Your students are likely experiencing the good and the bad of YouTube, one of the world’s most popular online platforms. In this episode, featuring science teacher Alicia Johal and the Daily Beast’s Kelly Weill, we consider both in the classroom context.
Earn professional development credit for this episode!
Fill out a short form featuring an episode-specific question to receive a certificate. Click here!
Please note that because Learning for Justice is not a credit-granting agency, we encourage you to check with your administration to determine if your participation will count toward continuing education requirements.
Resources and Readings
Selected science education videos:
- Alicia Johal: Scientists as Video Producers
- Alicia Johal: Video Lab Report
- Common Sense: Education
- Explain Everything: Light Wave Rubric
- Explain Everything: Video Project: Astronomy
- "Think before you post: Five questions”
Selected youth activism videos:
- Teen Vogue: Young Activists on Why They March
- TIFF 2018: Amandla Stenberg on Teen Activism
- The View: Marley Dias Talks Encouraging Kids To Read, Getting Kids Involved In Activism
Gaming videos courtesy of:
Conspiracy videos courtesy of:
Speaker 1: La-di-da-di-da. Oh my goodness, I love Halloween. It’s so much fun. Are you having fun, little sis?
Speaker 2: Oh, I’m having so much fun.
Monita Bell: Are those cute? What do you think?
Speaker 2: Let’s go here! Let‘s go here!
Daughter: Yeah. Mom, that’s the one I was telling you. She looks like—the one that looks like Alicia Keys.
Speaker 1: No, we’re going to keep on going.
Monita Bell: I’m watching YouTube with my daughter. A video series all about LOL dolls.
Daughter: What’s going to happen?
Monita Bell: And if any of you have kids in your life who love LOLs, then you have probably seen or heard some of these videos.
Monita Bell: What are LOL videos?
Daughter: LOL videos are when these women have LOLs, so they make videos.
Monita Bell: What is an LOL?
Daughter: A type of doll.
Monita Bell: It’s a type of doll?
Monita Bell: So, as you’ve probably experienced yourself, as soon as one video stops, another one starts.
Daughter: It’s like, next is Rapunzel. I want to watch that, and then I’m going to watch Cinderella, and then I’m going to watch Sleeping Beauty.
Monita Bell: With a dozen more suggested videos just a click away, and not always the types of videos you would expect.
Do you like when it has other videos pop up and just start playing when you finish another one?
Daughter: If I don’t like it, no.
Monita Bell: But do you like that it shows you new videos?
Daughter: Yeah. Because if it didn’t, I’d just have to go out and search, but if I did that, it’s going to be too much work.
Monita Bell: Okay.
Daughter: Thank you for hearing me on the radio!
Monita Bell: These suggestions are based on what she’s already watched, which I have some control over, and what the entire world watches, which I have no control over, all mixed up with YouTube’s algorithm, which, based on the amount of popular harmful and hateful content, even YouTube can’t control. So, as a parent, I’m pretty troubled by that.
Speaker 1: So, boys and girls, if you liked this video, if you liked this story, go ahead and give it a thumbs-up, like it and subscribe!
Monita Bell: So, how do I protect my daughter from inappropriate material, while letting her explore YouTube’s vast library of quality, age-appropriate content?
You’re listening to The Mind Online, a podcast for educators, from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. I’m your host, Monita Bell.
This episode is about social media and digital citizenship, with a focus on YouTube, consumers and creators. Later on, I’m going to be talking with journalist Kelly Weill of the Daily Beast, who covers the internet, the far right and the intersection of the two.
Kelly Weill: So, I think because people are so drawn to these fringe videos, it’s profitable for YouTube to promote them, because people are going to stay on the site, and they’re going to watch them.
Monita Bell: But first, I’ll speak with San Diego middle school science teacher, Alicia Johal.
Alicia Johal: My passion most recently has been with robotics, so whether that be underwater robotics, or building a solar-powered car—
Monita Bell: Kudos, yes!
Alicia Johal: Yeah, yeah, thank you, and it’s nice because I think that they look at me, and they’re like, wow, she’s into science? Because I’m also a female of color from a different country, that speaks other languages, and I think that that has been a great opportunity for me to pull in more girls because they don’t identify as a scientist until you show them explicitly that they are.
