(Image Source: Woody Harrington)
“The liberal deep state is faking sexual assault to block Brett Kavanaugh’s appointment,” said one of my classmates with great conviction during my freshman year of high school.
According to him, the left was using indoctrination tactics and undercover schemes to threaten the power of right-wing men in politics. After class, he showed my peers and I several Instagram accounts that perpetuated the same misinformation. All concluding the same belief:
“White men,” one post read, “are the real victims.”
In the digital age, youth aged 12 - 21 are politically socialized online, but not necessarily through reading or watching news. Online humor has become a major news source for us, as evidenced by the trend of #WWIII on Twitter following a U.S. drone strike on Iran where young people learned about President Trump’s ordered drone strike that killed an Iranian general through memes about being drafted.
Often relying on political context, memes sometimes express racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic ideas satirized with existing internet humor. Social media platforms such as Reddit, 4chan, and Instagram create large communities where these memes are shared, recruiting children to be contributors and moderators by providing them with a sense of belonging. The children then fall down a “pipeline” and are pushed further right.
An increasing number of parents are noticing their teens becoming entrenched in these online communities. A viral article posted by an anonymous mother in The Washingtonian chronicled how her child became a part of an alt-right community in a Reddit subgroup after experiencing a loss of friends at school.
“Among his new online besties, this was a huge honor and a boost to his cratered self-esteem,” the author wrote. “He loved Reddit and its unceasing conversations about the nuances of memes—he seemed in love with the whole enterprise, as if it were an adolescent crush.”
I’ve been in numerous classroom conversations where “edgy” humor has been used to perpetuate radical politics and conspiracies, including COVID-19-related theories about the alleged microchip inside vaccines. As a student from rural Kentucky attending a predominantly white school, these beliefs permeate the student body. Rural communities can allow for these politics to remain a major social interest, complicating pandemic policy conversations with convoluted takes on individual rights and freedoms.
Viewing one meme or listening to one streamer, however, isn’t enough to redirect an individual's entire political and moral compass. Social media platforms have algorithms designed to ensure consumers remain active on their site. As many teens begin consuming meme content, they may spiral towards extremism as the content becomes progressively more hateful.
Because of the gradual nature of algorithms, extremism isn’t something easily identifiable, especially when delivered through humor. Existing media curriculum, either associated with school systems or independent from them, focus largely on creating informed consumers of media, specifically news media. However, news distribution, media bias, personal bias, and social media—particularly memes as a source of media—do not get taught because of the expectation that educators must remain apolitical. For example, at my school, I have not taken a class specifically about navigating media despite reviewing reputable source citing in my English classes.
Critical media literacy is a nonpartisan endeavor aimed at increasing the awareness of citizens to better inform their political decisions and thinking processes. Addressing the influx of student extremism should begin in the classroom with comprehensive lessons that are expanded to accommodate all kinds of media—including memes, streaming, and social media.
And this is already happening in my home state.
“I often put a dot on my board,” said Chris Kerrick, a civics teacher at Marshall County High School, a school in rural southeastern Kentucky. “I ask what [students] can see, and they always say the dot. But if you back up from that dot, you’re going to see the entire board, what's written on the board and [the] posters.”
Kerrick, who believes teaching students to analyze media expands their ability to critically interpret information, uses this metaphor in his classroom to emphasize how issues are not isolated from broader context. In his class, he works to encourage student involvement in media education and requires that every student makes a “political socialization tree” in which they trace what external factors contribute to their political beliefs.
Kerrick’s model could be implemented into high school English and civics classes that engage students in dissecting sources of information—whether that source is an article, a meme, or a viral audio clip.
Combating online extremism is an unprecedented and daunting task, but educators can do so by equipping themselves with the resources necessary to make media education more comprehensive. Examining all kinds of media from a widened lens will ultimately work to combat radicalization, protecting students from becoming polarized online and giving them the resources to examine the world critically.