Author: Narelle Lemon
Social media has been well reported for its benefit to connect individuals globally while communicating new knowledge. In the context of Teacher Education it is, however, under utilised and rarely researched in regards to how it is integrated with pre-service teachers. This paper shares a case study of how pre-service teachers from one Australian university accepted an invitation from their teacher to learn how social media, specifically Twitter, can be accessed to support professional development and growth as a (future) teacher while in the higher education classroom. The case focuses on pre-service teachers in their first year of postgraduate studies and explores the formation of digital identities, the generation of content, and peer support while participating in the study of a core subject within their degree. Highlighted throughout the paper is how it is possible to integrate Twitter into Teacher Education studies while teaching the benefits of social media to explore the co-construction of knowledge whereby 140 character tweets support productive, rational and reflective thinking. Implications are presented that consider pedagogical decisions by the teacher to scaffold active use collectively whereby movement from teacher centered to student centered pedagogy is enacted. Impact on pre-service teachers reveals the importance of community and
connectedness to support engagement and usage. The uptake demonstrated how curation and communication of content supports inquiry into becoming a teacher. The strength of peer support and peer teaching as new skills and knowledge were enacted as collaborative learning took place online with intended motivational and learning consequences.
Twitter, Teacher Education, Social Media, Peer Teaching, Professional Development, Curriculum, Pre-service Teachers, Online, Higher Education
To cite this paper
Lemon, Narelle. “Tweeting as a Pre-service Teacher: Learning to Use Twitter for Professional Use.” fusion, no. 8, 2016.
I am completely new to Twitter and it is good to know others are too. I guess tweeting or sharing my thoughts and ideas does not come naturally to me. I am still wondering what to write in my first tweet. I am sure we will all get the hang of it but right now I must say I do feel a bit lost. Having said that I am glad we are challenged to come out of our comfort zone and try something new, particularly because I am sure we will have to do that again and again in the future to keep up with the times, our students and other teachers. I am sure it will be an exciting journey of sharing resources and ideas so I am looking forward to using Twitter.
– Pre-service teacher week one reflection in response to the question: What are your initial thoughts about using Twitter professionally?
Learning something new can be daunting, exciting, and challenging. It can induce feelings of resistance, hesitation, and anticipation. Learning in an online environment ignites many of these feelings. There is a newness that sparks feelings of the fight or flight response – How do I? What does this mean? Why? When? What are others doing? How does that work? Am I doing this right? These are all questions that emerge as one explores something new in regards to topic and way to access learning activities, and are not uncommon in higher education students when they are undertaking studies virtually. In the online environment learning something new often means one can feel alone, connections are yet to be made for support, thus illuminating how a sense of belonging is crucial especially in the beginning stages of establishing an online learning community. The teacher is at the centre of this activity (Shea, Li, & Pickett, 2006). The teacher is the key individual to problem solve, scaffold, and support each learner when setting up the online learning community. The teacher is the troubleshooter and responsible for solid pedagogical planning of social, cognitive and teacher presence in order to support the students (Anderson et al., 2001; Berge, 1995; Paulsen, 1995; Mason, 1991). The opening reflection, shared during the first week of an online Teacher Education subject by a student, a pre-service teacher, illustrates these feelings. It is a reflexive piece on the initial thinking associated to being invited to use the social media platform Twitter professionally and within an subject delivered in a blended mode. There is questioning and excitement- a challenge to move out of one’s comfort zone especially in regards to what content can be shared and considered of value. The professional voice is being called upon and this pre-service teacher is wondering what this might look like. The newness of using Twitter is at the forefront.
This paper introduces and reflects on the integration of the social media platform Twitter into the higher education classroom. Specifically the case shared is located in Teacher Education and the Masters of Teaching (primary), a postgraduate teacher preparation degree. I was the teacher of the student cohort of 67 pre-service teachers undertaking a core subject located within this degree. I invited the students to engage with and participate in developing a professional online identity through Twitter. I personally engage with various social media platforms professionally. I have developed a profile on Twitter whereby I communicate with a community associated to my teaching and research interests. I am an advocate for this informal learning environment, or personal learning network (PLN), especially in making connections, accessing new and innovative thinking, connecting with others globally, and for any time, any where professional development. This is what Moustakas (1994) reiterates as the researcher and educator being firmly enmeshed in the research whereby “personal history brings the core of the problem into focus” (p. 104).
My underpinning aim to introduce Twitter to these future teachers was to support them in being aware of, and trialing with support, how Twitter can be an asset to them as a teacher. To explore this within a degree enables the opportunity to learn about new ways to connect, how to integrate new technologies into reflective practice, how support the development of a professional online identity and how social media can be a part of this (Lemon, 2015). The invitation to participate was a professional request to join me, my PLN and to extend one’s own PLN associated with being a teacher. Learning together as a cohort supports the chance to problem-solve together, to grow links associated with the degree/subject and beyond, and additionally connect with others outside of the degree nationally and globally. There is the chance to find like-minded people and to explore new perspectives while considering a future way of finding informal and personally driven professional development that can be tailored to current and emerging professional interests.
This paper shares insights into pre-service teachers studying a Master of Teaching (primary) in a blended mode that is 80% online. As a part of their studies in the second trimester of their first year, students were invited to form a professional learning network and engage with the social media platform Twitter. They were invited to learn together about how social media, often associated to maintaining personal connections, can support professional connections. In this paper the reader is guided through the background of Twitter as a social media platform and how it is currently used within the Higher Education and Teacher Education environments. This is then followed by the context of the study and the pedagogical decisions associated with integrating Twitter into a higher education subject with students studying to become future teachers. Data and discussion is presented under two themes, firstly, the exploration and co-construction of knowledge, and secondly, the development of peer support.
What is Twitter? Social media for learning
Social networking tools are giving people unprecedented opportunity to download resources, discuss their ideas, and record their learning (Hillier, 2009). Twitter is one such social media platform that allows a combination of personal publishing and communication with a new type of real-time interaction, allowing opportunities for immediate and anytime, anywhere feedback (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2009; Lemon, 2013a; Rodens, 2011; Sinnappan & Zutshi 2011). Participation in Twitter can be seen as “learning opportunities” (Wenger, White & Smith, 2009, p.9) and the richness that can be attained between the distinction of active and passive members are varied. It is about dialogue – two-way and at times multiple voice discussions bringing people together to discover and share information (Reuben, 2011; Solis, 2008).
