Peaceful demonstrators gather in Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of Michael Brown’s death.
Lesson

Social Media and Ferguson

Students explore the role of social media in Ferguson, apply information verification strategies to social media posts, and develop strategies for becoming critical consumers and sharers of social media.

Published:

At a Glance

Lesson

Language

English — US

Subject

  • Civics & Citizenship
  • History
  • Social Studies

Grade

9–12

Duration

Two 50-min class periods
  • Democracy & Civic Engagement
  • Racism

Overview

About This Lesson

Social media posts by eyewitnesses and community members were the first sources of information shared about the shooting in Ferguson. In fact, the enormous activity on social media helped put Ferguson on the national and international map. 

This lesson begins with students reflecting on how they use social media and considering how it can hinder or contribute to civil dialogue. Students then explore the challenges journalists experience as they use social media as both a source of information and a channel of communication. 

By employing the same framework from the previous lesson to analyze social media posts, students will develop a deeper understanding of how these outlets differ from other sources of news and information.

  • How does social media shape our relationship to and understanding of breaking news events?
  • What is the relationship between social media and the practice of quality journalism?
  • How do we know if information shared on social media is credible?
  • Students will be able to describe the role that social media played in the information aftermath of Ferguson.
  • Students will be able to develop strategies for critically viewing and verifying information shared on social media.

This lesson is designed to fit into two 50-minute class periods and includes:

  • 5 activities
  • 2 teaching strategies
  • 2 videos
  • 1 handout
  • 3 readings

Preparing to Teach

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Lesson Plans

Activities

The news about Michael Brown’s death broke on Twitter, and social media played a significant ongoing role in Ferguson. Refer back to the list you made as a class about where people get their news. How important a source is social media to young people? Now reflect more deeply on the role social media plays as a news source.

  • Begin with a Think, Pair, Share activity in response to this prompt: What are some of the benefits and some of the pitfalls of getting news primarily from social media?
  • Reconvene the class and have each pair report back on their conversation, then deepen the discussion by asking: How do you choose what to believe on social media? In what ways do people communicate differently over social media than they might face to face, and why? How can social media both build and break down community? How do you verify what you see, and how do you decide what to share? What role do you think confirmation bias plays in how people respond to information on social media?

Thinking back on how students analyzed the news accounts of Ferguson in the last lesson, could they use the same process to verify social media?

  • Begin by giving each student the curated collection of social media posts which includes tweets from citizens as well as news reporters like Brittany Noble-Jones, David Carson, and Laura Hettiger. Given the visual and emotional nature of some of the posts, make sure to allow time for private journal reflection. Ask: Is your response to these posts different from your response to the articles? What surprises you?
  • In pairs, ask students to choose three posts and then analyze each post separately using the Verification Evaluation graphic organizer they used in the last lesson. Other questions to consider include:
    • What sources, if any, are cited for the information in this piece? What claims do you think are ambiguous or should be flagged as unverified or false?
    • How does this source make you feel?
  • Ask students: How did this process compare to analyzing the news articles? How is social media similar to and different from journalism? What’s missing? How do you think confirmation bias presents itself in social media posts created by the general public, compared to the way it does in articles and posts from news organizations? If social media is your main source of news, how can you be sure to get the whole story?

The challenges facing journalists as they try to verify information are similar to those facing consumers of social media, except that journalists have more resources for verifying and following up on leads. In this video, journalists talk about some examples of false information about Ferguson that went viral.

  • Play the video “Telling Fact from Fiction on Social Media.” As students watch, ask them to make note of examples of false information that spread across the Internet and the strategies that journalists used to verify these stories. (You may want to distribute the transcript to support note taking.)
  • After viewing, ask students to share their notes and observations using the Give One, Get One teaching strategy, based on this prompt: What are some examples of false information about Ferguson that were mentioned in the video, or what things did you hear or read yourself that later turned out to be untrue? If students are having difficulty remembering rumors they heard about Ferguson, they could choose information about another event or public figure.
  • Reconvene the class to debrief what students shared and learned from each other. Then bring the discussion back to the video. How did journalists try to verify claims that came across through social media? Can we apply any of these journalistic practices outside of the newsroom?

Social media is a powerful tool for journalists, who use it to gather, verify, and share news and information.

  • View and discuss the video “Journalists and Social Media.” You may also choose to distribute the video’s transcript. What are the different ways that journalists use social media? How do they use it to verify information? How is social media accelerating the pace of fast-breaking news stories, and what are the implications of this? What benefits do different forms of social media offer journalists? What are some of the potential challenges or pitfalls of social media for journalists?
  • Divide the class into pairs and give each pair the two articles #Ferguson Brought National Attention and How Social Media Users Help and Harm. Have each partner read one of the articles. Tell students to make note of how each author describes the strengths, weaknesses, and fundamental role of traditional reporting on the one hand and social media on the other. Then, together, have partners synthesize the two writers’ perspectives.
  • Reconvene as a class and discuss students’ responses to the articles as well as the videos they viewed earlier. Do they agree with the writers’ positions on the strengths and weaknesses of each source of information? What do they think are appropriate roles for each type of source? What lessons are students taking away about what to believe, how to verify information, and what to share?

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Materials and Downloads

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The handouts below is used in the Social Media and Ferguson lesson plan.

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