents of the Common Core from outside of education came to represent about 75% of the most influential participants in the #commoncore network. While it is impossible to estimate the exact influence of the cacophony on Twitter to the sentiment of the nation at large, correlation of the trends on Twitter with declining popular views about the Common Core in national polls are too strongly related to ignore.

However, there is a difference between politics and policy, and it is in this distinction that the Common Core won the policy war. While public sentiment and political pressure caused many states to rethink their support of the standards, there was no concerted effort to develop a plausible alternative. To alleviate the political pressure, many of the states that initially adopted the Common Core just replaced them with their own state standards by essentially rescinding, renaming, repackaging, and reinstituting them. As case studies of Indiana and Oklahoma showed, replacements contained largely superficial changes to details of the sequence of topics and emphases within the Common Core.1 Other states like New Jersey, California, and Florida simply rebranded the Common Core with their own state monikers to sidestep the controversy.2 The bottom line was that few, if any, states had the capacity to fundamentally re-engineer defensibly different ways of organizing the sequence of topics that children should receive to develop their mathematical and literacy skills.

While the policy decisions are worth plenty of attention and analysis in their own right, the controversy over Common Core was never really about standards themselves. As we demonstrated in our 2015 analysis of the Common Core debate on Twitter, the dispute about the standards was largely a proxy war over other politically-charged issues, including opposition to a federal role in education, which many believe should be the domain of state and local education policy; a fear that the Common Core could become a gateway for access to data on children that might be used for exploitive purposes rather than to inform educational improvement; a source for the proliferation of testing which has come to oppressively dominate education; a way for business interests to exploit public education for private gain; or a belief that an emphasis on standards reform distracts from the deeper underlying causes of low educational performance, which include poverty and social inequity. Thus, while polls continue to show that the standards are drawing less public support and views are increasingly divided along partisan lines, the substance of the Common Core are well entrenched in American education.

What the Common Core opposition has accomplished is to push back against the forces that have sought to centralize and cohere America’s education system. Progressive reformers’ arguments, based upon evidence from international comparisons, are that common standards and national assessments that overarch state and local systems would produce a more effective and equitable education system. The very design of the Common Core movement, framed as a state-led effort to adopt common standards and common assessments, was an effort to thread the needle of a centrally orchestrated system in a nation fundamentally committed to educational decentralization. If anything, this experience shows that the deep-seated belief in state-led education systems, which draw their strength from America’s profound historical distrust of centralized power, are entrenched in our national ethos. The principle of local autonomy drowned out any discussion about the quality of the standards themselves.  

Beyond the specific issue of the Common Core, the experience of watching the dispute about the standards play out in a variety of public forums and state capitals, and particularly through the prism of Twitter, reveals several insights into the changing dynamics of how political debates occur in this country. Here I focus on three ways in which the rules of engagement have fundamentally changed.

1. The way in which information is produced and publicized in our society is undergoing a dramatic transformation

The Common Core was the first major education policy reform to come to life in the social media age. The previous major 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).

Comparing the media environment of the NCLB decade and the Common Core era is illustrative. During the implementation of NCLB, the professional media was increasingly splintered. Cable TV gave rise to news channels with both conservative (i.e. Fox News) and liberal (i.e. MSNBC) slants that courted different audiences. Reporting of events increasingly blended with the opinions of pundits and surrogates. In this raucous environment, it became more and more difficult to discern which were the mainstream media outlets; and where once unquestioned and authoritative news sources like the New York Times, Washington Post, and CNN stood along an increasingly disparate continuum of news sources. Yet, even as this splintering of the media speaking to different ideological factions occurred, there remained a professional media which were the ‘official’ sources of information disseminated to Americans.

The rise of social media has changed the landscape in at least two profound ways. First, stories that become ‘news’ are increasingly introduced into the public’s consciousness through unfettered and unverified alternative sources via the internet and social media. Organizations and individuals can directly and widely disseminate information unvetted by formal sources. This loosening of the hold of the ‘professional’ media on information 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, for example, we identified a number of shady online ‘news’ organizations like the Investors Business Daily and WorldNetDaily, which used the legitimacy of appearing as news sites to overtly push a particular ideological slant. For better and worse, the spigot has opened wider, and what comes out is wholly unfiltered.  

Second, newsmakers no longer need to rely solely on the professional media to communicate broadly to people. Twitter, Facebook, and other social media platforms are ways for public figures to speak directly to citizens without going through the media middleman. This diminishes the power of the professional media because they no longer have a monopoly on access to the public, but it also has the consequence reducing their ability to hold public figures accountable for the messages that they transmit.