Twitter emerged in 2006. It is an evolving social media platform with tweaks continuously occurring as user accessibility and functionality develop. At the time of carrying out this research, Twitter enables a 140 character tweet of public information and a 10,000 character direct message, or DM as it is often referred to, allowing for a private conversation between users (Agarwal, 2015; Hern, 2015). Users generate a profile that introduces them to their audience(s) constructed with a combination of text and an image. A profile is key to extending audiences, communicating with likeminded others, and providing identifying information (Stewart, 2015). This is what Donath and boyd (2004) suggest as being visible peer connections that service as identity markers for profile owners, and are a part of impression management purposes. Tweets can be responded to or retweeted (often shown as an abbreviation of RT). Key words are often labeled with a hashtag symbol (#) in front to direct audiences to like content and conversations. As an information network, Twitter supports the sharing of text and media including photographs, video and web links. The features of constructing a tweet, retweeting, replying, and sharing enable the formation of a community to share voice, perspectives and resources connected to specific topics and/or themes.
Social media are digital platforms that necessitate a process of interaction and/or communication with others (Poore, 2012). Personal uses of these technologies often involve interaction for social or information gathering purposes (Cheung, Chiu, & Lee, 2011), and in regards to student use in higher education it has been reported they use social media more informally to facilitate exchange of study-related knowledge and information (Wodzicki, Schwämmlein, & Moskaliuk, 2012). The transfer of use into more formal learning in higher education may be considered a blurring of boundaries between personal and academic spheres (Barczyk & Duncan, 2013; Gettman & Cortijo, 2015) however, the value for the extension of social and information curation is beginning to be reported more.
As with other forms of social media, Twitter is ideal for higher education; it is nimble, flexible, easy to use, and often very powerful. It focuses on doing one thing only and on doing that thing well: highlighting the “‘perpetual beta’ mode, meaning that improvements to the software are always being made and that students are always working with the latest version of the product” (Poore, 2012, p. 6). Moreover, students can participate easily in the creation of content specifically related to their studies, professional development and their own learning spaces; thus supporting meaning making that is student centered rather than teacher driven (Poore 2012).
There is much interest from a wide variety of education settings across age groups and disciplines in the potential of social media platforms to leverage or complement formal educational activities and enhance learning outcomes (Brennan, 2003; Collin & Berge 2006; Notley, 2011). Research describes various uses of social media in the higher education environment and highlights how it is flexible, easy to use and a powerful tool for learning and teaching (Poore, 2012). Recent literature indicates that a significant number of young people in higher education engage with a variety of digital technology, including social media, in their life (for example Anson & Miller-Cochran, 2009; Bradshow, 2008; Briggs, 2008; Bruns & Humphreys, 2007; Conole & Alevizou, 2010; Downes, 2010; Dunlop & Lowenthal, 2009; Gettman & Cortijo, 2015; Lemon, 2013a; 2015; Lemon et al., 2012; McNeill, 2009; Parker & Chao, 2007; Rodriguez, 2011). In higher education classrooms, the use and early adaption of this social media is still in its experimental stages with a variety of different applications being explored, trialed, adapted or even rejected (Junco, Heiberger & Loken, 2010; Lemon, 2013a). Various studies report the student use of social media within higher education contexts to:
- Enhance opinion sharing (McNeill, 2009);
- Support collaborating, brainstorming, problem solving and creating within the content of moment-to moment experiences (Dunlop & Lowenthal, 2009; Lemon, 2012; 2013a);
- Demonstrate professional interactions and to understand the broader impact of technology (Bradshow, 2008);
- Support classroom discussions and interactions that were once more private (Barczyk & Duncan, 2013; Gettman & Cortijo, 2015; Rodriguez, 2011);
- Create a sense of classroom community (Anson & Miller-Cochran, 2009; Briggs, 2008; Parker & Chao, 2007; Bruns & Humphreys, 2007);
- Support reflective practice (Crook et al., 2008; Hramiak, 2010; Lemon, 2014b; Wright, 2010)
- Produce a gallery of work (Lemon, 2015)
- Collect professional resources (Downes, 2010; Wodzicki, Schwämmlein, & Moskaliuk, 2012);
- Foster co-creators of content and social dimensions of trust and cooperation (Conole & Alevizou, 2010); and
- Engage participants with more interaction and discussions amongst students and to take away from more teacher-centered pedagogical approaches (Bull et al., 2008; Ramsden, 2009).
Underpinning these benefits are pedagogical decisions to use various social media platforms to engage the learner. The invitation for professional use is framed around content as explore in the Teacher Education subject, and not use for administration or an alternative communication tool for broadcasting non-content information (for example, a reminder of a lecture time or assessment due date).
While focusing on the higher education environment and specifically looking at Teacher Education, pre-service teachers use of social media are often embedded in pop culture sensibilities that may not have been translated into the academic or teaching contexts (Bull et al., 2008). Instead of rejecting these ways of participating online, it is important to assist pre-service teachers to transform their understandings and values regarding the content and processes used to create and co-curate content that supports both their development of pedagogical understandings and connections to the profession (Bull et al., 2008; Lemon 2015; 2014b). Currently, it would be common for some pre-service teachers to engage with Twitter on a personal level, but most report they do not know what to do and have little or no idea of how to use this platform for professional engagement and development (Lemon, 2013a; Lemon et al., 2012). In an educational context where technology is mandated to be taught and integrated to support meaningful and authentic learning activities, this brings to light an underdeveloped area. In Teacher Education social media platforms support pre-service teachers “who are developing pedagogical and content knowledge [and] can serve as collaborators in determining methods for adapting emergent social media and communications technologies to classroom use” (Bull et al., 2008, p.106). Thus, illuminating “a crucial element of this partnership is the development of a critical consciousness and critical media literacy on the part of students about new and emerging technologies, social media, and communications technologies and how they can best be utilised to teach or support the teaching of content” (Bull et al., 2008, p.107).
Innovative ways, such as image-based methods supported through photographs (Lemon, 2007), video (Lemon, Colasante, Corneille, & Douglas, 2013; Newhouse, Dearholt, Poe, Pugh, & White, 2007), or Web 2.0 and social networking (English & Duncan-Howell, 2008; Gronn, Romeo, & Sheely, 2013; Wright, 2010), are being explored to extend the interrelationships among the cognitive, behavioral, and affective dimensions of communication involved in being and becoming a teacher (Bower et al., 2011). The reflective use of digital media—including video, figures, and, indeed, social media—in Teacher Education degrees has been suggested as a way to bridge the perceived gap between theory and practice and highlight the opportunities to observe and interact in authentic real-life classrooms (Bencze et al., 2003; Lemon, 2015, 2014a; Newhouse et al., 2007) while supporting open dialogue and reflective and metacognitive thinking. These digital access points to information and discussions provide pre-service teachers with an opportunity to engage in a sustained self-directed learning experience using digital technologies, thus encouraging them to engage in metacognitive talk about their experiences learning with and through technology (Bullock, 2012). English and Duncan-Howell (2008), in their study with 28 pre-service teachers, noted that “digital behaviours and habits of students enrolled in [their] subject may be used in developing supportive tools that can be harnessed during practicum periods” (p. 596). They further found that a social media “group page [established] as a support tool during their teaching practicum” (p. 600) was beneficial. In her study of eight participants in a teaching practicum, Wright (2010) found that posting to Twitter from phones or computers raised attention. “While 140 characters were initially difficult and limiting for explaining ideas, it honed participants’ reflective thinking. This was highly valued in the very individual experience of teaching practicum” (p. 259). Similar studies have found that pre-service teachers’ use of Twitter for professional online dialogue and access to global resources supported their confidence to articulate reflections on professional experiences (Lemon, 2013b; 2015).