Monita Bell: I invited Alicia to The Mind Online not because of her robots, though, but because of the way she folds social media and YouTube science videos into her classes, from series like Smarter Every Day and How Stuff Works to Kurzgesagt. Here’s how she does that in a way that’s both engaging and safe. Here’s Alicia Johal.
Alicia Johal: There’s tons of engaging science videos about relevant new inventions or discoveries, and so some of them are as short as one or two minutes, and it’s just enough to wow the kids, that then they want to talk about it and ask questions.
Speaker 3: What is life? Are there aliens? What happens if you step on a black hole?
Speaker 4: So you’ve probably observed that cats almost always land on their feet. Today’s question is why.
Speaker 5: What does your dog love more, your smiling face, or a fresh bowl of processed meat goop? A new study from Emory University suggests that praise more than pulls its own weight against Kibbles ‘n Bits.
Monita Bell: I think most of us use social media on a pretty regular basis. You and I met through Twitter.
Alicia Johal: Yes.
Monita Bell: But it doesn’t seem like social media is finding its way into classrooms. So I was just reading a 2016 survey by the University of Phoenix that found almost nine in 10 teachers don’t use social media in class, and that the majority of teachers don’t plan to. So, what do you think the holdup might be, there?
Alicia Johal: I feel like with social media, it’s sort of unknown and uncontrollable. It’s hard for teachers to take risks with something like social media, because there’s a level of maturity that’s required by the students, and it’s amazing how quickly one tweet or photo can be shared, widespread. And I think that for a lot of teachers, it’s a safety issue. You’re not only dealing with your students, but this is somebody else’s child, and you have to be able to have a really honest conversation with the class and teach them how to be responsible online, and how to post to social media. And I feel like the teacher just has to be like a helicopter parent in that situation and watching really closely. And so, I think that teachers know that in order to do it right, you have to do lessons with it. You have to show them good and bad examples, and you know that with social media, if you don’t do it well, it could turn really bad, really fast.
Monita Bell: How have you dealt with those concerns with safety, and privacy, and perhaps students who aren’t quite mature enough to do it in class? How have you gotten around those issues in your own practice?
Alicia Johal: Like any other teacher, I probably was just really nervous when I began. And so, me and a colleague worked together on the social media contract. It’s kind of like the science lab contract that you make students sign at the beginning of the year to ensure that they’ll be safe when they do experiments in your class. So, in the contract, I was really explicit and clear in the communication with parents and telling them what it was for. So, I told them, the use of Instagram in my science class is to showcase student projects and celebrate their successes. I listed my Instagram account, obviously, and my contact information, and then I asked the parents to either opt in or opt out, and sign, date and provide their email address or phone number, as well. It was a full sheet of paper, but the top half was for the parents to keep. So they just tore off the bottom and sent me the signature back so I could keep ahold of it.
And then, once I had created that social media contract and my principal was like, “Yeah, this is fine,” and parents were turning it in, and it worked. I didn’t have any hiccups along the way. Because I had that document, I was able to relax a lot more. And there was no effect on the students’ grades whatsoever. This was just a fun thing. I mean, honestly, in the beginning, I was just posting really lame science jokes on Fridays. It was not a thing that even the middle-schoolers were like, “Miss Johal, you are so not cool with your Instagram account.” And I was like, “Yeah, I know.” I had to just be so careful, that I was just nervous.
And then, as I got more comfortable with having a classroom Instagram account, then I was posting projects and activities, when they were at Science Night, or on a field trip, and doing science. And so, I kind of got more comfortable with it. Even though I’d had my own personal Instagram account for years, it’s much different when you’re the teacher.
Monita Bell: I would think that learning to use social media well in a classroom, it’s not just critical to teaching digital literacy, but it’s also part of teaching digital citizenship.
Alicia Johal: Yeah. I had to, in the beginning, be open to having really genuine conversations about it, because I do restorative circles regularly in my classroom, and so we’re always checking in on whatever’s happening at school. And at one point in time at our school, there was drama happening at school that had started online. And so there was a couple of times where it involved kids in my class, and so I said, “Let’s have that be our circle topic today. Let’s talk about digital drama, and how we’re posting things,” being open and being honest as a teacher, and then allowing them to also be very open and honest with each other and with me.
And I think that that’s the first step. If you don’t have good relationships with the kids, diving into a topic like being responsible online or anywhere is not going to work. You have to make sure that they see that you care about them and their wellbeing, and then you can have that dialogue and really guide them into where you want them to go, and where you want them to avoid.
