Social Media Is the New Player in the Politics of Education: Recent Twitter-Based Battles over the Common Core State Standards Point to Lasting Changes in the Nature of Political Advocacy in Education

By Supovitz, Jonathan | Phi Delta Kappan, November 2017 | Go to article overview

Social Media Is the New Player in the Politics of Education: Recent Twitter-Based Battles over the Common Core State Standards Point to Lasting Changes in the Nature of Political Advocacy in Education


Supovitz, Jonathan, Phi Delta Kappan


Now that conflicts over Common Core have eased up, it's easier to take stock: While Common Core advocates badly lost the political battle on social media sites like Twitter, they won the policy war. And the rules of political advocacy in education will never be the same again.

My colleagues Alan Daly, Miguel del Fresno, Christian Kolouch, and I have been tracking the Common Core debate on Twitter since 2013, and we recently released our findings on an interactive and publicly accessible web site (www.hashtagcommon core.com) that illuminates how this social media platform is influencing education politics and policy.

In our investigation, we examined nearly one million tweets from about 190,000 distinct authors between September 2013 and April 2016. This covered the key time period in which public support for the standards declined and became increasingly polarized along political party lines. Our investigations combined social network, psychological, and discourse analyses to examine the political debate surrounding Common Core as it played out on Twitter.

We found that activity increased each year from 2013 to 2016. Using social network analytical techniques, which connect people based on their behavioral choices, we identified three major communities or factions in the Twitter debate surrounding Common Core:

* Supporters of Common Core,

* Opponents of the standards from inside education, and

* Opponents from outside education.

Our initial analyses--from September 2013 through February 2014--revealed fairly equal participation among the three factions. Two years later, though, opponents from outside education accounted for more than 75% of the activity, while Common Core supporters had dwindled to less than 10%, and Common Core opponents from within education made up the remaining 15%.

As we disentangled the giant social network, we noted that most participants were casual contributors: Almost 95% of them made fewer than 10 tweets in any given six-month period. We focused our attention on the actors with the highest influence in the social network. We distinguished between two types of influence on Twitter:

* Transmitters, those who tweeted a lot, regardless of the extent of their followership; and

* Transceivers, those who gained their influence by being frequently retweeted and mentioned by others.

Over time, we found that participants from outside education were increasingly dominant in both the transmitter and transceiver networks.

We were also surprised to find that Twitter was a robust terrain for grassroots activists rather than one dominated by professional advocacy groups. While traditional advocacy groups certainly developed a footprint on Twitter, the most fervent activists tended to be motivated and concerned citizens who are consistently active on Twitter and who believe this medium is the best way to express themselves and be heard amid the national clamor.

When we looked at the ebbs and flows of the Twitter conversation, we identified specific issues driving the major spikes in activity. Some of the action was based on very real events, such as the time, in November 2013, when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke about white suburban moms' opposition to Common Core, or in November 2015 when Congress debated the Every Student Succeeds Act. But we also saw evidence of manufactured controversies spurred by efforts to sensationalize minor issues, as well as several examples of outright fake news stories (such as a children's book on an authorized Common Core reading list that was distorted to claim that President Barack Obama was the Messiah, and a conflict resolution activity that was misrepresented to claim that students were being indoctrinated to become anti-Israeli and to "divide Jerusalem").

It is important to note, however, that politics (efforts to shape opinions, beliefs, and decision making) and policy making are two different things. …

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