Rewriting Human Rights Education Through Social Media

By Marta Skrabracz

Our consciousness and understanding of the world is now shaped by a global mentality. With the expansion of an audience from local to global due to the internet, it has become difficult to remain uninformed and unengaged from human rights debates in Australia and worldwide. Education has always been a process of engagement with people, a debate of ideas. However, the current dialogue regarding human rights in social media is a far more captivating model of education than any classroom.

Watching the news tonight, I experienced a stark contrast between the news coverage on television and on the internet. The social media response to the recent shooting of Michael Brown, for example, was more extensive than the television or newspaper report. More than banalities like memes, these social media networks do more than just convey information that is used to inform us about social justice. According to the feeds you subscribe to, there are sites that give you a more comprehensive overview of the current state of affairs, politically and socially. Notwithstanding the ads and the oversight of a privately controlled social media company, you are able to find a convergence of opinions and an opportunity to explore sides of the debate. This sheer exposure to current and uncurrated news events online is extraordinary. It means is that when we go online, we also politically and socially engage with the world. Furthermore, we can actively engage or silently read to educate ourselves; but the involvement in human rights media is a form of education that absorbs you.

Social media thus becomes a resource for human rights education through exposure, communication and dialogue, something akin to letters to the editor section in the newspaper (though online, you might have the bonus of getting a response back from the author to whom you just wrote). In promoting the Internet Freedom Fellows programme, Ambassador Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, U.S. Representative to the UN Human Rights Council said the following:

Around the world people are using new media in the call for freedom, transparency and greater self- determination. We must always remember that it is not the tools, but the courageous people who use them – journalists and reporters and individual citizens – who are the human voice of freedom.

Donahoe succinctly identifies that social media has given humans a means to reinvent the way we talk and see human rights – as a process of evolution, steered by humans who make use of the tools of communication that social media offers.

With the willingness of human rights organisations to embrace social media as well, education about human rights online becomes more of a dialogue, a conversation that people can become involved in. Malcolm Gladwell, a writer for the New Yorker, in his article titled “Small Change: Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted” posits that the internet is about “interactivity and conversation”. Social media sites such as Tumblr and Twitter, for example, build networks which promote self-education as well as providing the opportunity for debates and discussion via reblogs and retweets. However, Gladwell argues that networks constructed without the aid of an online presence can promote a greater social change than those with online platforms. He believes that online networks are “built around weak ties” and consequently, those ties “seldom lead to high-risk activism”. Contrary to this view, Professor Sarah Joseph of Monash University, in exploring Gladwell’s argument, says that Gladwell underestimates the value of networks generated by social media.

Other from activism, social media can provide an unorthodox form of education. If we examine the differences between sex education in high schools versus the information available on social media, we see a stark contrast in the manner in which it is handled. Schools and teachers provide information cautiously, regulated by government. Alternatively, it is information that may vary in in accordance with whether that school is religiously affiliated, public or private or by region. In particular, it is an aspect of education that necessitates an effect and estimate of our values, of ourselves and of others. In contrast, I have found the sexual ‘education’ obtained from social media is more than a biological understanding of how we work with others – it has expanded to understanding rights and responsibilities, informed consent and respect, inclusivity of genders, everything that goes into sexual relationships. The unlimited access to information means you might obtain a great theoretical understanding, however, the drawback is lacking the social skills that come hand in hand with a practical understanding of the topic.

There are evident drawbacks to online education, of course, however the shared physical environment of a classroom can in itself be a drawback. The physical experience of learning is changing, as such, the manner in which we understand education, in this case sexual education, changes too. This, indeed, is the education many individuals are learning from social media, whether it be Tumblr, Reddit, Twitter or any other sites which purports a view differentiating itself from the view propagated by a national curriculum or a school’s religious views.

In Australia, one of the greatest sources of tension for human rights in education is our portrayal of history. For years, the subject of history has been reserved for reiterating the significance of cultural events such as Australia’s involvement in world wars and Captain Cook and the First Fleet. In his article, “Rewriting History”, Glenn Davies gives an overview of the interrelationship between the government in Australia and the education reforms. He asserts that the collective story of Australian history “changes depending on who is telling it”. This is exemplified through successive changes in government, and reflected in their respective attitudes towards indigenous Australians, towards feminism and even towards climate change.

Why is history relevant to human rights dialogue in Australia? Because we recognize the need to create a culture that respects and upholds human rights and the education system in Australia needs to reflect this. The recent proposed alterations to Australia’s national curriculum by Education Minister Christopher Pyne, have the effect of imposing a singular cultural interpretation of Australia’s history. Rather, it glorifies Australia’s advent to promote a nationalistic image, avoiding any redress of the underlying racial and cultural issues, regarding immigration and racism, for example. Specifically, the federal government’s education reforms include changes to the national history curriculum, with a desire to remove “a black-armband view of Australia’s history,” as Pyne stated before the 2013 election.

Interestingly, the Australian Human Rights Commission, in their Human Rights Education in the National School Curriculum positionpaper, acknowledged that the gradual development of human rights “grows alongside the development of a student’s own self awareness, understanding of their relationship to others, society, the world, knowledge of social issues locally, nationally and globally and their cognitive capacities”. By “politicising the school curriculum”, we run the risk of imposing conservative or radical notions of history into textbooks. In turn, an improper education about Australia’s history may adversely affect a person’s understanding of human rights, and thus unconsciously impede human rights.

Social media allows for a fulfilling exploration of human rights issues. The purpose of online education means that you engage with individuals who are subjected to education. For some, an online presence is a way to disengage from the “real world”; for others, they carry and discuss their burdens online. As Joseph argues in her article, “social media also expands access to evidence of human rights abuses beyond that offered by the mainstream media.” The exposure of other perspectives and the ease at which to gain those from other are the main source of human rights education. It is more difficult to avoid or hide the evidence of historical human rights violations in Australia. Additionally, the United Nations too has recognised the need to evolve educational spaces in alignment with the digital movement. Issues such as sexism and racism are not taught to students; they are things that happen to people. For those fortunate few, they exist as mere theories and not realities: class, race and privilege. Not only does social media become a way to resolve and discuss social justice in practice, it becomes a secondary world for which social injustice is very present.

The Education Minister has explicitly spoken on the role of the government in determine human rights education in the classroom, saying that “civics education” is “critical to creating a culture of human rights”, as it promotes students’ participation in our democracy by equipping them with skills and knowledge about active and informed citizenship. Pyne’s definition of civic education entails that “every child has a right to know about and understand Australia’s democratic traditions and heritage, its legal and political institutions, and our shared values of, tolerance, respect, responsibility, freedom and inclusion”. For Pyne, history needs to be taught alongside a particular brand of civic education. However, if you understand the contrary nature of human perspective sometimes a faithful account of history won’t impart any civic virtues, like our history wars suggest.

At this stage, social media should remain the supplement, not the primary means of education about human rights. Online, the danger and delight in this is that there is no authorised edition of “education”. By having information reblogged and retweeted, there is difficulty in identifying a source. Even then, there might be difficulty in giving that source credibility. The danger lies in having misinformation spread around as fact; the delight is that you can deviate from the school’s education system and begin to use the resources you have around yourself to educate yourself, to learn how to discern information and determine what views you hold yourself.

Marta Skrabacz is a student at Monash University. Currently, she is completing a law degree, focusing in human rights and international law.  She completed her undergraduate honours year in 2013 with a thesis in medieval political theory.