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June 14, 2017

Lesson Plan: How new inventions help us use social media for social good

The invention of social media has provided us with a wide range of opportunities to become more informed on key issues and engage in the democratic process. However, it has also created space for individuals to try to influence public opinion around a particular political agenda through the creation of by thousands of phony social media accounts, or computer-generated ‘bots.’

About 30 percent of social media users have been deceived by a bot at one point or another. Students will watch the PBS NewsHour video, Cracking the stealth political influence of bots,’ which examines how the invention of the Twitter bot plays a role in influencing public opinion. They will then invent their own bot which will be used to spread awareness about an issue they care about.

Grades:

9-12

Subjects:

Computer Science, Technology, Social Studies, U.S. Government, Civics

Estimated Time:

Approximately 50-min

Essential Question:

How has the invention of social media in recent years affected the way individuals participate in the democratic process?

Overview:

Hardware inventions like the keyboard, mouse or monitor may come to mind when you think about the computer. But what actually makes the words and numbers appear on your screen? The software behind your screen may be invisible, but without it, our mobile devices wouldn’t be very mobile at all.

Whether it’s Snapchat or Instagram, software engineers play a critical role in all of the inventions surrounding social media.  In this lesson, students will learn how computer scientists analyze tweets to tell which accounts are really phony bots. While it’s difficult to know what the overall impact has been on public opinion, we do know that most Americans can’t distinguish bots from real users.

Students will learn about some of the issues surrounding bots and invent their own bot that will be used to inform and improve the public’s understanding of a key issue in their community.

Objectives:

  1. To learn about the invention process by identifying real problems in a student’s community and researching possible solutions.
  2. To understand the challenges posed by computer-generated bots and ways in which social media can be used for social good.

Materials:

Procedure:

Warm-up activity: Are you a bot or not?

If you don’t have a Twitter account, pair up with a student who does or take a look at your school’s official Twitter account. Go to Botometer.org (Bot or Not’s new website). Check the Twitter accounts of your U.S. senator, U.S. House of Representative, and the President to view their bot status. Note: the higher the percentage, the greater the likelihood is that the account is a bot.

How could Botometer be used to help figure out if someone is trying to push their political message or agenda on a user? What patterns did you see in Twitter accounts (i.e. handle name, profile, image) that had a higher chance of being a bot? What patterns did you see in accounts that had a lower chance of being a bot?

Main activities:

  1. Watch the video: “Cracking the stealth political influence bots.” 

    • Have students find a partner and write down answers to the following questions. Where do you get your news? What apps do you use? Had you heard of bots before this video? Who invented the bot? How could you find out? Did you ever question if a social media account was a real person or not? What was the circumstance? Share responses as a class.
    • Next, students should talk with their partner and make a list of the risks and benefits bots provide to society. Include possible solutions for any risks, including solutions that may have not been invented yet. Brainstorm answers on the whiteboard.

2. Use social media for social good: Invent your own bot

  • Working individually, students should think of a problem that they are curious about in their community or surrounding region. Examples can include a range of issues like climate change, endangered species, homelessness, bullying, dress code, etc.
  • Students should research and take about one-page of notes on their issue, including sources. Encourage them to visit local or regional news sites, local and state government home pages or talk with their student body government or principal.
  • Sketch a public awareness bot that you’d like to invent on a piece of paper. Your bot will explain possible solutions to your problem. For example, if you picked bullying, your Twitter bot might share ways in which we can decrease bullying or tips on how to handle certain situations.
    • Remember, your Twitter bot is a helpful invention designed to raise awareness around the topic of your choice.
    • Include the following:
      • Twitter page with a relevant cover photo
      • Profile picture
      • Handle (i.e. #
      • Biography
      • Four to six tweets: Be sure to explain the problem you are trying to solve in your tweets as well as possible solutions.
      • Two likes and two retweets: You can make up the organizations or individuals that like or retweet you, or you can use real ones if you think they’d support your idea. All likes and retweets should be relevant to the problem. You may need to use a large piece of paper or tape pieces together to make room for your tweets.
  • Debrief: As a group consider the following reflection questions.
    • How can bots be used for social good?
    • How important is the invention process in improving society? Do you think social media has made our society more democratic or less? Explain your answer.
    • Consider your local community and surrounding region. Who might benefit from a bot such as this?
    • What are the ethical considerations around the creation of “good bots”?

Extension activities:

  • Have you ever tried coding? Maybe you have been curious about it but didn’t know where to start. Now is your chance. In this activity, you will explore an existing chatbot and have the opportunity to develop your own. Imagine being able to write code that analyzes human behavior to improve lives as mentioned in the video. Give it a try and create your own chat bot like the example here by following this this tutorial.
  • Have you ever wondered what makes a news story go viral? Read through this New York Times article by Farhad Manjoo ‘How Twitter is Being Gamed to Feed Misinformation,’ which discusses the role of bots in influencing public opinion.
    • Manjoo writes: “Every tweet comes with a counter of Likes and Retweets, and users come to internalize these metrics as proxies for real-world popularity. Yet these metrics can be gamed. Because a single Twitter user can create lots of accounts and run them all in a coordinated way, Twitter lets relatively small groups masquerade as far larger ones. If Facebook’s primary danger is its dissemination of fake stories, then Twitter’s is a ginning up of fake people.” What problems might fake bot accounts on create for a person following a political race on Twitter? Do you agree with Manjoo that Twitter bots may be a ‘growing and terrifying scourge on democracy?’ Explain your answer. 

Brian Aspinall’s work focuses on STEM innovation in Canadian education. He was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Teaching Excellence for his work with coding and computational thinking. Aspinall speaks on STEM education issues throughout North America and was selected as Canada’s first Minecraft, Micro:BiT, and Makey Makey Mentors. You can reach him at www.mraspinall.com.

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  • Standards

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    Relevant National Standards:
      HS-ETS1-1 Engineering Design Analyze a major global challenge to specify qualitative and quantitative criteria and constraints for solutions that account for societal needs and wants.

      HS-ETS1-3 Engineering Design Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

      HS-ESS3-4 Earth and Human Activity Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.*

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.9-10.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; trace the text’s explanation or depiction of a complex process, phenomenon, or concept; provide an accurate summary of the text.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RST.11-12.2 Determine the central ideas or conclusions of a text; summarize complex concepts, processes, or information presented in a text by paraphrasing them in simpler but still accurate terms.

      CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RI.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words in order to address a question or solve a problem.

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