Social movements, social media and manipulation

Speaking at the WEA Scotland’s AGM in Edinburgh on Saturday, Professor John Field focused attention on the decline of some traditional social movements that supported the WEA’s birth, the flourishing of social media and adult education’s role in promoting democracy, fairness and social justice.

Can social media give us the means to reconnect, rethink and revive social movements or develop new ones? Can they help to reverse the decline in adult learning shown by recent research, such as the 2012 NIACE Adult Participation in Learning Survey? (http://shop.niace.org.uk/2012-participation-survey-headline-findings.html)

Jayne Stuart, Director of the WEA in Scotland talked of, “great strength in connections”, as she introduced the “world of difference” theme at the AGM and encouraged people to tweet from the event. John Field reinforced the view that it’s never been easier to connect and to create online educational movements and opportunities for civic engagement.

We soon saw Twitter connectivity in action as people way beyond the room commented on proceedings in Edinburgh’s City Chambers and joined in discussions from near and far. The WEA’s AGM in Edinburgh was linked to the WEA’s Southern Region AGM at the Wellcome Institute in London. People from the Northern College for Adult Residential Education, NIACE, the University of Cambridge and Edinburgh City Council joined in the communication, which reached people as diverse as Members of the Scottish Parliament and a genealogist in Harrogate.

This unprecedented level of instant networking reinforces a feeling of collective agreement and shared purpose. This is very encouraging but we might need to stop and think about whether we are reaching, influencing and listening to people whose views might be different from ours. We can become complacent if we don’t see the challenges.  As John Field said, “education is a social process and is most exciting when we’re challenged and confounded”.

With this in mind, are we sufficiently aware that social media and web search engines such as Google actively filter out views that we might disagree with? Eli Pariser’s book, The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You, makes interesting reading on this issue. It’s described as, “An eye-opening account of how the hidden rise of personalization on the Internet is controlling – and limiting – the information we consume.”

Pariser describes how Google began customising its search results for each user in December 2009, presenting us with the predicted links that we are most likely to click on. In effect, Google, Twitter, Facebook and other web-based systems now manipulate how we access and share information on an individual basis.

Knowing this kind of information is highly relevant to how we work and also to the kind of education that we offer. How big is the leap from personalisation to propaganda? Understanding society, communication, censorship and control is fundamental to high quality and relevant adult education that encourages critical thinking.

Is the internet controlling how much we are confounded and challenged? If so, what are the likely consequences?