Context of study
The focus on Twitter in this paper comes from a data source associated with a larger study aimed at evaluating how pre-service teachers connect to a variety of resources that assist them in the writing of curriculum and professional development. The focus of this study was on: a) galleries and museums; and b) social media including Twitter, Pinterest and blogging as used in a postgraduate subject located within the Master of Teaching (Primary) degree being offered for the first time in 2015. This paper only focuses on aspects of using Twitter to connect with professional resources.
Connecting future teachers to the breadth of resources for learning within museums and galleries was the driver for the development of an accredited Teacher Education core subject located within a Master of Teacher (primary). This subject is called Connected Learning: Working with museums and galleries to deepen arts and humanities learning. Developed in partnership between La Trobe University, Melbourne Museum, Immigration Museum and National Gallery of Victoria, the subject focuses on how these sites as well as other cultural organisation sites are resources for primary (Year Foundation to Year 6) curriculum and learning opportunities onsite, offsite and online, and for ongoing teacher professional development. The subject is offered as a core subject in the second trimester in the first year of an 18-month accelerated degree. There is a focus on arts and humanities, with reference made to integrated curriculum, technology, and other discipline areas. The subject scaffolds pre-service teachers to consider cultural organisations for ongoing learning, resources for curriculum, and reflecting upon education across formal and informal sites while connecting with museum educators through online and face-to-face opportunities. The subject is delivered in a blended mode over 12 weeks with 80% content engaged with online (five modules that are designed to be completed over two to three weeks each) and two days face-to-face on site at the partner museums and galleries (one module called an intensive). The online component specifically introduces social media platforms for professional engagement to develop a PLN and make connections with peers, teachers, museum educators, and global community.
Pre-service teachers were invited to use Twitter to:
- Expose alternative ways of connecting to fellow educators;
- Demonstrate how museums and social media are sites for informal learning with transference across boundaries into formal learning settings;
- Support learning by doing, underpinned by a social constructivist and connectivism learning framework;
- Extend connections between pre-service teachers and museum educators and museums;
- Support digital engagement anywhere, anytime to build ongoing professional relationships;
- Connect beyond just the subject content;
- Establish relationships and possibilities for future growth professionally and in integrating meaningful use of museums in curriculum; and
- Share how relationships can build from Teacher Education into teacher practice and take this knowledge into the classroom on practicum and once graduated
This project was a qualitative mixed methods (Mason, 2006) ethnography. As the teacher and researcher I enacted what Dannah boyd (2014) references as ethnographic practices whereby the researcher undergoes ‘participant observation’ and ‘deep hanging out’ in the online space alongside qualitative field notes and written reflections via a blog completed by the students. As the teacher practitioner researcher, I moved between Twitter, blogs and offline spaces, systematically observing, documenting, and talking to students about their practices and attitudes. Data collected was guided by the research question: how do pre-service teachers connect to resources to support their growth as future teachers? The sub questions ask: a) What are the engagement and participation levels like?; b) What are the blockers to access?; c) What are successful types of resources to support development and why?; and d) What is the effect and impact for the pre-service teacher in connecting with a variety of resources? Analysis was thematic and emergent, building from the research question and sub questions while being informed by literature.
Integrating Twitter: Pedagogical decisions
The pedagogical decision to integrate Twitter throughout the online Teacher Education subject was scaffolded to reflect the development of shared goals, trust and mutual support (Shea, Li, & Pickett, 2006). These are features of high functioning communities and these “characteristics lay the foundation for an effective pedagogy of constructive – one which values, encourages and sustains productive discourse” (Shea et al, 2006, p.176). In addition, opportunity to express thinking, processing, perspectives and ideas is important and should be considered in learning activities produced for the online environment. Ideally learning activities “include opportunities to reflect and re-think previous positions and the consequent integration of new ideas into existing cognitive structure” (Shea et al 2006, pp.176-177). Thus as teachers engaging with students in an online space, there must be an understanding of the online classroom and the impact on learners both socially and academically.
What teachers do in the online classroom is critical to learners’ sense of scholarly belonging and ultimate persistence in their academic pursuits (Tinto, 1997). Levels of connectedness and learning are a measure of learning community (Shea et al, 2006). This is where the notions of cognitive, social and teaching presence in online community must take into consideration inviting the online teacher to learn to transfer face-to-face teaching strategies to the virtual space (Anderson, et al., 2001). As Anderson et al (2001, p.3) notes “Teaching in online courses is an extremely complex and challenging function”. It requires the creation of and application of teaching presence. Sustained authentic communication is required “while control must be shared and choices provided, [with] the discourse muddied towards higher levels of learning through reflective participation as well as by challenging assumptions and diagnosing misconceptions” (Anderson, et al., 2001, p.3).
Building from the work of Anderson et al., (2001), Berge (1995), Paulsen (1995), and Mason (1991) we can form an understanding of what teacher, social and cognitive presence looks like in the online learning environment (see Table 1).
Table 1: Mapping teacher, social and cognitive presence in the online learning environment
|Teacher Presence||1) Technical support role|
2) Organisational or managerial/or instructional design and organisation;
3) Social or facilitating discourse; and
|1) Getting to know students and needs,|
2) Students get to know peers,
3) Supportive online environment so students can see/know other people are doing similar things to oneself, or
4) Can seek social support
|1) Sharing and building on learning materials that integrates learning outcomes over time, or|
2) Responding to other peoples’ posts so one can enrich their learning experiences as well as work socially.
Teaching presence begins before a subject begins “as the design facilitation, and direction of cognitive and social processes for the purposes of realising personally meaningful and educationally worthwhile learning outcomes” (Anderson, et al., 2001, p.5) are carefully considered. This is part of the designing, planning, preparation, structure, evaluation and interactions components of the subject. Working in an online space as a part of a learning experience requires well-established roles as teacher and student to be reconsidered and redefined. The teacher’s role is to create a narrative path through the mediated learning activities that the students will participate in (Laurillard et al., 2000). A strong social presence such as getting to know students and their needs, getting to know peers, supportive peer interactions, or seeking social support, supports cognitive presence such as sharing and building on learning materials that integrates learning outcomes over time, or responding to other peoples’ posts so one can enrich their learning experiences as well as work socially. Students are more likely to support one another in learning, once the communication and group cohesion have been forged (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007; Shackelford & Maxwell, 2012).
