My Insights in Building/Teaching a 2020 Social Media Policy Class

In my social media marketing classes, I tried to cover the ethics and problematic areas of social media communication over the course of one to two weeks in the quarter, but it always felt like there wasn’t enough time or analysis given to the students to really dive deeper into the subject matter. And so, I started to plan a second class in my spare time through attending seminars, reading through extensive research, jotting down my own observations, and trying to narrow down the best approach — finally getting to debut the class this past year during the middle of a social media firestorm with battles playing out over the state of the global pandemic and the US election.

Now, being at the end of the first official iteration of the class at UC Irvine — I’m taking a breather to look back at the moments that were super challenging as well as the stronger discoveries from the class and its design. Here, I’d like to break down the format, big picture ideas, and the aspects of the class that worked versus those that didn’t and will hopefully be helpful to those that are either curious or trying to teach their own iteration of this kind of class.

I’d also like to give thanks to the guest speakers who were gracious with their time and energy from all over the world: Peter Singer (Atlantic Council), Emerson Brooking (Atlantic Council), Shayan Sardarizadeh (BBC News), Hayley Tsukayama (EFF), Joren Radloff (Amazon Music), David Greene (EFF), Daniel Funke (PolitiFact), Peter Levi (ADL), Madihha Ahusain (Muslim Advocates), and Cory Doctorow (EFF).

A Few Upfront Notes

I wanted to preface this blog with a few points up front. First, this class was built for the extracurricular undergraduate class program in social sciences (although the structure of the class is more attuned to a communications class). Second, I’m teaching as an adjunct lecturer and this class series label is under ‘special topics’ which encompasses various focuses of all sorts of professionals in different fields. My focus, as I’ll discuss more below, was to meld both some light theory with a heavier lean towards practical, career-focused discussions to try and give students a taste of a communication class (a major that is unavailable at UC Irvine) as well as some of the real-world applications and knowledge of the material that can be of use in a post-graduate journey.

Choosing the Main Text

The question that always dogs me at the beginning of ideating a class is what textbook to center the class around as a core theme and anchor. I personally am a fan of having one central book that the class reads together with supplementary articles and videos to keep the information fresh. After reading through a lot of different books (many of which I still do recommend as suggested reading, and which I’ll link to at the bottom of this blog), I narrowed this decision down to two textbooks in late 2018 — War in 140 Characters and LikeWar. Both books were terrific with War in 140 Characters probably being the more intimate choice with great case studies that included interviews and emotional beats.

However, I opted for LikeWar because it felt like a better overall textbook for a class. Although both are filled with a number of similar case studies, the structure of this book centered on keywords that were helpful in focusing the students. There was also a logical progression that flowed from beginning to end that one could utilize in weekly beats (although as you’ll see below, I hopped around a bit as I felt the reorganization would better resonate).

Another important reason for using LikeWar was that even in 2020, the book still resonated well with its examples and trends. From L.A. to Ukraine, LikeWar tried to diversify its case studies and created a vivid narrative of how social media was constantly being challenged between being used for innovation / social change to being exploited for political power and information warfare. Note that obviously given its 2018 publishing date, the book doesn’t include any pandemic, 2020 election, and 2021 case studies. These are updates that a lecturer would need to update themselves and shine a light on (as both Singer and Brooking kindly did in their guest speaker slots with my last class).

Finally, the book worked for undergraduate students in terms of its written style. By no means a slight to its writers, I tried to choose a textbook that wasn’t steeped too deeply in political jargon and instead focused on vivid imagery that would sustain an undergraduate student’s interest. LikeWar was excellent for this along with a helpful glossary and great index at its end.

Building the Format

My main inspiration for the class is a structure I was fond of during one of my Master’s classes at USC Annenberg — build a foundational core for concepts that will be used throughout the course; bring industry experts to amplify those concepts; and finish with a practical case study and project to bring it all together. The second part of this class structure was then to try and think of the theme of the class. Some of the core questions that needed to be answered included but were not limited to why students should care about social media policies and current events; explaining the structural and foundational issues within these social media networks and its leadership (along with the cultural movements around them); and laying a roadmap of possible solutions ahead.

Through this thought exercise, the following topics were created:

  1. Intro to Social Media & Communication Studies
  2. Social Media Ethics and Frameworks
  3. Filter Bubbles & Echo Chambers
  4. Social Media Misinformation and Disinformation
  5. Social Media Data & Privacy
  6. Splinternet and Cyberbalkanization
  7. Social Media and the Digital Divide
  8. The Future of Social Media Policy
One of the example final project slides the students created

Key Learnings

I wanted to touch upon a few examples that we had the most trouble with in the class along with some better case studies of what did work:

What Didn’t Work

Balancing Asynchronous vs. Synchronous Class Time

With the pandemic and the move to a full virtual class, lecturers were asked to make sure we accommodate our students as best as possible. There were a wide breadth of issues that students dealt with including but not limited to: having a poor Internet connection, living in confined homes with lots of people, being possibly sick (or having family members sick/hospitalized) from COVID-19, living in another country that may have certain restrictions in place, and having to tackle mental issues in an unprecedented time. I tried my best to devise a class schedule that would try and stay somewhat balanced between having to be live in class versus viewing material at one’s own schedule that included no timed exams; having lectures be mostly viewable by pre-recorded video; and limiting our synchronous class to approximately one hour.