And then after that, there was a big sort of push for actual digital citizenship lessons, and our school started using the Common Sense media curriculum, which has been really awesome, and it was helpful because our whole school was doing it around the same time, so the kids were used to hearing about it from different teachers in different content areas, and we were kind of all tackling it in a different way. And then, we got into one really good discussion where I noticed that the girls and the boys in the class had different opinions, based on the way they identified with their gender. The way boys are online is different than the way girls are, and you know, it was really interesting, because I didn’t realize that that was as big of a factor with what was happening in our school.
And so, you just get all this insight when the kids have an opportunity to share their own experiences, and from there, we just kept talking about it and coming back to it, and I think that’s really important, too. It’s not just a lesson that’s one and done. You do have to check in and remind them. And they’re in middle school. They need that, as well.
Monita Bell: I want to pivot now to YouTube specifically, and we know that many folks are using YouTube in their classrooms. Can you talk about the ways that you have used YouTube in your classroom?
Alicia Johal: Yeah. So before I started using YouTube, I noticed that my students were really all about it more than I was, and I found out that many of my students were creating and posting YouTube videos, and they were creating content, and they had followers. Whether they were recording themselves singing or playing a video game, I didn’t know how many of my students were digital producers, not just consumers. I think we assume that oh they’re young, they’re just listening to music or watching videos. No, a lot of our kids are making content, sharing it online, communicating with other people, sharing their ideas.
And so, for me to sort of understand YouTube more, I started following some of my students. They gave me their YouTube channels. And they would just post random things, and I sort of got a feel for why it appealed to them so much, and why it was so addicting. And so then, from there, I sort of understood ... And again, that was another way to build a relationship with them. They thought it was so cool that I was following them on YouTube because they always want followers, and so for me to follow them was enough for them to be excited.
And I mean, I like technology, I enjoy learning about it, but I’m not an expert, and so I kind of felt like if my students already know how to produce and share content on YouTube better than I do, then they can just show me, and then I’d allow them some opportunity for agency and voice. And then they’re super engaged in class, because they know that, wow, this teacher wants to see what I’m making and sharing.
And so, I think before I dove in completely, and embedding it in my curriculum, I definitely let my students take the reins first, just to show me what they had done. And then, in my science class, probably the first few times I used YouTube were to create screencasts. So what I was doing was, when I had a substitute teacher coming in, I would use a program like Screencastify or something, and record myself telling the kids what to do, and I would post it on YouTube and just send them that link.
And so, oftentimes with substitute teachers, you never really know what’s going to happen when you’re not there, and so I told them, “Well, if you’re watching me and I’m giving you explicit directions on my computer, there’s no way that, in our block period, you can’t get this done. I’m showing you an example. You’re looking at me. I’m explaining it.” And so, I think the kids were annoyed that I had figured that out, because there was a lot of accountability now, with substitute teachers being in my classroom. And so, that was one of the first things I did.
And then, I used YouTube videos just to engage kids in the discussion. So, I mean, it’s great, because there’s tons of engaging science videos about relevant new inventions or discoveries. And so, some of them are as short as one or two minutes, and it’s just enough to wow the kids, that then they want to talk about it and ask questions.
Monita Bell: I know that, yeah.
Alicia Johal: Yeah. So, that was really helpful. And then, science is one of those subjects where you can’t always see what you’re teaching them. Like when I’m teaching them about genetics and chromosomes and the way DNA replicates, they can’t do that in front of them. They can’t even see that under a microscope. So, they have to look at a video to really see a simulation of what that looks like at the microscopic level. So I love it because a lot of my second semester of teaching science is biology-based, which is a lot of stuff that kids cannot see, like natural selection and evolution. These are long events that happened. It’s very hard for a middle school mind to get those big ideas, and so I use YouTube videos a lot to sort of help them build their background knowledge.
Speaker 6: What makes one of your cells you, anyway? Maybe the information contained in it, your DNA. Until recently, it was believed that all of the cells in your body had basically the same genetic code, but it turns out this is wrong. Your genome is mobile, changing over time through mutations and environmental influences. This is especially the case in your brain.