This study is underpinned by carefully enacted pedagogical decisions that demonstrate a student-centered approach to the integration of technology, in this case Twitter. In linking to the work of Anderson et al., (2001), Berge (1995), Paulsen (1995), and Mason (1991) on teacher presence, key design decisions about the introduction of social media for professional use built on personal use and familiarity. In Table 2 an outline of the function of the teacher presence and design is unpacked in relation to the learning activities introduced and their sequence throughout a trimester mode of subject delivery.
Table 2: Pedagogical decision for integration of Twitter guided by Teacher Presence
|Technical support||· Invitation to consider and trial a variety of social media platforms for professional development.|
|· Online professional etiquette workshopped including establishing professional profile, language and respecting privacy of others.|
|· Module on how to set up Twitter profile and “how to” tweet.|
|· Teacher modeling of use including own professional use/practice – invite to join teacher professional networks (learn together).|
|· Guides for who to follow and what hashtags to engage with that connect to relevant content.|
|· Discussion on ethical practices and etiquette – including no faces of people under 18 years or without permission to protect identity of each other.|
|· Technical discussions – teacher led (Learning Management System (LMS) discussion board) and trouble shooting in action on Twitter.|
|· Technical discussions – student led (peer teaching) (LMS discussion board) and trouble shooting in action on Twitter.|
Organisational or managerial/or instructional design and organisation
· Subject workshop themes/content connected to a checklist of learning activities/content that could be tweeted in each module.
|· Specific learning activities that use the platform – regularly integrated.|
|· Twitter – Assessment rubric scaffolding participation based on professional requirements for technology skills (Mid semester check in and self assessment/Final assessment end of trimester).|
|· Module connection to assessment tasks and how participation builds capacity to address criteria. Where resources could be accessed via social media platforms and other academic locations such as the LMS.|
|· Reflective practice to support critical thinking about social media for professional networking and development.|
|· SWOT Analysis (strength, weakness, observations and threats) at conclusion of a trimester of use (final Module).|
Social or facilitating discourse
· Welcome tweet from teacher upon establishing a Twitter profile and sending first tweet.
|· Class list of Twitter Handles to support connections beyond friendship groups Googledocs file.|
|· Twitter encouraging peer engagement and wider connections. Engaging with cultural organisations, Tweet Chats outside of subject.|
|· Peer conversations and problem solving about how to construct a tweet with professional content (LMS discussion board).|
|· Teacher responses to student tweets. Linked to email for notification that new content has been shared. Within 48 hours.|
· Real time publishing in social media platformsof content during modules forming a gallery of work – allowing teachable moments in action of different applications of theory and practice.
|· Posing questions to peers, teacher and public.|
|· Targeted encouragement and sharing of links for interest based on content shared.|
In building on new ways of communicating and reflecting as educators (Wright, 2010), social presence is key to success, that is getting to know each other, forming a community, establishing trust, and seeking social support to learn how to use the platform. The pre-service teachers actively engaged with Twitter as a way to collaborate with peers across the core subject. This is where they developed skills and knowledge to be active participants in social media for professional networking at other times (personal time or in other classes or during practicum). These skills were transferred into other learning experiences as pre-service teachers, particularly while they were undertaking practicum in educational environments such as primary schools and engaging
with museums and galleries as part of subject aims. Content was shared and engaged with in meaningful ways that contributed to posing questions; sharing insights to development as a teacher; sharing development with disciplines areas (for example arts, digital technology and humanities); sharing resources; and engaging with others (known and unknown) in the virtual community to develop professionally through actions such as tweet chats (synchronous online discussions guided by specific questions held at a specific time hosted by myself as their teacher and also public tweet chats such as #PSTchat, #AussieEdChat or #MuseumEdOz). In this way Twitter was seen as another access point to information, content and resources for development as a teacher. The pre-service teachers engaged with the hashtag #CL15 created to link the cohort, curation of content and used as a way to support each participant in their studies of the subject.
Through a student-centered approach of trialing and using Twitter, supported by peer and teacher support, the focus of the subject guided much of the content that the students shared and co-curated. Essentially while they were learning to navigate the interface the subject drove the content shared, however with my scaffolding and modeling as their teacher, students could make their own choices about content shared and engaged with to support being connected to professional information. These interactions were crucial for the group cohesion and formation of a supportive community both face to face and virtually (Garrison & Arbaugh, 2007; Shackelford and Maxwell, 2012).
Figure1: Sample first tweets
The pre-service teachers participated in meaningful and ethically professional etiquette online while participating with/on Twitter as a social media for professional development (Shea et al, 2006). As their teacher, I modeled and explicitly discussed issues around online participation with the pre-service teachers. At no time did a pre-service teacher behave in a way that was disrespectful towards others or the profession of education. On the contrary, open discussion about online profiles and digital footprints sparked much interest from the pre-service teachers as they had not previously considered nor applied such practices. Careful scaffolding of formulating an online profile and professional language framed by no put downs or judgmental behaviour was appreciated by the pre-service teachers. Consideration of how to portray one’s professional profile was also carefully undertaken by the pre-service teachers with connections to the stage of their career (e.g.: links to studying in Teacher Education), areas they were specially focused on with their preparations to become a primary school teacher, and communication of professional interests.
Cognitive presence was driven by inviting the pre-service teachers to engage with Twitter. This enabled an authentic application of a digital identity and exploration with peers in order to critically think about tweet content, knowledge shared, and media posted. There was a significant shift in online profiles and how the pre-service teachers built and portrayed personal and professional identities. The interaction with Twitter was the first time all of the pre-service teachers had considered a social media for professional networking and personal learning. They were encouraged to critically think about their profile, content and the people with whom they connected. The thinking required a very different way of working; many pre-service teachers had not considered the use of, let alone the layers associated with, working in this space. Although personal theories or models may be incomplete initially, participants or learners become immersed in experiences that allowed them to identify, make and test predictions and modify their intuitions (Hannafin & Land, 1997). From this perspective the pre-service teachers could feel able to both produce and evaluate knowledge and culture (Ito et al. 2006), thus allowing for these effective social environments to support the individual’s intentions to derive and solve problems through the use of available
resources and tools (Edwards 1995; Jonassen 1992). These are vital skills for teachers.
Twitter enabled the pre-service teachers to communicate in an online space about their subject work. They were encouraged through the maximum 140-character construction of a tweet to carefully think about the content they could share. Connecting to subject work supported the students to share process, reflections and insights online via the class hashtag (#CL15). This allowed for the pre-service teachers to trace their classroom interactions while also learning from each other. Accessing the hashtag allowed for ongoing connections with discussions, ideas and content shared in both real time and at later times to support ongoing reflective and metacognitive thinking. Often after hours (post 5pm) access occurred allowing for continued conversations to occur
and support of ongoing professional development. This was all driven by the pre-service teachers and reinforced their engagement with working in such ways in an online environment.