2. Fueled by technology, the strategies of advocacy groups are becoming increasingly powerful

Our analyses uncovered a number of ingenious strategies in the Common Core kerfuffle on Twitter. Canny and tech savvy, these partisan strategies demonstrate the growing sophistication of issue advocates as they learn how to capitalize on the social and technological power of networking mediums. These strategies help to explain how the opponents of the standards came to dominate the political conversation and contributed towards turning the tide of public opinion.

We discovered the first set of approaches as we began to disassemble the data and became increasingly aware of the concerted efforts of the Patriot Journalist Network (PJNET), which we discuss in-depth at the end of Act 2. PJNET used a range of effective tactics that helped them to increasingly dominate the output about the Common Core on Twitter. Most inventive was PJNET’s use of a robo-tweeting technology that allowed them to send messages from the accounts of a range of consenting Twitter users’– essentially creating a BotNet that integrates robo-tweeting and social networks. What makes this approach so powerful is that it both dramatically increases the volume of the same message and makes it appear that the message is independently sent, when it is really a concerted effort of amplification. PJNET also used clever forms of retweeting and hashtag rallies to bring advocates together to amplify their message. By using these strategies to harness the people power of social networks on Twitter into concerted issue campaigns, both targeting and supported by elected officials, provides a glimpse into how powerful these efforts can be and how they can create enough synergy to bust out of Twitter and into the broader consciousness.

A second noteworthy strategy, which we illuminated through the Tweet Machine in Act 5, was the way 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. We identified five different frames: the Government Frame, which represented the standards as an oppressive government intrusion into the lives of citizens, which appealed to limited-government conservatives; the Propaganda Frame, which depicted the Common Core as 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 business interests to profit from public education, a frame that appeals to liberal opponents of a business exploitation of a social good; and the Experiment Frame, which used the metaphor of the standards as an experiment on our 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, that were aligned in opposition to the standards.

The combination of the internet and social networks are powerful tools in interest groups’ toolkits to influence public opinion. We see evidence that both the messages and the messaging system are becoming more sophisticated. These strategies show how Twitter can be used as an organizing force to bring people together into a grass-roots multi-issue influence engine.

The enduring grassroots nature of the activity on Twitter is also surprising. When we completed the analysis for the first phase of the #commoncore project in 2015, my bet was that Twitter was going to be the temporary terrain of a guerilla war of sorts, and that the more formal, professional advocacy groups would hegemonize Twitter over time and that the grassroots activists would move on to another platform to stay one step removed from the professional machines. I was wrong. Twitter has remained an open-source grassroots battleground for public opinion. And the fascinating thing is that the individuals and groups that have surfaced have tended to be really motivated and concerned citizens who are consistently active in Twitter and who feel that this medium is the best means for them to express themselves and be heard amidst the national clamor. 

3. The audiences that consume “content” are becoming increasingly segmented

One consequence of the technology-enhanced customization of information sources and the increased sophistication of advocacy strategists is that they offer people both comfortable enclaves and easily consumable materials that reinforce their prior beliefs and protects them from discordant views. It is not surprising that people want the validation of information that corroborates their prevailing perspective. Sociologists use the word homophily to describe the natural phenomenon that individuals prefer to associate with those who hold similar preferences and worldviews to their own. In other words, people naturally gravitate towards those who hold similar views to their own and, in a world of choice, we are attracted to information sources that are popular with the people with whom we are most comfortable interacting.

While the splintering of the professional media and talk radio accelerated the fragmentation of society into increasingly homophilous sub-groups, the internet and social media have exacerbated this phenomenon to the point that we may now be living in a world where members of different sub-communities get most of their information and share their own ideas only with people who share similar belief systems. This fragmentation into homogeneous subgroups, which continually reinforces members’ belief systems, is a sort of voluntary social segregation that reifies prevailing beliefs.

The most obvious place to see this phenomenon is in politics. As the graphic below of TrumpLand and the Clinton Archipelago shows, the country is geographically divided based on political views. The image is revealing not only because it shows the stark divisions in the country across political lines, but how highly defined and geographic the separations are. Broad swaths of the middle of the country were 

2016 Presidential Voting Patterns by U.S. County
2016 Presidential Voting Patterns by U.S. County

overwhelmingly supportive of Donald Trump in the 2016 election, while the rims of the country predominantly supported Hillary Clinton. If we looked at support by counties, Trump won an overwhelming 84% of America’s 3,112 counties.3 But if we look at support by voters, Clinton won the popular vote by 2.9 million votes.4 This reflects a split by population density as well.

