“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 schemes to threaten the power of conservative men in politics. After class, he showed me and my classmates several Instagram accounts that perpetuated the same misinformation, all concluding with a similar statement:
“White men,” one post read, “are the real victims.”
In the digital age, teenagers are politically socialized online, but not necessarily through reading or watching mainstream news. Online humor has become a major news source for us. The memes we follow often rely on political context and sometimes express racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic ideas.
Social media platforms such as Reddit and Instagram create large communities in which these memes are shared and recruit children to be contributors by providing them with a sense of belonging. Some children then enter a “pipeline” of online extremism 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 and was then invited to moderate a Reddit page.
“Among his new online besties, this was a huge honor and a boost to his cratered self-esteem,” she 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.” She realized her son was regulating what appeared to be alt-right discourse.
As a student from rural Kentucky attending a predominantly white school, I’ve been in numerous classroom conversations in which “edgy” humor has been used to propagate radical politics and conspiracies, including the one about the alleged microchip inside Covid-19 vaccines.
It is easy to enter an extremist pipeline. That’s why the classroom must be the place where we equip students and teachers to combat misinformation and find reliable information online instead of fake news. In rural communities like mine, where there are few other news sources, addressing the rise of student extremism should begin in the classroom, with comprehensive lessons that address all kinds of media — including memes, streaming videos and social media.
As a student from rural Kentucky attending a predominantly white school, I’ve been in numerous classroom conversations in which “edgy” humor has been used to propagate radical politics and conspiracies.
Viewing one meme or listening to one streamer isn’t enough to redirect an individual’s entire political and moral compass, of course. But social media platforms have algorithms designed to ensure that consumers remain active on their sites. As teens begin consuming meme content, they may spiral toward extremism as the content becomes more hateful. And, because algorithms change meme suggestions incrementally, extremism isn’t always easily identifiable, especially when delivered through humor.
Existing media curriculums, whether created by school systems or independently, focus largely on creating informed consumers of media, specifically mainstream news media. Too often, though, sensationalized news, media bias, personal bias and social media — particularly memes — do not get discussed.
For example, at my school, I have not taken a class solely about navigating media. My English courses have provided lessons about citing reputable sources, though this was specifically done to fulfill curriculum requirements and only covered academic sources for essays.
But critical media literacy is and should be a nonpartisan endeavor aimed at increasing citizens’ awareness of their thinking processes so they can make better-informed political decisions.
There are models schools can copy in my home state.
“I often put a dot on my board,” said Chris Kerrick, a civics teacher at Marshall County High School in rural southwestern 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 [beside it].”
Kerrick uses the dot metaphor in his classroom to emphasize how media posts and memes are not isolated from broader contexts. In his class, he requires that every student make a “political socialization tree” in which they trace the external factors that contribute to their political beliefs. He believes that teaching students to analyze media expands their ability to critically interpret information, whatever their political leanings.
Kerrick’s model could be added to high school English and civics classes everywhere to show students how to dissect any source of information — whether that source is an article, a meme or a viral audio clip.
Though it is an unprecedented and daunting task, educators can combat online extremism by equipping themselves with the resources necessary to make media education more comprehensive. Examining all kinds of media from a widened lens will ultimately combat radicalization, protect students from becoming polarized online and give them the resources to examine the world critically.
Norah Laughter is a senior in high school at Greenwood High School in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and lives in Russellville, Kentucky. She is a 2021-22 journalism fellow at Student Voice, an organization that equips students with the skills to address educational inequity. She is also a co-leader of the Kentucky Student Voice Team, whose members aim to serve the state as research, policy and advocacy partners in education.
This story about online extremism was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.