The next section of the paper moves into sharing the some of the data and discussion presented under the two themes of: 1) explore co-construction and curation of knowledge, and 2) peer support.
Exploration of co-construction of knowledge
Teacher presence in the online environment was vital for the success of the integration of Twitter into the Teacher Education higher education context. Careful planning and confidence in own use were imperative for the scaffolding of teacher, social and cognitive presence to be enacted meaningfully. Through the process of shifting from personal use to professional use of social media while focusing on the platform of Twitter, the pre-service teachers were invited to:
- Be risk takers;
- Explore digital platforms professionally;
- Try something new;
- Consider their online professional identity and voice;
- Engage peer-to-peer, with their teacher, and with other educators globally to explore co-construction of knowledge;
- Be open to shifts in authority;
- Develop confidence to tweet;
- Connect in the online space to extend their personal learning networks; and
- Critically think about how they would like to position themselves as professionals.
As a part of these guiding principles, the premise that social media enables the curating and co-curating of lived experiences was present. In essence, I maintain that Twitter is one of many social media platforms that enable the generation of visual narratives, that is a media such as a photography or video paired with a narrative text guided by 140 characters to share a lived experience. From this perspective social media as a “media, and the technologies which enable making and sharing of media, co-exist with learning as part of material and lived experience” (Potter, 2013, p.76). This supports a specific curatorship based around generation of media as well as cataloging, arranging and assembling experiences through the publishing/sharing, participating /connecting with others and reflecting upon the construction of content shared with others on the platform (Potter, 2013; 2013; 2009). This type of co-creation of knowledge and thus subsequent curatorship of content has become more accessible “in the developed world by increasing access to still and moving image software and hardware as well as to social media” (Potter, 2013, p.77). Most significantly the opportunity to work and think in this way supported the pre-service teachers engagement.
I have used Twitter professionally before, but not in the teaching/educational space, and I must say that this has been a great experience for me thus far. Having so much guidance and support, both through the learning network as such, as well as the learning activities, has made all the difference as far as getting something out of Twitter is concerned. Left to my own devices, I never quite managed to find the right connections or resources on Twitter, and I was completely unaware of professional Tweet chats and the like. (Pre-service teacher week two reflection)
This way of working, being, learning, exploring and constructing lived experiences generates much discussion about representation of self, mobile digital devices, to photograph or not, how social media can support reflective practice on and in action, etcetera. In the process of [co-]curation, cataloguing is the more obvious skill of organisation and location that is enacted in this way of working. Users, in this case pre-service teachers, need to know how resources have been organised and catalogued, tagged (for example through hashtags) for their location in ways that are meaningful to the producers themselves. Arranging and assembling are skills of planning for elements to be in dialogue with one another (see Figure 2). This is an active process of working with intertextuality, using the tools of new media to assemble a coherent whole which stays together for the overarching purpose of the message and underlying subject in which Twitter is being integrated (Gee, 2004). A part of this, the process of [co-]curation also demonstrates peer support and collaborative approaches to professional development.
Figure 2: An example of a pre-service teacher sharing a teaching and learning activity for the F-6 classroom and the subsequent online conversation that occurred on Twitter to extend reflective practice.
The pre-service teachers were invited to generate new content and find content produced by others to share based on the content of the subject being studied. In both these approaches a confidence to tweet was supported. Pre-service teachers were required to consider relevance, connect with their reflective practice of being and becoming a teacher, and consider application to current role as pre-service teacher. A reciprocity existed within the pre-service teacher cohort as all in enrolled in the subject were learning together in how to engage with social media professionally and soon learnt that if they shared via the class hashtag that someone else would share, comment, and add further perspectives to support the building up resources. This
co-construction and co-curation of knowledge underpinned by sharing, asking questions, clarification, synthesis, and organising modeled behaviours both ideally displayed in the professional online or face-to-face environments.
I’m loving twitter!! At first I was sceptical about using twitter because it is so public and we are always told to not be so when working with children, but I absolutely love the connections I’ve been able to make and the conversations with teachers and educators that I’ve been able to have. I have been able to challenge my beliefs as well as come across amazing resources for classroom use. I’ve found that educators are very helpful and quick to respond to questions. I’ve also learned to get to my point concisely because you only have 140 characters! I love that sitting on twitter while watching [television] at night is contributing to our assignment AND building and amazing PLN [personal learning network] to use in the future 🙂 thanks!! (Pre-service teacher week ten reflection)
At first I was sceptical about creating a Twitter account as I had made one in the past, but deleted it a short time after. Now, I believe I have got the gist of it and I think it is a great way to connect with other pre-service teachers and educators from around the globe. I have contributed to live chats, connected with other educators, and come across fantastic ideas and resources that I have shared and hopefully can use in our own classrooms. The #CL15 hashtag has been great in keeping all of our posts together, instead of having to go through everyone’s profiles one-by one. With the 140 character limit, it is also teaching me to write succinctly! (Pre-service teacher week ten reflection)
At first I was very unhappy about having to put myself out into a public space. However you were right Narelle, [t]hank you!! I think it is a great resource. I am still learning how to use it I think I miss information from time to time. I don’t know if that’s because I am not always online/connected (don’t have the right mobile plan to allow that) or because I am not looking in the right areas. Sometimes I see something but when I go back later I can’t find it. Initially I was totally overwhelmed with the flood of information but I seem to be coping better. I am definitely establishing a great PLN and feeling more connected to my fellow students. I think my English skills actually improved as the character limit forces you to succinctly get you message across…because the amount of characters you can type is limited it again provided a level playing field because no one person can dominate the conversation. (Pre-service teacher week ten reflection)
Twitter challenges notions of public global dialogue, continuous discussions in the online space beyond the four walls of a physical classroom, and the role of peer-to-peer interactions. Ultimately, the students drove what content they shared and how they interacted with other users, both peers and wider audiences. The class hashtag was also added to the tweets either as part of the sentence(s) shared or at the end. It was the use of the hashtag that supported the pre-service teachers to engage with each other and support one another in their studies and development as a teacher. Not only did the pre-service teachers support one another in navigating Twitter, through tweets of ‘how do I…” but they also provided support for one another through posing questions about the profession (Figure 3).
Figure 3: A Twitter example of pre-service teachers interacting and offering peer support.
This type of interaction demonstrated problem solving. There was a shift of authority from relying on a teacher or facilitator to share information. The pre-service teachers supported one another, and displayed an openness of posing questions in a pubic forum. As a result the pre-service teachers engaged in reflective and metacognitive thinking about their role as teachers via Twitter. They used the social media platform to set goals, plan activities, monitor progress and evaluate their learning throughout the semester. They adapted to opportunities to contribute to and modify their use of Twitter and share their processing/thinking as they were facilitated and supported by their teacher and each other (Figure 4).