While politics may be a source of our division, it is not the only indicator of our segmentation. We can also see homophily at work in many other venues, including our popular culture preferences, as shown in the fascinating chart that reveals our national television watching patterns: 

American Television Watching Habits
American Television Watching Habits

It’s eye opening to visually see how disparate the different parts of the country are in their television watching habits. As you can readily see, Duck Dynasty, a reality TV show about a Louisiana family that runs a business making duck hunting gear, is most popular in a broad swath in the middle of the country, but far less popular on the two coasts. By contrast, Game of Thrones, a fantasy drama series set in a mythical world, has almost the inverse pattern of popularity, where it is most popular on the coasts. Empire, a drama series that follows an internecine family feud for control of hip-hop music and entertainment company, is most popular in the south and southeast, but distinctly less popular in the northern half of the country. By contrast, the Big Bang Theory, a situation comedy set around a university campus which follows the lives of a group of socially awkward physicists, has a mirror image pattern to Empire; it is most popular in the northern half of the country, and far less popular in the southern part of the nation.

And of course, we saw this same phenomenon at work in the sub-communities that formed during the Common Core debate on Twitter. As you can see in the network image of about 55,000 participants from November 2014 to April 2015, the behavioral activity of Twitter participants in terms of who to follow, retweet, and mention revealed that people tended to interact far more with those who held similar views than with those from different factions.

Homophily in Common Core Social Network on Twitter
Homophily in Common Core Social Network on Twitter

What are the implications of this naturally occurring phenomenon of people to break into sub-communities and share their politics and culture within like-minded groups? First, we shouldn’t so readily assume that our favorite TV program – the one we chat about with your family and friends and colleagues -- is a shared experience across the country. Second, while politics and popular culture are convenient ways to display our divisions, because everybody can relate to a map of the country, consider that these separations are operating in many less visible, but equally important, segments of society ways as well. In fact, physical proximity may become less important to the increasing fracturing of society as we move more easily between the physical and virtual worlds. It is telling to note that the PJNET ‘team’ of synchronized actors interact completely in virtual space and have never met each other in person.5

Third, and perhaps the most important implication of all, is that the fragmentation of people’s personal, political, and cultural experiences provides us with fewer opportunities to be exposed to either common stimuli – the things that unite us – and the ideas and views of others – the thing that makes us more understanding of different perspectives. In fact, there is abundant research to show that people who only interact with those who share similar views become more polarized in their perspectives, regardless of whether they are liberal or conservative, than those who have opportunities to hear alternative perspectives.6 So the fragmentation of our worlds into cliques of ideologically familiar others is a problem without a sufficient counterforce of opportunities to hear from others who hold different views than our own, which holds the greatest promise for learning, change, and growth.

-----------

So let’s take these three observations and string them together. First, the ways in which information is produced and made public is undergoing a dramatic transformation; the volume and diversity of information sources are expanding, and consequently the quality and veracity of information is suffering in the process. Second, the missives and dissemination tools of the messengers are becoming more sophisticated as they capitalize on psychological influence techniques better utilize social networks to ripple messages outward. And third, the audiences that consume the content are becoming increasingly segmented. This seems like a recipe for further rending of the fabric of society.

In this environment, we must ask what are the institutions that create the shared experiences that hold us together as a collective nation. Politics might be one, but as we increasingly see, the information we get about politics, which shapes our views about candidates and issues, is not shared. We might think of popular culture. But, as shown in the maps of our viewing habits, we do not have the same cultural experiences. We might think of major sporting events as cultural unifiers. Superbowl viewership is certainly large, and people feel a sense of national pride when the American Olympic team takes the field. Jury duty is one of the few remaining civic duties where one is put in a position to engage with a cross section of different people from society for a common purpose. And there is only one other area that I can think of where Americans have a shared experience: public school. Nine out of every 10 students in the country attend a public school.7 Education may be one of the last bulwarks against to disintegration of the body politic. No wonder the Common Core was such a contentious issue across the land. 

References

  1. McGuinn, P., & Supovitz, J. (2016). Parallel Play in the Education Sandbox. New America: Washington, DC.
  2. Layton, L. (2014). “Some states rebrand controversial Common Core education standards” Downloaded January 14, 2017 from https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/some-states-rebrand-controversial-common-core-education-standards/2014/01/30/a235843e-7ef7-11e3-9556-4a4bf7bcbd84_story.html?utm_term=.bb0cd7f5e3cd
  3. http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/statements/2016/dec/04/mike-pence/mike-pence-says-donald-trump-won-most-counties-rep/
  4. http://www.cnn.com/2016/12/21/politics/donald-trump-hillary-clinton-popular-vote-final-count/
  5. M. Prasek, personal communication, January 4, 2017
  6. See, for example, Schkade, D., Sunstein, C. R., & Hastie, R. (2007). What happened on deliberation day? California Law Review, 915-940.; Gastil, J. (2008). Political communication and deliberation. Sage.; Flaxman, S., Goel, S., & Rao, J. M. (2013). Ideological segregation and the effects of social media on news consumption. Available at SSRN.
  7. https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372
Scene Number: 
3
Menu Label: 
Rewriting the Rules