Alicia Johal: And it really helped. And they love music, so then I was using it for music. I had a little Google form that they could fill out with a song request, and then I would obviously preview the music at home to make sure that it was good and appropriate for class, and then I would play it. So that was another thing that they liked, is allowing them to choose the music we were listening to in class during the lab, or on a Friday. And so, that was really nice.
The year that I started sort of dabbling with technology more, I actually had them replace the traditional lab report by making a video of what they learned in the lab. And most of my students are language learners, and so for me, in science class, it was really important for the students to be given an opportunity to speak about what they know, first, because their English-speaking skills were excellent, but their reading and writing skills were suffering. And so, I would let them speak and record themselves explaining the data table, the procedure, their observations, their analysis, and then listen to what they said to help them transcribe, write out everything that they said.
I think for them it was helpful, because the recording was essentially a scaffold, right? It was a support to let them think out loud, record themselves, and then start their writing. And so, we kept that all closed. It was private. They made it in an app called Explain Everything, and then they just sent them to me. I think if I did that activity again, it would be really cool to see if parents were okay with kids sharing that online.
Monita Bell: What are some of the ... What do you see as some of the most pressing dangers to be wary of if you are using YouTube in class?
Alicia Johal: In order to avoid some of the dangers, I think it’s also having a conversation with students about what’s safe and what’s not, to post online. Like, don’t post your mother’s maiden name, or your home address, or your social security number. And I feel like we as adults think this is obvious, but I think children growing up in the generation and the world that they are don’t realize how quick and instant it is for someone to find you and identify you online. You know, like a Google search, and you can pull up almost anybody.
And so, I think we have an opportunity as teachers to really show the kids the responsible use of social media. And I get so frustrated when schools have rules like banning devices because we’re missing out on an opportunity to teach kids really valuable and imperative life skills. My students are brilliant, and they know how to multitask. They will get the lesson done, and get the lab done, and check their Instagram, and follow their favorite YouTuber, and message someone back. It’s a skill set, I think, the multitasking skill set.
Some of them have it better than us adults when it comes to technology, and so if we have a dialogue with them instead of punishing them, we can also support them more as they’re growing up because I’d rather them make a mistake with social media or YouTube at 13 rather than 25. And when they’re older, it’s more serious, and there are larger consequences, like you might not get a job or get into a school. But I think we as teachers could just show them a little bit more, I guess, just patience with the process because when they’re not in school, they’re on it all the time. And so, I think if we can use it in a way to engage them, or keep them interested, or excite them, it’s a good thing.
I had one student who I could not connect with for everything. I tried every classroom management and relationship-building strategy I could in the book, and this kid and me, we just didn’t jive. And I found out that he loves skateboarding, so I asked him, “Who’s your favorite skateboarder?” And this guy was a local guy from San Diego, and so I found the skater’s Instagram, because the student didn’t have a cell phone, and so I found his Instagram, and I messaged him, and I said, “Hey, I have a student who works super hard in my science class. It would be super cool if you could send me a video of you saying hi to him.” And this skater responded and sent me the video ...
Monita Bell: Oh, my goodness.
Alicia Johal: And the student in my class lost his mind. Like, lost his mind.
Monita Bell: I know he did. Wow.
Alicia Johal: He was like, “What? He said my name?” Kids work hard for teachers that they know care about them, and I feel like social media is one way where you can utilize that.
Monita Bell: Absolutely. Would you say that you have anything else to say about helping students stay safe and think critically when they’re using, say, YouTube or other platforms, in class or at home?
Alicia Johal: The kids don’t always pause before they post. There was a really good graphic. It’s five questions that a student should ask themselves before they post a picture online. I think it’s, “Is this kind? Is it helpful?” Something like that, where the students are actually pausing to think about what they’re posting. And so, the more opportunities you can have in class to teach them and remind them of those questions, and practicing it with them, guiding them through, hey, we’re having a conversation. Do you think this picture would be appropriate with this caption, or this one with this caption, and why? Or is there something better that’s safer and more responsible?
I think if we can model it, then we’re setting them up for more success. You start thinking, oh, wait a second, there’s a way that I could make this as a lesson in my classroom because I have in my science class many activities that are centered around, “can you look at this picture and make an observation?” Which is essentially what all scientists do. We look at diagrams and pictures or videos, or animals out in the wild, then we make observations, and then we make a claim about what we think is happening. And essentially, that’s what they’re doing on social media. We look at photos, we make quick observations, and then we move on to the next one.