Figure 4: Pre-service teachers engaging with one another to explore their development as teachers.
Figure 5: Tweet samples of pre-service teachers reflections on accessing Twitter for professional networks within the higher education context
This paper is being written as the cohort is coming to the end of a trimester of studies where Twitter is one of many social media platforms being integrated. The long term impact of how pre-service teachers use Twitter in their studies and then beyond has not been explored. Questions need to be considered to determine the impact. Who continues to extend their personal learning networks? Who become leaders in this technology? Who grasps career opportunities based on their learnings via Twitter? As I write I reflect on the tweets coming through on the #CL15 stream:
Figure 6: End of subject reflective tweets on Twitter use
These are significant tweets that articulate goals achieved and the desire to continue use. The pre-service teachers have shifted from hesitant invitees to advocates for the value of this social media platform to engage with one another and with the sector. Their experiences have reinforced that they too can have a professional voice, and have the opportunity to access information and resources, to pose questions, and to engage in the profession that they will be a part of in their careers to come. Key pedagogical decisions supported this learning in situ – integration, modeling by their teacher, co-use with their teacher, open invitation to curate their experiences, and invitation to explore through specific learning activities. The online environment has allowed for a growth of community, growth of a sense of belonging, and a growth of professional voice. Underpinning this approach is reciprocity, modeled and enacted to support a mindset for the profession.
This paper begins to share evidence of pre-service teachers developing explicit skills in being able to use social media, in this case Twitter, professionally. They have developed language and ways of thinking to communicate in 140 characters to transmit what they were experiencing, seeing, inquiring into, questioning, and seeking assistance for. The professional etiquette and language was maintained throughout and showed a developing professionalism that is possible for pre-service teacher interaction in a public online forum such as Twitter. Through supported scaffolding including
pedagogical decisions that carefully consider how Twitter can be integrated into the higher education class, pre-service teachers were provided with the opportunity to build their digital professional profiles, networks and skills. Subsequently, there is evidence of a significant impact on the place of social media in professional learning. Illuminated is the importance of community and connectedness that is guided by the curation and co-curation of knowledge. Twitter can support the inquiry into becoming a teacher, strengthen peer support, reflective practice, and professional networking.
Anderson, T., Rourke, L., Garrison, D.R., & Archer, W. (2001). Assessing teaching presence in a computer conferencing context. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 5(2), 1 – 17.
Anson, C.M. & Miller-Cochran, S.K. (2009). Contrails of learning: Using new technologies for vertical knowledge building. Computers and Composition, 26, 38‐48.
Agarwal, S. (2015). Removing the 140-character limit from Direct Messages. Retrieved from https://blog.twitter.com/2015/removing-the-140-character-limit-from-direct-messages
Bencze, L., Hewitt, J., Pedretti, E., Yoon, S., Perris, K., and van Oostveen, R. (2003). Science-specialist student-teachers consider promoting technological design projects: Contributions of multi-media case methods. Research in Science Education, 33(2), 164–187.
Berge, Z.L. (1995). Facilitating computer conferencing. Educational Technology, 15(1), 22-30.
Bower, M., Kennedy, G. E., Dalgarno, B., Lee, J. W., Kenney, J., and de Barba, P. (2011). Use of media-rich real-time collaboration tools for learning . Retrieved from http://wwwTwitter and Teacher Education 557.ascilite.org.au/conferences/ wellington12 /2012/figures/custom/bower,_matt_-_use_of_media.pdf
boyd, D. (2014). It’s complicated: The social lives of networked teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Bradshow, P. (2008, February 15). Teaching students to twitter: The good, the bad and the ugly. Retrieved from http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2007/02/15/teachingstudentstotwitter thegoodthebadandtheugly/
Briggs, L.L. (2008). Micro blogging with Twitter: A Q and A with David Parry, assistant professor of emerging media at the University of Texas at Dallas’ Campus Technology. Retrieved from
Bruns, A. & Humphreys, S. (2007). Building collaborative capacities in learners: The M/cyclopedia project revisited. Proceedings of the 2nd International Symposium of Wikis, 2007.1-10.
Bullock, S. M. (2012). Creating a space for the development of professional knowledge: A self-study of supervising teacher candidates during practicum placements. Studying Teacher Education, 8(2), 143–156.
Brennan, R. (2003). One size doesn’t fit all. Pedagogy in the online environment. Australian Capital Territory, Australia: Australian Flexible Learning Framework for the National Vocational Education and Training System.
Bull, G., Thompson, A., Searson, M., Garofalo, J., Park, J., Young, C., and Lee, J. (2008). Connecting informal and formal learning: Experiences in the age of participatory media. Contemporary Issues in Technology and Teacher Education, 8(2), 100-107.
Cheung, C. M. K., Chiu, P-Y., and Lee, M. K. O. (2011). Online social networks: Why do students use facebook? Computers in Human Behavior, 27(4), 1337-1343.
Collins, M., and Berge, Z. (1996). Facilitating interaction in computer mediated online courses. Paper presented at the FSU/AECT Distance Education Conference, Tallahasee, Florida.
Conole, G. & Alevizou, P. (2010). A literature review of the use of Web 20.0 tools in higher education. A report commissioned by the Higher Education Academy. Walton Hall, Milton Keynes, U: The Open University.
Donath, J., and boyd, D. (2004). Public displays of connection. BT Technology Journal, 22(4), 71-82.
Downes, S. (2010, January 6). Blogs in Learning. Staff Training and Research Institute of Distance Education (STRIDE), 8, 88‐91.
Dunlap, J.C., and Lowenthal, P.R. (2009). Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence. Journal of Information Systems Education, 20(2), 129-145.
Edwards, L.D. (1995). The design and analysis of a mathematical microworld. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 12(1). 77-94.
English, R., and Duncan-Howell, J. (2008). Facebook goes to college: Using social networking tools to support students undertaking teaching practicum. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 4(4), 596–601.
Garrison, D.R., and Arbaugh, J.B. (2007). Researching the community of inquiry framework: Review, issues and future directions. The Internet and Higher Education, 10(3), 157-172.
Gee, J., 2004. Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. New York: Routledge.
Gettman, H. J., and Cortijo, V. (2015). “Leave Me and My Facebook Alone!” Understanding College Students’ Relationship with Facebook and its Use for Academic Purposes. International Journal for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning, 9(1), 1-18.
Gronn, D., Romeo, G., and Sheely, S. (2013). TTF@ACU: Our story. Australian Educational Computing. Teaching Teachers for the Future Project, 27(3), 63–68.
Hannafin, M.J., & Land, S.M.(1997). The foundations of technology assumptions and barriers to student centered learning environments. Instructional Science, 2(5), 167–202.
