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Spotify, the audio streaming platform, recently came under fire for its role in circulating vaccine-related misinformation on one of its high-profile podcasts. Public calls to “Delete Spotify” marked the latest in a string of similar exoduses from popular social media services – for instance, over Facebook’s failure to regulate conspiracy theories or Twitter’s reluctance to ban Donald Trump for his incendiary tweets.
Such departures offer powerful opportunities for engaging students in critical conversations about technology, democracy and civic life. Unfortunately, they also spotlight the inadequacies of how we commonly approach digital citizenship education.
Like deciding to leave Spotify for its competitors, educators often position digital citizenship as a matter of smart consumerism. Students are instructed to avoid “bad” websites, news sources or personal data practices in favor of “good” ones. This isn’t wrong, but when personal market behaviors become the focus of digital citizenship, we limit our civic imagination to questions of which brands or services to support (or delete).
There are two big problems with consumer-oriented digital citizenship. First, it focuses on symptoms, rather than causes of digital dilemmas like misinformation, online harassment and data breaches. Moving from Spotify to Apple Music, for instance, may feel like an ethical act – but only until Apple’s next scandal (say, over factory labor conditions) has us crawling back, or seeking yet another alternative. Shuffling between a handful of compromised corporations is a bad stand-in for authentic civic inquiry. It fails to interrogate the underlying structures that give rise to those impacts in the first place.
As education researchers who study the changing role of platform technologies in schools, we have argued that digital services need to be understood not as tools – say, for accessing music and podcasts, connecting with friends or assessing classroom learning – but as complex ecosystems. Today’s platforms are what economists call “multisided markets”: They aren’t just venues for consumers and producers to exchange money, attention, and content; but also, for their owners to mine data from such transactions to boost their scale and profitability. In other words, the everyday social uses of any platform cannot be understood apart from its technical and economic designs.
From this ecological view, misinformation doesn’t just sneak into platforms like Facebook or Spotify; it is nurtured by them. Misinformation circulates in such spaces because, within these technical and economic systems, listens, shares, likes and comments are converted into profit. This is why consumer-oriented approaches to digital citizenship fall flat. Teaching students to make good personal decisions about what data they share, what news sources they read or what services they use ignores the fact that platform technologies are designed to reroute, subvert or constrain users’ choices in ways that serve their owners’ interests. Of course, it’s admirable for students to identify “fake news,” but focusing on this in isolation overlooks the larger ecosystem that makes “fake news” possible.
This brings us to the second problem with consumption-oriented digital citizenship. This focus on making smart personal decisions often prevents us from asking bigger, more urgent, questions about the changing place of platform technologies in communication, culture and civic life. Instead, it is easy to miss opportunities for inquiry into the collective impacts of these platforms. Rather than weighing whether the “right” ethical decision is to pivot from Spotify to another service, or to use one news source over another, students and educators might, instead, explore what it means when important decision-making about information, trust, culture and democracy is dependent on the whims of corporations that are unaccountable to the public will.
We believe such lines of inquiry can begin around schools themselves: Even before Covid-19 forced classes onto a suite of platforms to keep instruction going remotely during a pandemic, a significant amount of teaching, assessment and discipline was dependent on such third-party platforms. The creep of private technologies into the everyday life of public school systems offers a powerful starting point for civic inquiry with students that goes beyond smart consumerism alone.
Increasingly, there are resources to support such work as well. The recently launched Civics of Technology Project promises to be a hub of lessons and resources for weighing the civic impacts of technology and foregrounding them in schools. There are also documentaries, like “Coded Bias” and “The Great Hack,” and important work by scholars like Safiya Noble, Ruha Benjamin, and Virginia Eubanks that can provide entry points for moving beyond critical consumption to an “ecological” perspective of civic learning and action.
“Delete Spotify” will not be the last of these crises. As more and more of civic life becomes tethered to fewer and fewer platform providers, we must shift the conversation of civic engagement with our children. We must redirect our focus for civic education toward models that are attuned to the root challenges of platform technologies like Spotify, rather than simply reducing civic engagement to making smarter market choices.
Antero Garcia is an associate professor and interim director of the Stanford Teacher Education Program (STEP) in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University. T. Philip Nichols is an assistant professor in the School of Education at Baylor University.
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