Monita Bell: That’s right.
Alicia Johal: And so, it’s a skill that, I mean, if I can bring it into my science class, I think every content area could find a connection to really making engaging social-media-centered lessons, and still covering the standards that we have to teach.
Monita Bell: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
If you look for this episode of The Mind Online at Tolerance.org/podcasts, you can find links for the resources Alicia just shared with you, and try them in your own classroom. But now, here’s a quick break.
Did you know that Teaching Tolerance has other podcasts? We’ve got Teaching Hard History, which builds on our framework, Teaching Hard History: American Slavery. Listen as our host, history professor Hasan Kwame Jeffries, brings us the lessons we should have learned in school through the voices of leading scholars and educators. It’s good advice for teachers, and good information for everybody.
We’ve also got Queer America, hosted by professors Leila Rupp and John D’Emilio. Joined by scholars and educators, they take us on a journey that spans from Harlem to the frontier West, revealing stories of LGBTQ life that belong in our consciousness and in our classrooms. Find both podcasts at Tolerance.org/podcasts, and use them to help you build a more robust and inclusive curriculum.
Now, Alicia Johal has done an amazing job of using social media in her classroom, but she knows a key element of that is keeping kids safe because there is harmful content out there. We know it’s not all LOL videos. My next guest, Kelly Weill, and I get into some of that harmful content, and how YouTube’s algorithm can lead people to it, including our young people.
Kelly is a reporter for the Daily Beast. Her beat is the internet, and she’s noticed how YouTube enables fringe and far-right ideologies to radicalize young men in particular via gaming culture. Here’s my chat with Kelly.
Speaker 7: Okay, I’m dead.
Speaker 8: Why?
Speaker 7: I fell off the edge.
Speaker 8: Oh, no, there’s no jump. There’s no fall damage.
Speaker 7: Yeah. Now I’m alive.
Speaker 8: Oh, there’s a dude here?
Kelly Weill: A lot of young people, especially young men, watch gaming videos. And it’s not just because they want to see someone else play a video game. It’s really, it’s a community for them. But as a lot of researchers have noted, there’s kind of a reactionary tendency in a lot of gaming videos right now, or the gaming community right now. I think there’s a few conspiracy communities that really thrive on YouTube.
Speaker 9: I first heard about the notion of the Earth being flat on the YouTube radio show, Coast to Coast.
Speaker 10: And extraterrestrials.
Speaker 11: Yeah, we’re going to be talking to Andrew about the moon landings, and were they fake?
Speaker 12: Could the footage, which we see of them there approaching the moon, be filmed in a TV studio?
Speaker 13: It was filmed in a TV studio. There’s absolutely no doubt whatsoever about that.
Kelly Weill: Young people are particularly susceptible to being radicalized because you’re young, you don’t have fully formed political ideologies.
Speaker 14: And today’s video is going to be all about mermaids, and the conspiracy theory of whether or not they are, in fact, real.
Speaker 15: Also, a possible warning sign that humans are going to be exterminated.
Speaker 16: I know this sounds super crazy right now, but bear with me. I have so much more information coming, and it’s pretty convincing.
Speaker 17: Warning: What you are about to watch may make you question everything you thought you know. Viewer discretion is advised.
Monita Bell: How popular is YouTube?
Kelly Weill: YouTube is neck and neck with Facebook for being one of the most popular platforms online. It has nearly 2 billion daily users, and it draws people from just about every sphere because you can find anything on YouTube, from music videos to educational content to personal videos. So it really runs the gamut.
Monita Bell: Since the folks that we are talking to are educators, can you speak to some of maybe the most popular ways that people are using YouTube for educational purposes?
Kelly Weill: Well, I think a lot of young people can look up information on YouTube because I think it’s a very natural platform for them. So, if you’re researching something about history, you can look it up, and there are very reputable history channels online. And I think probably, educators can find some use for it, too. There’s really videos on anything you want to show. It’s just a matter of figuring out which of them are reputable.
Monita Bell: So, we know that YouTube is powered by this secret algorithm. Nobody really knows how it works. Can you tell us what you know about that algorithm, and how it suggests viewing content?