Hern, A. (2015). Twitter will remove 140-word character limit in direct messages. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2015/jun/12/twitter-character-limit-direct-messages-tweets
Hillier, Y. (2009). Innovation in teaching and learning in vocational education and training. International perspective. Retrieved from www.ncver.edu.au/publications/2134.html.
Hramiak, A. (2010). Online learning community development with teachers as a means of enhancing initial teacher training. Technology Pedagogy and Education, 19(1), 47–62.
Junco, R., Heiberger, G., & Loken, E. (2010). The effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27 (2), 119–132.
Jonassen, D. (1992), ‘What are Cognitive Tools?’, in P. Kommers & H. Mandl. (Eds.). Cognitive Tools for Learning. Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.
Laurillard, D., Stratfold, M., Lukin, R., Plowman, L., and Taylor, J. (2000). Affordances for learning in a non-linear narrative medium. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, Issue 2, 1-19.
Lemon, N. (2015). Confidence to Tweet: Pre-Service Teachers engaging with Twitter as a Professional Online Learning Environment). In Wright , R. (Ed.). Student-Teacher Interaction in Online Learning Environments (pp.204-234). Hershey, Pennsylvania, USA: IGI Global. ISBN 978-1-4666-6461-6
Lemon, N. (2014a). Twitter for arts community collaborations and networking: Social impact of fostering partnerships. In N. Lemon, C. Klopper, & S. Garvis (Eds.), Representations of working in the Arts: Deepening the conversations (pp. 29–50). London: Intellect.
Lemon, N. (2014b). Twitter and Teacher Education: Exploring Teacher, Social, and Cognitive Presence in Professional Use of Social Media. Teacher Education and Practice, 27(4), 532-560.
Lemon, N. (2013a,). Is there a place for Twitter in pre-service teachers personal learning network? Introducing social media into teacher education. Refereed paper for American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting 27 April to1 May, San Francisco, CA.
Lemon, N. (2013b). @Twitter is always wondering what’s happening: Learning with and through social networks in higher education. In B. Patrut, M. Patrut, & C. Cmeciu (Eds.), Social media in higher education: Teaching in Web 2.0 (pp. 237–261). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.
Lemon, N., Thorneycroft, S., Jones, D., & Forner, L. (2012). Project #pstn: engaging pre-service teachers in the Twitterverse. Refereed paper for PLE Conference (#PLEConf) (simultaneously in Aveiro, Portugal and Melbourne, Australia), Deakin University, July 11 – 13.
Lemon, N. (2007). Take a photograph: Teacher reflection through narrative. Journal of Reflective Practice, 8(2), 177–191.
Lemon, N., Colasante, M., Corneille, K., and Douglas, K. (2013). Video annotation for collaborative connections to learning: Case studies from an Australian higher education context. In C. Wankel (Ed.), Cutting-edge technologies in higher education (pp. 181–214). Bingley, UK: Emerald Group.
Lemon, N., Thorneycroft, S., Jones, D., and Forner, L. (2012, July). Project #pstn: Engaging pre-service teachers in the Twitterverse. Refereed paper for PLE Conference (#PLEConf), simultaneously in Aveiro, Portugal, and Melbourne, Australia.
Mason, J. (2006). Mixing methods in a qualitatively driven way. Qualitative Research, 6(1) 9–25.
Mason, R. (1991). Moderating educational computer conferencing. DEOSNEWS, 1(19), 1-11.
McNeill, T. (2009). Twitter in Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/20025500/Twitter in Higher Education
Moustakas, C. (1994). Phenomenological research methods. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.
Newhouse, R., Dearholt, S., Poe, S., Pugh, L., and White, K. (2007). Johns Hopkins nursing: Evidence-based practice model and guidelines. Indianapolis, IN: Sigma Theta Tau.
Notley, T. (2011, August 4). Why digital privacy and HYPERLINK “http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/aug/04/digital-technology-development-tool”security are important for development. The Guardian, Poverty Matters Blog. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/HYPERLINK”http://www.guardian.co.uk/global-development/poverty-matters/2011/aug/04/digital-technology-development-tool”global-development/poverty-matters/2011/aug/04/digital-technology-development-tool
Paulsen, M.P. (1995). Moderating educational computer conferences. In Berge, .L. & Collins, M. (Eds.). Computer-mediated communication and the online classroom in distance education (pp.91-104). Cresskill, N.J: Hampton Press.
Parker, K.R., & Chao, J.T. (2007). ‘Wiki as a teaching Tool’. Interdisciplinary Journal of Knowledge and Learning Objects, 3, 57–72.
Poore, M. (2012). Using social media in the classroom: A best practice guide. London: Sage Publishers.
Potter, J. (2013). Media education and the new curatorship: principles and entitlement for learners. Media Education Research Journal, 3 (2), 76-87.
Potter, J., (2012). Digital media and learner identity: The new curatorship. New
York: Palgrave MacMillan.
Potter, J., (2009). Curating the self: Media literacy and identity in digital video production by young learners. Institute of Education. London, University of London. PhD.
Reuben, R. (2011). The use of social media in higher education for marketing and communications: A guide for professionals in higher education. Retrieved from http://www.sacredheart.edu/download/2735_social_media_in_higher_education_1_.pdf
Rodens, M. (2011). What the tweet? Twitter as a useful educational and professional development tool. Communicating For Learners, Spring #2.
Rodriguez, J.E. (2011). Social Media Use in Higher Education: Key Areas to Consider for Educators. MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7 (4). Retrieved from http://jolt.merlot.org/vol7no4/rodriguez_1211.htm
Shackelford, J.L., and Maxwell, M. (2012). Sense of Community in Graduate Online Education: Contribution of Learner to Learner Interaction. Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/1339/2317
Shea, P., Li, C.S., and Pickett, A. (2006). A study of teaching presence and student sense of learning community in fully online and web-enhanced college courses. Internet and Higher Education, 9, 175-190.
Sinnappan, S., and Zutshi, S. (2011). Using microblogging to facilitate Community of Inquiry: An Australian tertiary experience. Paper presented at the meeting of the Ascilite, Hobart, Tasmania, Australia. Retrieved from http://www.leishmanassociates.com.au/ascilite 2011/downloads/papers/Sinnappan full.pdf
Solis, B. (2008). Customer service: The art of listening and engagement through social media, 32. Retrieved from http://www.briansolis.com/2008/03/new-ebook-customer-service-art-of/
Stewart, B. (2015). Open to influence: What counts as academic influence in scholarly networked Twitter participation. Learning, Media, and Technology, 40(3), 1-23.
Tinto, V. (1997). Classrooms as communities – exploring the educational character of student persistence. Journal of Higher Education, 68
Wenger, E., White, N., and Smith, J.D. (2009). Digital Habitats: Stewarding technology for communities. Portland, OR, USA: CPSquare.