Although I feel that the students were able to cover quite a bit of material in our 10 weeks together, I did receive remarks back at the end that it was tough juggling having to watch a pre-recorded lecture before getting into the discussion section. I was trying to do too much in filming up-to-date presentations (with material that was constantly changing and evolving day-to-day) and not making clear that students had more than a few days to catch up before our live classes together. Moving forward, I plan to record videos a couple weeks ahead of time and updating them with some short extra video content if needed and giving students at least a week (if not more) to view the pre-recorded lecture at their own leisure in clearer intervals.

Missing / Rushed Topics

I tried to encompass the underlying narrative through the quarter that always led back to the ethical framework of the social media network leadership as well as the intrinsic nature of how the networks worked and were utilized to help give the class structure and consistent themes that would tie topics up together. However, as I was going into the first few weeks, I started to see opportunities to hit topics that seemed relevant and interesting but lacked the time to create fully fleshed out lectures. This led to one topic which I thought was an interesting topic for the students being rushed through because I didn’t have enough time to cover it with some optional material to read over. I also missed out on talking more about social media artificial intelligence and the racism that lies behind many of the technology using AI in digital tools. We were able to cover a small sliver of AI in deepfakes, but I would like to prioritize AI heavier in future quarters as our usage of such technology becomes more and more dominant.

What Did Work

The Facebook Dilemma vs. The Social Dilemma

Right before the class began, the Netflix documentary, the Social Dilemma, came out and had some viral legs as it helped mainstream concepts like the algorithm and some of the faulty logic behind them. However, as I commented in one of my short reviews for the film, I thought the documentary was alarmist and ineffective at providing clear solutions. There are other great thought pieces out there about this including this one here that I like to reference. My students also felt very similarly with the majority who watched the film on their own time saying it felt like a mockumentary rather than a documentary.

Instead, I used and emphasized PBS’ The Facebook Dilemma as one of the media pieces I wanted my students to watch instead. Much like LikeWar, it uses clear examples and interviews with a bevy of journalists, activists, key international figures, and Facebook employees along with archival footage of the Facebook team and the explosive news events that would happen in the last decade. It also tells a clear story of why Facebook came to be in the mess they were in and points to not only the algorithm but Zuckerberg’s worldview; the lack of accountability and diversity at the executive level; and how a company mantra, ‘Move Fast or Break Things,’ translated into a lot of chaos as well as power. Students responded better to this documentary with the clearest weakness of the film being that it ends its coverage in 2018 and doesn’t get into, much like LikeWar, any of the last couple years.

Another example final project slides the students created

Final Projects / Understanding the Themes

Students were asked for their final projects to create a proposal to the Facebook Business Integrity team in addressing one of the topics discussed in class and a potential solution in a group.

(A quick sidebar that I get asked sometimes is why enact group projects. For me, from a practical perspective, group projects are one of the few university skillsets that come up again-and-again across multiple career paths and can provide great insights into leadership, project management, and presentation skills that are invaluable the earlier you can get a better grasp on them. So nearly all of the classes I teach push a bigger group project to finish the class off.)

Here, I tried to create a group project that seemed tied into the class themes but also have the students feel like they were making a practical impact using the class concepts. Centering it just on Facebook, although limiting the scope away from other social media networks, helped give clarity to the course structure and themes as well as giving some choice as towhich of Facebook’s platforms they wanted to work on including WhatsApp and Instagram. To help students along, I tried to frame the assignments in the second half of the quarter, when the final project began, to be checkpoints for project milestone goals, such as ideating on which topic to focus on; implementing a rudimentary solution; and a final check on the status of the project overall.

There were some issues that did come up with group members, timing, and a misunderstanding of the prompt, but in terms of the content and final products, they were fantastic. The students continued to show not only a clear interest and understanding of the concepts we touched upon but also came up with clever and interesting solutions — some of which actually were implemented by the companies themselves. Some examples of final project examples included creating a mandatory digital literacy workshop when onboarding new users to limiting the scope of data that social media networks can use.

Conclusion

Again, I just wanted to share some of the insights from our first official social media policy and current events class that I found to be the most illuminating as well as some of the more daunting, especially for those that may be thinking of their own classes or bringing up such a class in their own school. The end result, even amidst some of the tougher elements of both the constant flow of news and the pandemic itself, I think, is something I am really happy that came together and one that the students found illuminating and helpful. I received comments back from students, who found the class to be one of the most fascinating classes they took; learned at least one new element that they weren’t aware of before; and got them more interested in learning more about the topics whether through extended education or a possible career path. I don’t think this is a one-and-done class by any means as the world continues to grapple with social media and its long-lasting effects and am looking forward to refining and building up the class again for the next school year.

Additional Info

Other literature referenced through the class:

  • Facebook: The Inside Story / Author: Steven Levy
  • Antisocial: Online Extremists, Techno-Utopians, and the Hijacking of the American Conversation / Author: Andrew Marantz
  • The Filter Bubble: How the New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read and How We Think / Author: Eli Pariser
  • The Misinformation Age: How False Beliefs Spread / Author: Cailin O’Connor, James Owen Weatherall
  • So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed / Author: Jon Ronson
  • War in 140 Characters: How Social Media Is Reshaping Conflict in the Twenty-First Century / Author: David Patrikarakos
  • Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics / Author: Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, Hal Roberts
  • Ruling the Waves: From the Compass to the Internet, a History of Business and Politics along the Technological Frontier /Author: Debora L. Spar

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