Hiding Behind Screens

A lot of people give me grief when I tell them I don’t watch MSNBC or Fox News. Where do I most go? Either NPR or the BBC. I like NPR because of its neutrality (if there even is such a thing anymore), and I like the BBC because of the global perspective.

A few weeks ago on the BBC Radio 4 program, President Obama was on with Prince Harry. While it was mostly a candid conversation on transitioningback to citizen Obama, I couldn’t help but pay special attention to the dialogue exchanged about irresponsible social media usage.

If you’re reading this, you are well aware of the impact of a blog post, a website, and even the 280-character tweet. President Obama spoke at great length about social media and the power it has. While you can download the entire episode here, thehighlights that are alarming for educators include

President Obama stated thatsocial mediacan leave people “cocooned” in alternate realities and urged world leadersto promote responsible use of the technology. You can see that clearly today, as a mere social media interactive platform leaves those that love or loathe someone or something on their toes 24/7.

President Obama also said that “all of us in leadership have to find ways in which we can recreate a common space on the internet.” While schools and educators are really pushing the“think before you tweet” / digital citizenshipbehaviors, we are seeing that those who do not have any education in the topic are causing the most damage, almost as much as those who are simply uneducated or choose to demonstrate the deplorable behavior and cowardice of hiding behind a screen.

On the topic of trolling, extremism, fake news, and cyber-bullying, while much of this is happening outside of government regulation, the First Amendment does establish some strong boundaries as to what can and can’t be said. The question comes down to how do we harness this technology in a way that allows a multiplicity of voices, allows a diversity of views, but doesn’t lead to a Balkanisation of our society but rather continues to promote ways of finding common ground. While a school system or government can legislate it, all of us in leadership have to find ways in which we can recreate a common space on the internet.

There was quite a bit of conversation about having a very thick skin if you’re in the spotlight. As a superintendent, I can relate to that. No doubt, my actions have caused controversies and criticism. I can almost guarantee that there will be comments sent to this website after this post. I’m not liked by everyone, but that’s not my job to be. My job is to do what’s in the best interest of our future–our students. That all being said, trying to argue with people who hide behind screen names and a keyboard is like trying to argue with news reporters who buy ink by the gallon. Still, speaking to people offline and meeting people face-to-face is a huge part of my job.

The biggest takeaway from the interview was when Obama said that one of the dangers of the internet is that people can have entirely different realities. They can be cocooned in information that reinforces their current biases. A good way of fighting against that is making sure that online communities don’t just stay online. Social media is a really powerful tool for people of common interests to convene and get to know each other and connect, but then it’s important for them to get offline, meet in a pub, meet in a place of worship, meet in a neighborhood and get to know each other, because the truth is that on the interneteverything is simplified. When you meet people face-to-face it turns out they’re complicated. There may be somebody who you think is diametrically opposed to you when it comes to their political views, but you root for the same sports team. You notice that they’re really good parents. You find areas of common ground, because you see that things aren’t as simple as had been portrayed in whatever chat room or news forum you’d been commenting on. On a side note, it’s also harder to be as obnoxious and cruel in person as people can be anonymously on the internet. Of all the people who have talked trash about me, not one of them has addressed me face to face. Perhaps it’s my style, but if I know you don’t care for me, I make a B-line right to you to get the conversation started,

Facebook and Twitter have faced repeated calls to tackle abuse and extremism on their platforms which create trolls, hatred, and grooming pits for loathing and radicalization. Once people go on one slightly dodgy thing, they are linked to an array of other similar things through algorithms. Representatives from YouTube said it was limiting recommendations to prevent people being trapped in a “bubble of hate.”

After listening to this candid, informative conversation, I will be even more focused on picking up phones, knocking on doors, and making a B-line to those who don’t care for me. Not to deter, but to talk. People still need to meet people. People still need to see and physically interact, and people still need to be listened to, not just heard, read, or clicked on.


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