Kelly Weill: Right. So we don’t know exactly what goes into the algorithm. It’s sort of a black box. But what we do know is YouTube makes its money by displaying advertisements, so the more people watch, the more ads YouTube can show, and the more money it makes. So, to maximize that viewership, YouTube built an algorithm that tries to keep people on the site as long as possible. It tries to recommend videos that it thinks people will like. And those recommendations are partially based on things you’ve already watched, like for instance, if I watched some music videos by indie bands, I might get similar bands recommended.
But one thing it does is, to keep people interested, it tends to recommend things that are slightly outside the bubble. And The New York Times was one of the first to note this, that if you’re watching, say, Donald Trump rallies, it will start to recommend even more far-right content. So, it does take into account some of the things you’ve been watching, but it seems to push to extremes. And you might watch something more moderate, but it will recommend a more extreme version of that.
Monita Bell: Okay. Do you have any sense, just in the work you’ve been doing and the reporting you’ve been doing, of why that is? Why push viewers to more extreme content?
Kelly Weill: Well, I think extreme content can be very alluring for people. I’m thinking of when you see a very out there video, or an article about something that you don’t totally understand, especially if it has a flashy headline, you’re really compelled to click on it, even if you don’t agree with it. You want to find out what it’s all about. So I think because people are so drawn to these fringe videos, I think we might be able to infer that those are good for viewership, and that maybe YouTube pushes those videos because so many people click on them. It’s profitable for YouTube to promote them, because people are going to stay on the site, and they’re going to watch them.
Monita Bell: What kind of dangers have you seen playing out for young people using YouTube, because of this, the algorithm’s tendency to pull people to more extreme content?
Kelly Weill: Well, I think young people are particularly susceptible to being radicalized because you’re young—you don’t have fully formed political ideologies. So one trend I’ve witnessed a lot is a lot of young people, especially young men, watch gaming videos. And it’s not just because they want to see someone else play a video game. It’s really, it’s a community for them. But as a lot of researchers have noted, there’s kind of a reactionary tendency in a lot of gaming videos right now, or the gaming community right now. In 2014, there was Gamergate, which was this sexist, racist reaction to the idea of more equality in video games.
So there is that undercurrent, and what I’ve heard from multiple young men is that they started watching videos pretty innocuously, but maybe as young men, they had inherent biases—maybe anti-feminist biases—is what I’ve heard a lot, and these videos sort of played on it. Even if it wasn’t the point of the video, someone might make a joke that kind of confirms that bias, and then YouTube, because it noticed this correlation between gaming videos and anti-feminist videos, would start recommending things that are more of the political nature. So that’s how several men I’ve talked to have just got funneled down from things that were pretty innocuous, gaming videos—there’s nothing inherently wrong with it—to really more fringe ideologies, without their noticing.
Monita Bell: Can you share any particular examples with us? Maybe a particular young man that you spoke with about his experience?
Kelly Weill: Yeah. I spoke with a young man who’s now 21, but he said when he was 15, 16, he started getting into Call of Duty videos. It’s pretty normal. And, yeah, he followed that same path, where he said he started getting recommendations, actually, for religious debates, which is a large community on YouTube. There’s a large atheist community. It’s sort of a springboard for a lot of discussion.
So he went from gaming videos to this kind of atheist community, which was having a debate over feminism. He kind of went down the anti-feminist path, and from that platform, it sort of became a launchpad for more extreme views, because it’s very easy, I think, for a lot of extremists to hinge their more fringe ideologies onto anti-feminism. I think a lot of young men are sort of susceptible to that when they’re young and figuring out how the world works.
So this young man I spoke to spent a lot of his late teens sort of down this far-right rabbit hole before growing out of it when he was around 20. But not everyone does escape that.
Monita Bell: I think because of some of the dangers we’re talking about right now, there are some educators or school administrators who don’t want their students to use YouTube at all. Do you think that’s the way to approach the dangers of YouTube, especially for academic purposes? Just block it? Or do you have any ideas for how educators might maybe guide their students to use YouTube in safer ways?
Kelly Weill: Overall, I think there’s too much good on YouTube to completely cast it away. What I do think is useful for students is sort of a technique journalists use, where you need to know your sources, and you need to check multiple sources before you really commit to any new information. If you’re watching something for an educational purpose, I think it might benefit students to look up who the channel is, and what their biases are, their credibility, how big are they, and then try and verify that information somewhere else. So it’s all well and good if someone pushes a statistic, it probably sounds very convincing, but look it up and see if you can find any studies on it. Also, evaluate those studies’ bias and where they’re coming from.
