In the last post, I started talking about the importance of critical thinking and literacy skills, especially now. Today, I want to continue that discussion by looking at a few more examples and specifically looking at some ways I teach these skills in the classroom. Again, these examples are not exhaustive, but I believe they highlight the importance of analyzing everything we encounter with a critical eye, engaging with it, talking back to it, and not just taking what we ingest at face value. When we do the latter, we fall into the precipice of always listening to things that reinforce our already entrenched ideas and feelings; in this way, we create nothing more than a feedback, a snake devouring its own tail, not growing but dying.
What we experience today with the internet and social media is nothing new. Historically, people have met new genres of literature or new technologies with apprehension, deriding them for the break-down of society. In a1939 issue of the North Georgia Review, as they did throughout the entirety of the journal, Lillian Smith and Paula Snelling published reader comments to questionnaires they sent out or to the journal in general. Prefacing “Dealing the South . . . . On Democracy,” they write that before radio people “gathered about the stove in the old store” or elsewhere to talk through their ideas. However, when the radio arose they turned to commentators disconnected from them, and the messaging became a one-way set, disallowing any feedback outside of the bauble. They write,
Today we are content to know what the radio commentators think or the boys gathered around the air-conditioning vent in a New York office think. The air-ways method. The trouble about the radio is that we need two-way sets, and many more stations/ And so N.G.R., though small and of low wattage offers those who tune in the privilege of calling back.
Social media, in may ways, mirrors the “air-ways method” in that it awhile it allows for a “two-way” conversation it reinforces or amplifies one’s views and ideas, shutting down any real interaction. The disconnect that occurs between the keyboard and the screen allows for a disconnect in thoughtful engagement of ideas. Granted, this does not occur in all cases, but more often than not, it provides a space for individuals to not actively engage with analyzing things and rather doubling down on their thoughts.
For example, in September I came across a GIF of social media that showed a postal worker throwing mail into a dumpster. The screen read, “Postal Worker Caught Dumping Mail into Trash.” I did a quick Google search and discovered that the GIF originated from a television news story in Tampa Bay in 2014. When I pointed this out, the person simply responded, “It’s still happening.” In response, I shared that when election officials in Pennsylvania in late September heard that a temporary worker had discarded ballots, they immediately notified authorities and launched an investigation. The proper protocols had been followed for all nine of the “discarded” ballots. Instead of engaging with facts, the reply was, “God is about to expose your candidate.”
In my classes, I used to do an exercise with students when teaching them how to analyze and determine whether or not a website was legitimate. I would project my screen and do a Google search for “Martin Luther King.” The results would always include Wikipedia, the Nobel Prize, history websites, The King Center, and more. At the bottom of the first results page there would be a site titled martinlutherking.org. When clicking on the site, it would direct to a page that looked similar to The King Center’s landing page; however, once you started to dig into it, you began to see that it provided misinformation about King and other things. It was a website from Stromfront, a white nationalist organization. The group made the site look legitimate, and it used that legitimate veneer to propagate lies. The University of South Dakota’s library uses this example as part of its information literacy lesson.
Writing about the Stormfront website and others, Paul S. Piper, back in 2003, wrote, “Counterfeit sites disguise themselves as legitimate sites for the purpose of disseminating misinformation. They are not always attempts at humor or spoof, and even when humorous, they are often misconstrued. The intentions of counterfeit sites are as varied as the sites themselves. but can be roughly divided into several categories: political, for fun, or instructional.” The martinlutherking.org site is markedly counterfeit, working to pass itself off as legitimate while peddling misinformation and racist ideas.
Learning to analyze sites and information is important on so many levels. During a course, as students searched for sources, someone found Occidental Dissent’s “American Racial History Timeline.” I had not see the website before, but when I saw it, I started digging further into it. On the surface, this page presents a lengthy timeline of race in America, specifically from 1900-1960 on this page. However, taken with the image of Raphael’s The School of Athens at the top of the page and the recent comments on the side, I knew something was amiss.
I read some of the entries, and while some had pretty neutral language such as the founding of the NAACP in 1909, other entries use language that points to the site’s agenda. For example, a June 1941 entry reads, “A. Philip Randolph threatens a March on Washington. President Roosevelt issues Executive Order 8802 banning racial discrimination in hiring of government of defense industry during World War II.” Overall, the entry provides information, yes. However, the use of “threatens” is an antagonistic word that does not describe the march, a march that, of course, would not actually occur until 1963.
Before I even looked for contact information, these were clues that the site was similar to the Stormfront Martin Luther King, Jr. site. It’s slick. It looks professional. And until you actually dig in a get past the surface, you may not notice the insidious nature of the site. I did more research and learned about the history of the site and its founder. The sites, founder, Bradley Dean Griffin, founded the site, and as the Southern Poverty Law Center notes, it is a site “devoted to white nationalism.”
This leads me back to the GIF of the mail worker throwing mail into a dumpster in Florida. On the surface, and with the rhetoric coming from the White House, it seems perfectly legitimate that this woman is disposing of ballots in order to help the Democrats win the election. Yet, we know that is not the case. A simple search shows that; however, when one wants to buy into a narrative so badly, and succumbs to that narrative, no amount of information can sway their ideas. This goes beyond critical thinking and critical literacy. This, in effect, is the continuous loop of the snake eating itself, refusing to look outside of its bubble as it devours its own body.