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There's nothing quite like a juicy Facebook-related story to set the blogosphere alight. We (supposedly) love Facebook stories!

Me, I find them irksome oftentimes, particularly when these stories have an educational bent. Teachers fired for posting drunken photos. Students suspended for Farmville bullying. Facebook causing depression, lower grades, cheating, the decline of Western civilization, and so on.

 

It's not that people don't do stupid things online and chronicle that stupidity via Facebook. Of course they do. Nonetheless, I try to be cautious about the stories that could feed an anti-Facebook-frenzy, particularly when it only serves to perpetuate the worst stereotypes and misinformation about students, teachers, schools and social networking.

What's the point? I mean, other than page views, of course.

Two stories made headlines this weekend that made me roll my eyes. Both stories were bogus. Both point to the need for better media literacy -- in journalists, but let's say for sake of argument here, that they're useful lessons for students as well.

Example 1: Four out of Five College Admissions Offices Judge You By Your Facebook Profile

I'm not sure who was the first to write this story, but All Facebook hit Techmeme, a breaking tech news aggretator with the story that "Facebook Profiles Are Now Part of 80% of Colleges' Admission Decisions." The story was then picked up by a number of other blogs, including the Huffington Post, The Next Web, The LA Times, and MSNBC.

The problem? Well, it's simply not true. The original story cites (but does not link to) Kaplan Test Prep's 2010 survey of college admissions officers. (Here's a link to the downloadable PDF). Of those admissions officers surveyed, 82% said they use Facebook to recruit prospective students. In other words, these colleges and universities have a Facebook page. Scandalous, I know. The survey asked "When it comes to visiting applicants' social networking pages and factoring what you find into the admissions equation, does your school have official guidelines or policies?" 86% said no.

But does that mean over 80% of college admissions are looking at your Facebook profile when judging whether or not you're a good candidate? Um, no, it doesn't. But I guess "80% of colleges have a Facebook page" is a less exciting story.

Example 2: To Silence Protests in Saudi Arabia, King Abdullah Is Going to Buy Facebook

The college admissions story wasn't this weekend's only Facebook-related journalistic misfire.

That honor goes to the tall tale that the King of Saudi Arabia is planning on buying Facebook for $150 billion so as to shut down dissent in his country. Plausible, I suppose, considering his great wealth and considering the role that many in the Middle East have said Facebook has played in organizing pro-democracy protests.

But again, not true. The big clue, I think, in a story originally published by DawnWires was that it was marked as "LOL news." Now I don't think that any tech blogs ran with this story as fact, or even as rumor, but it was picked up by several local media sites in the Middle East apparently, which did report it as such.

Some Facebook, Journalism, and Media Literacy Food-for-Thought

How do stories like these spread online? What are journalists' roles? What are readers? How can a reader verify information? What signs, in these cases, were there that these stories weren't accurate?

What is it about Facebook that prompts these sorts of stories? Is it because the technology is (sort of) new? Is it because social networking is changing how we get and share information?

What can readers do when they find incorrect information? What, if any, are their responsibilities? What are journalists'?

 

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Audrey Watters


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