So I think there’s plenty good on YouTube. It’s a good resource when supplemented with other verification.
Monita Bell: Awesome.
Kelly Weill: Research like you can be sued.
Monita Bell: Words to live by. Research like you can be sued. That applies to school assignments and everything else. I love it. Well, okay, so, in addition to YouTube’s tendency to pull people to more extreme content, can you give us examples of some of the more popular conspiracy theories out there right now, and what kind of influence they may be having?
Kelly Weill: Sure. There’s a lot. I think the migrant caravan is a great example of something that was a news story that became so politicized and so fraught with conspiracy, and it jumped to quite high levels of the government very quickly. We had Trump tweeting about conspiracy elements of it. But I think there’s a few conspiracy communities that really thrive on YouTube, and those are, right now, QAnon, and previously it was Pizzagate. There’s a large flat-Earth community. There’s every strain of Illuminati theory. So there’s quite a lot, and I think those particular ones lend themselves so well to YouTube because they’re best conveyed in these rambling narratives that don’t really work on a page, but they work when someone’s telling you of them.
Monita Bell: Why do they work better in these rambling videos, as opposed to on a page?
Kelly Weill: Well, because there’s very little underlying fact to them. So if you had to spell it out, it would be kind of short and nonsensical, but if you can wind your way around, and put up graphics, and make an emotional appeal ... What a lot of them will do repeatedly is say, “Don’t look at other news sources. You need to just keep watching this. I’m telling you what no one else will tell you.” And it really pulls people in. And you can watch one of these over the course of half an hour, because a lot of conspiracy videos are very long, and at the end, not have many real facts, in fact, often no facts, but feel like you came away with something, because it makes such an emotional appeal. And that’s why I think they work better on YouTube than almost any other platform.
Monita Bell: Well, we also know that some pretty high-profile people have fallen for misinformation or conspiracy videos. We already talked about the migrant caravan conspiracy theories, and Homeland Security was kind of recently fooled by some of this. How is that happening, that people in, I would say, very privileged intelligence-level positions are being fooled, and what do you think are the repercussions of that?
Kelly Weill: Right. Well, I think the trouble is that these technologies are still very new, and even people in high-level positions are still very human. We have our own biases and shortcomings. For instance, I recently reported on a DHS employee who—he fell for this conspiracy theory about a coming civil war. And I read these Freedom of Information documents where he was saying, just check it out on YouTube. There’s a lot out there. So, I think even people with a lot of education still have these weaknesses, especially when a video caters to their biases.
But I think what is scary is that, unlike most people, high-level government employees have influence on policy or government response. So, right now, we’re talking about how to educate students for YouTube, but I think as adults, all of us should also be thinking about our relationship to it because it can have some really serious repercussions at these high levels.
Monita Bell: Thank you, thank you, thank you for taking the time to join me for this episode of The Mind Online, a podcast of Teaching Tolerance. I’m your host, Monita Bell, managing editor for Teaching Tolerance, and I want to give a special thank-you to my guests, Alicia Johal and Kelly Weill. Thank you so much for joining me and sharing your experiences and your expertise.
This podcast was inspired by Teaching Tolerance’s digital literacy framework, which offers seven key areas where students need support developing digital and civic literacy skills, and features lessons for kindergarten through 12th-grade classrooms. Each lesson is designed in a way that can be used by educators with little to no technology in their classrooms. That’s important, so you’re welcome. The digital literacy framework and all its related resources, including a series of student-friendly videos, a professional development webinar, and a PD module, can be found online at Tolerance.org/diglit. That’s Tolerance.org/D-I-G-L-I-T.
This episode was produced by Barrett Golding and Jasmin López, with help from Katherine Nell Sullivan and the good folks at Cross Channel Productions. Our production supervisor is Kate Shuster. Teaching Tolerance senior writer Cory Collins assisted with the writing, and our music is by Podington Bear.
You can find links related to the resources we discussed in this episode at Tolerance.org/podcasts. Just look for The Mind Online. And if you like what you’ve heard, then please share it with your colleagues, your friends. Rate, review and subscribe. Let us know how we’re doing on Twitter, too, or Instagram, and be sure to use #TeachDigLit.