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New Research Shows How Common Core Critics Built Social Media ‘Botnets’ to Skew the Education Debate

By Kevin Mahnken | March 6, 2017

Anyone following education news on Twitter between 2013 and 2016 would have been hard-pressed to ignore the gradual curdling of Americans’ attitudes toward the Common Core State Standards. Once seen as an innocuous effort to lift performance in classrooms, they slowly came to be denounced as “Dirty Commie agenda trash” and a “Liberal/Islam indoctrination curriculum.”

After years of social media attacks, the damage is impressive to behold: In 2013, 83 percent of respondents in Education Next’s annual poll of Americans’ education attitudes felt favorably about the Common Core, including 82 percent of Republicans. But by the summer of 2016, support had eroded, with those numbers measuring only 50 percent and 39 percent, respectively. The uproar reached such heights, and so quickly, that it seemed to reflect a spontaneous populist rebellion against the most visible education reform in a decade. 

Not so, say researchers with the University of Pennsylvania’s Consortium for Policy Research in Education. Last week, they released the #commoncore project, a study that suggests that public animosity toward Common Core was manipulated — and exaggerated — by organized online communities using cutting-edge social media strategies. 

As the project’s authors write, the effect of these strategies was “the illusion of a vociferous Twitter conversation waged by a spontaneous mass of disconnected peers, whereas in actuality the peers are the unified proxy voice of a single viewpoint.” 

Translation: A small circle of Common Core critics were able to create and then conduct their own echo chambers, skewing the Twitter debate in the process. 

The most successful of these coordinated campaigns originated with the Patriot Journalist Network, a for-profit group that can be tied to almost one-quarter of all Twitter activity around the issue; on certain days, its PJNET hashtag has appeared in 69 percent of Common Core–related tweets. 

The team of authors tracked nearly a million tweets sent during four half-year spans between September 2013 and April 2016, studying both how the online conversation about the standards grew (more than 50 percent between the first phase, September 2013 through February 2014, and the third, May 2015 through October 2015) and how its interlocutors changed over time.



“The surprise for me was that the big-name players in education advocacy were not dominating the space,” says the University of Pennsylvania’s Jonathan Supovitz, the project’s lead researcher.

When Common Core was first gaining public attention, its defenders still carried a big stick on Twitter, accounting for 27 percent of those tweeting the most about the standards and 31 percent of those who were most retweeted.

By last spring, however, those numbers were down to 6 percent and 11 percent, drowned out almost entirely by new anti–Common Core users. Even the standards’ detractors from within the education realm, such as teachers and think tank experts, saw their position in the debate largely supplanted by passionate outsiders who had rarely before tweeted about school issues.

“As it moved along, the groups from outside of education were increasingly dominant,” says Supovitz. “And the tools and the techniques that both advocacy groups and individuals used were eye-opening to me.”

The #commoncore project has lent a striking name to one of these tools: “botnet.” Used most successfully by the Tallahassee, Fla.–based PJN, the strategy allows one tweet to be copied, scheduled, and published by thousands of Twitter accounts — all owned by network members who have given permission beforehand.

To its members, the group promises the opportunity to “help the conservative cause by being a virtual billboard on Twitter,” flooding the zone with prepackaged content that gives the appearance of independently generated messages.

These kinds of maneuvers aren’t restricted to the education world. Similar botnet campaigns (also referred to as “cyborg” methods, because they blend a Twitterbot template with human ingenuity) have been waged in support of a variety of right-wing causes over the past several years, using hashtags like “UnbornLivesMatter,” “TeaParty,” and “MAGA” (short for “Make America Great Again”).

A March 1 Washington Post article speculated that the tactics could soon be used in service of Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, using the hashtag #ConfirmGorsuch.

“We’ve got a gun, and we’re waging digital warfare,” Mark Prasek, a self-described “Christian technologist” from Florida who founded the Patriot Journalist Network in 2012, told the Post.

Their network’s impact on the world of education, while impossible to overlook, can be difficult to quantify. It’s certainly true that, after some not-so-gentle nudging by conservative advocacy groups, Republicans (particularly those mulling presidential runs) spent much of the second Obama term awakening to the statist designs of a reform initiative that they had previously considered sound policy.

But the power of social media pressure is only beginning to be studied, with the Common Core emerging as a clear test case.

“Common Core was the first major education policy to come to its adulthood during the growth of social media,” Supovitz said. “The previous major education reform [No Child Left Behind] was before the first “Like” on Facebook, before the first video on Youtube, before the first Tweet on Twitter.”


Disclosure: The #commoncore project received support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which also provides funding to The 74.



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