Wodzicki, K., Schwämmlein, E., and Moskaliuk, J. (2012). “Actually, I Wanted to Learn”: Study-related knowledge exchange on social networking sites. The Internet and Higher Education, 15(1), 9-14.
Wright, N. (2010). Twittering in teacher education: Reflecting on practicum experiences. Open Learning: The Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, 25(3), 259–265.
Sixty seven pre-service teachers participated in the study in 2015. Comparative analysis will occur for five years in total across Teacher Education cohorts undertaking the subject. Age and gender were not noted as this was deemed as unnecessary demographic information. Participants’ names are not used; instead pseudonyms will be used to protect identity. All data collected was done so through ethical permission.
(Rachel Orr/Washington Post illustration; Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post; iStock)
Trump was “getting ready for something.” The evidence? His Twitter account, @realDonaldTrump, had “gained over 5 mil followers in less than 3 days,” one Twitter user wrote, and those new followers looked awfully suspicious, like bots. That disturbing narrative went viral this week, thanks to tweets that seemed to provide Liberal Twitter with proof that the Trump administration was about to launch a massive disinformation campaign, amplified by an army of loyal bots, upon an unsuspecting Twitter population.
One tweet containing this message had nearly 10,000 retweets as of Wednesday afternoon before it was deleted:
Others picked up on this unsourced claim about Trump’s followers and amplified it with their own analysis about what it might mean:
The rumors even escaped Twitter. Hillary Clinton appeared to refer to them during a Recode event Wednesday. “Who is behind driving up Trump’s Twitter followers by the millions?” she said. “We know they’re bots. Why? I assume there’s a reason for everything. Is it to make him look more popular than he is? Is it to try to influence others on Twitter about what the messaging is?”
The thing is, the viral claim — that Trump had gained more than 5 million followers in three days, who were “mostly bots” — was “completely false,” according to Twitter spokesman Nick Pacilio. It’s easily disproved by looking at historical evidence of Trump’s followers over the past few weeks. Three days before those initial tweets about Trump’s followers, he had 30.6 million followers. He currently has 31.1 million followers.
Welcome to the world of “liberal fake news,” a growing source of fact-checkers’ nightmares and conservative schadenfreude. While not equivalent to the bigger, more established and more lucrative misinformation infrastructure on the Internet that caters to conservative audiences, it has become a daily part of living online for those on the left watching for signs of Trump’s downfall, and for the journalists who scour Twitter for conversations about the news. And the effect is the same: disruptive and destructive noise that occludes the reality of the world in which we live.
[Earlier: The cult of the paranoid Medium post]
There are plenty of examples. A viral tweet showing a little girl insulting an actor playing Trump got 200,000 retweets a few weeks ago, largely from people who appeared to believe it showed the real president (it was from a television show). Vice recently published a revealing column about how the Federal Communications Commission’s routine response to complaints about a vulgar Stephen Colbert joke started an unwarranted liberal outrage cycle claiming that the government was trying to censor Trump’s opponents. And then there are the stories from journalist Louise Mensch and Clinton White House vet Claude Taylor divining the impending reveal of an indictment and Trump’s impeachment. Neither report has been independently verified, and some have noted that their tantalizing narratives of an impending fall for Team Trump don’t even appear to understand how the government works.
“It’s getting worse,” said Brooke Binkowski, an editor at Snopes.com, a fact-checking site that focuses on Internet rumors and hoaxes. “It’s getting a lot worse.” Viral hoaxes “used to mostly come from the right, a little from the left,” she said. “Now it’s the right and left. Twice as much work.”
“The right, their big failing is that they think they have the moral upper-hand,” Binkowski added. “The left? Theirs is that they believe they have the intellectual upper-hand. Both can be exploited.”
Binkowski says the phenomenon often shows up in a viral tweetstorm (or, in some cases, Medium post) analyzing Russia’s alleged connections to and influence on the Trump administration. While there is plenty of real reporting happening on this topic — not to mention actual investigations — the stories the facts tell are messy and incomplete. These viral tweetstorms — the most famous is Eric Garland’s “Game Theory” epic — fill the gaps between the facts with speculation and provide a feeling of certainty for those who read them.
“It’s a distraction” driven by an audience that “wants to see this administration fail,” Binkowski said. “Everybody thinks they’re going to be the star of the spy movie.”
Liberal misinformation hasn’t yet produced the equivalent of the Seth Rich conspiracy theory, which made it all the way to a Fox News report before the cable network eventually retracted the story. But it is becoming increasingly visible, as the New York Times noted this week, in part because of the huge role Twitter plays in connecting journalists into conversations about the topics they cover. Unsubstantiated claims like the one about those 5 million new Trump followers bubble up to journalists, who are often asked to report on them or to fact-check them.And attempts to clarify or debunk them often come too late to stem the spread of the original falsehood.
Like any effective piece of viral misinformation, the 5 million followers claim started from a true observation that’s more nuanced and less sexy than the conspiracists’ claims. Data pulled by the social-media audience management company SocialRank does suggest that there’s been an influx of “egg accounts” (or those with a default profile picture, indicating that they are brand new, not fully set up and/or a possible bot) following Trump recently. From February to late May, the percentage of his followers with the default user icon jumped from 20 percent to 33 percent.
That’s interesting enough, perhaps, for a legitimate news story noting the phenomenon, and to catch the attention of experts. But that’s a far cry from establishing exactly what’s going on with Trump’s followers. Maybe someone’s artificially buying followers for @realDonaldTrump, something that anyone can do for any account, for relatively benign or nefarious purposes. Or, maybe Twitter’s “who to follow” recommendation system that urges brand-new accounts to follow a handful of popular, verified accounts right away — such as @realDonaldTrump or @justinbieber, based on their interests — is contributing to a rise in “egg” accounts following Trump. Maybe it’s a combination of both.
“There’s a smidgen of truth in there, and then [it leads to]something easily disprovable. You can get caught up in it,” said Alexander Taub, SocialRank’s co-founder and chief executive. Taub added that his team has seen an increase in requests for help from journalists on stories like these.
We asked SocialRank to look at Justin Bieber’s account. And while they weren’t able to make an exact comparison to Trump’s, they did see that the pop star’s account also appeared to have an influx of followers with the default avatar over the past month. The point is, there are multiple possible explanations for an observable phenomenon that appears to support a tiny piece of the viral falsehood.
Binkowski has noticed something else that’sa bit more disturbing, from Snopes’s attempts to address viral misinformation on the left. “When we debunk stuff like this, we get a slew of emails accusing us of being paid off,” she said. The site’s fact-checkers are used to this response from some more intense conspiracy theories with followings on the left, such as the anti-vaccination movement. But lately, that angry reaction has come from a wider audience of left-wing readers.
“There are a lot of people just calling for BS,” Binkowski said. “They react with such hostility when people come in to say, ‘There’s more to the story.’ There’s no discourse.”