As policy experts engage in a nuanced discussion about the best practices for instruction when the new school year starts, the all-out push from President Donald Trump and his administration for in-person learning -- regardless of safety concerns due to the coronavirus pandemic -- dominates the conversation about school reopenings in the right-wing Facebook ecosystem.
Media Matters analyzed over 420 Facebook posts about school reopenings during the coronavirus pandemic from right-leaning Facebook pages between 4 p.m. EDT on July 8 and 4 p.m. EDT on July 15 in order to understand the narratives currently being spread among the right-wing Facebook ecosystem. We found that posts from these pages earned a total of over 2.4 million interactions (reactions, comments, shares) on Facebook and averaged approximately 5,700 interactions per post.
On January 31, the federal government declared COVID-19 a public health emergency; nearly six months later, at least 137,000 Americans have died and cases continue to surge in parts of the country. Trump’s response to the pandemic is often called a failure, from his early efforts to downplay the virus to his promotion of the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine as a potential miracle cure, his failure to adequately ramp up testing, his resistance to wearing a mask, and his sidelining of public health experts.
Amid these failures and surging cases, Trump is insisting that schools conduct in-person learning when instruction resumes after the summer break. This insistence is reportedly tied to Trump’s bid for reelection, which is seen as contingent upon the revival of the economy. Trump and his administration have even threatened to cut funding to schools that do not fully reopen or to give money to parents to seek other schooling options.
Public health and education experts are having a much more nuanced discussion as they agree that in-person classes are the preferred method of instruction but concede that in-person classes may not be safe as long as the virus’s spread is not contained in communities throughout the country. Polling suggests that parents are concerned about sending children to school and voters oppose Trump’s demand for full in-person instruction and his threat to cut funding.
In a now familiar cycle, Fox News and right-wing media are both amplifying and encouraging Trump and his administration’s push to fully reopen schools. This amplification is also occurring within the right-wing Facebook ecosystem, which plays a vital role in pushing misinformation and right-wing talking points across the platform, reaching thousands or millions of social media feeds.
Media Matters reviewed the top 10 Facebook posts about school reopenings amid the coronavirus pandemic from right-leaning pages and found that the majority of the posts amplify Trump and his administration’s calls for in-person instruction. Other top posts fearmonger about public schools and their teachers, calling teachers “left-wing political machines” and criticizing experts and the media.
Notably, the right-wing Facebook ecosystem also uses networks of Facebook pages to further amplify talking points and narratives. We found that one of the top 10 posts was shared numerous times among a network of accounts that promote articles from the right-wing website the Western Journal. The article in the post, which earned nearly 120,000 interactions on Facebook, was posted at least 22 times by pages affiliated with the Western Journal.
These are the top 10 Facebook posts about reopening schools amid the pandemic from right-leaning pages:
Donald J. Trump (over 277,000 interactions)
Fox News (over 146,000 interactions)
Donald J. Trump (over 131,000 interactions)
Fox News (roughly 107,000 interactions)
The White House (over 63,000 interactions)
Fox News (over 57,000 interactions)
ForAmerica (over 54,000 interactions)
Fox News (roughly 47,000 interactions)
Dinesh D'Souza (over 45,000 interactions)
Mike Huckabee (over 42,000 interactions)
Media Matters compiled a list of 1,223 Facebook pages that pertain to news and media outlets, media figures, politicians, political parties, and issue-focused advocacy groups. Each page in this study also had over 500,000 page likes, had primarily English-language content, and posted content related to U.S. political news.
Two researchers independently coded pages, and a third researcher independently reconciled conflicts between the two datasets. Researchers coded pages for two factors: (1) content related to political news, and (2) ideological alignment (left-leaning, right-leaning, nonaligned, or “other”). We reviewed each page individually, and we only included pages that regularly focused on news about American politics.
We determined the ideological alignment of a page by a page’s name, information in the “About” section, the page owner, and posts. We coded pages that expressed opposition to President Donald Trump or focused on issues primarily aimed at liberals (e.g., protecting abortion rights, calling for action against gun violence, etc.) as left-leaning.
We coded pages that expressed support for Trump or focused on issues primarily aimed at conservatives (e.g., restricting abortion rights, downplaying gun violence, etc.) as right-leaning.
We coded all pages for right-wing and left-wing media outlets as right-leaning or left-leaning, respectively. We coded pages that did not have an ideological leaning in their content as nonaligned.
If we had any doubt about whether to code a page as nonaligned or left-leaning, we erred on coding the page as left-leaning. We coded pages as “other” if they did not fit in any of the above categories or if they contained a mix of left-leaning and right-leaning content. We excluded these pages from the final dataset.
The resulting list of pages were 384 right-leaning pages, 377 nonaligned pages, 435 left-leaning pages, and 27 “other.”
We compiled and reviewed the data, including total interactions (reactions, comments, and shares), of Facebook posts that mentioned both school reopenings and COVID-19 that were shared by our list of 384 right-leaning Facebook pages between 4 p.m. EDT on July 8 and 4 p.m. EDT on July 15.
We defined posts that mentioned school reopenings as any post that had any of the following terms in the post’s message or in an included link, article headline, or article description: school, schools, teach, teaches, teacher, teachers, “teachers union,” “teachers’ union,” “teacher’s union,” student, or students.
We defined posts that mentioned COVID-19 as any post that had any of the following terms in the post’s message or in the included link, article headline, or article description: reopen, re-open, “re open,” virtual, coronavirus, covid, covid-19, covid19, infection, infections, transmission, or pandemic.
The resulting dataset included 422 posts from 153 right-leaning pages.