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Inaugural FitzSimons Civics Symposium Encourages Students to Think Critically About Social Media

Inaugural FitzSimons Civics Symposium 2022

Anupam Chander and Amy Kapczynski were panelists for Fordham Prep’s inaugural FitzSimons Civics Symposium, moderated by Nikolas Guggenberger. 

On Wednesday, March 30th, 2022, Fordham Prep hosted its first-ever FitzSimons Civics Symposium titled Social Media: Good or Bad?, part of the larger Civics Education Initiative. Georgetown University’s Scott K. Ginsburg Professor of Law and Technology Anupam Chander and Yale Law School Professor Amy Kapczynski sat on the panel, moderated by Yale Law School Research Scholar and lecturer Nikolas Guggenberger. 

The initiative is the vision of Ann and Dennis FitzSimons ‘67, who, as part of their gift, have committed $1 million to enhance the Prep’s social studies curriculum. The Fitzsimons Civics Education Initiative aims to bring a focus to critical thinking, essential skills for becoming engaged citizens, formation of reason-based arguments with clear evidence, civic online literacy and proficiency, and effective communication. 

“Fordham Prep is now placing greater emphasis on eliminating this knowledge deficit, FitzSimons said. “As an alumnus, I’m proud to support the Civics Initiative as well as the leadership position the Prep is taking in this area. Enhancing American History course offerings and presenting a balanced view of our country’s triumphs as well as where we have fallen short and need to do better is crucial.” 

While the Symposium is the first part of the initiative students have had the opportunity to experience, Social Studies Department Chair Matthew Bobo and his colleagues are working behind the scenes to develop the curriculum for the 2022-23 school year, which will include a research or applied civics project. 

“The FitzSimons Civics Education Initiative is meant to allow students to see government as an opportunity—whether you're in government or whether you participate through voting, through interest groups, through supporting political candidates—all of that stuff is civic activism that can bring about changes,” said Bobo.

Six students served on the 2022 FitzSimons Symposium Committee with Librarian and Media Specialist Eleanor Friedman P ‘26 as their moderator. “Our student committee was so committed to the work and dedicated many hours to the planning of the Symposium,” she said. “These students stepped up, and I hope they enjoyed the moment. Planning a big event requires many meetings, flexibility, and collaboration to ensure a great experience for everyone. Our student committee demonstrated incredible leadership growth from start to finish.  I believe they are poised to be great leaders,” she continued.

In the weeks leading up to the event, juniors and seniors watched the docudrama The Social Dilemma in three parts to prepare for the topics that were to be discussed during the Symposium. 

social dilemma civics education initiative

Students watch a screening of The Social Dilemma in Fordham Prep’s Leonard Theatre on March 24th, 2022.

Before the Symposium on March 30th, the 2022 FitzSimons Symposium Student Committee enjoyed a luncheon in the Global Education Conference Room with Dennis FitzSimons ‘67, his guests, and Symposium speakers. Principal Joseph Petriello ’98, Prep President Fr. Devron, SJ, and VP for Mission Integration and Planning Brian Carney also attended the luncheon. FitzSimons described the luncheon as "one of the highlights of the day". 

"It was great to interact with such an impressive group of young men," he said about the student committee. 

luncheon civics symposium

Dennis FitzSimons ‘67, his guests, Symposium speakers, Principal Petriello ’98, Prep President Fr. Devron, SJ, and VP for Mission Integration and Planning Brian Carney, and the 2022 FitzSimons Symposium Student Committee at the pre-Symposium luncheon.

Juniors and seniors filed into Leonard Theatre for the main event as the student committee prepared to help Fordham Prep make history with its inaugural Fitzsimons Civics Symposium.

The event opened with a prayer by student committee member Leighton ‘22 asking God for peace in Ukraine and to increase the students’ awareness of the challenges faced by our society. Brandon ‘22, another member of the student committee, took the podium shortly after to introduce the panel and its moderator.

Moderator Nikolas Guggenberger allowed both Chander and Kapczynski to make their opening statements. Chander referenced the Wall Street Journal’s article, “Facebook Knows Instagram Is Toxic for Teen Girls, Company Documents Show” in his statement, noting that the claims made in the piece should be looked at with caution.

“Facebook's own internal research was largely based not on scientifically valid measures,” he began. “The reality is far more complicated [...]. The questions that were asked were often based upon leading questions—‘How often do you see posts on Instagram that make you feel worse about your body?’ These kinds of questions are ones that social scientists would say are not particularly trustworthy. In 11 of the 12 areas studied internally by Facebook in these slides that were referenced here including serious issues like loneliness, anxiety, sadness, and eating issues, more teenage girls who said that they struggled with the issue said that Instagram made them feel better not worse about those problems,” he continued, adding that, “some scholars pointed [out] a rise in teen suicide that we're witnessing in society, however, the reality is that suicide rates have actually increased far higher among low-tech middle-aged adults than have than they have among the younger group that was the focus of these concerns.”
 
In Kapczynski’s opening statement, she mentioned how difficult it is to do adequate research in the realm of social media. “There's not a lot of [this research out there], and the research that we have doesn't validate the scariest feelings that we have about social media including the mental health ones,” she said. “It turns out that although companies like Google and Facebook would like their advertisers to believe that they're very good at changing people's behavior, for example getting you to go out and buy things, it's not obvious that that's actually really the case. Studies that also try to show they can really change your behavior haven't had very much success also showing that they change behavior in these ways although there are some examples like the Facebook internal study of voting patterns,” she continued, noting that even the smallest percentage of impact on a U.S. election can have ripple effects. 

“I think it's really important to appreciate that the business model is designed to gather lots of information and not really let you know they're doing it [and] not make it obvious because when you ask [people], they do object to this,” Kapczynski stated. “[People] don't like it. So [companies] don't make it obvious that this is what they do and then they use that to sort of try to sell your attention,” she continued.

Kapczynski then referenced the docudrama The Social Dilemma that students watched prior to the Symposium, noting that social media companies are good at keeping us engaged to the point where “'you commonly will experience [moments where you think] ‘I just wish I didn’t spend that last hour this way.’”

Inaugural FitzSimons Civics Symposium audience

Dennis FitzSimons ‘67 (first row, middle) at the inaugural FitzSimons Civics Symposium in Leonard Theatre with his guests.

While discussing whether we need a civil society or government-sponsored version of platforms such as TikTok, Kapczynski brought up Wordle to allude to what a differently designed environment could look like. Her mention of the game garnered some shouts of approval and applause from the students in the crowd.

“Who would have expected that that is the applause line of the panel?” Guggenberger laughed.

“I didn't know we were going to go there, but here's why I think Wordle is awesome,” Kapczynski began. “Wordle is designed by somebody who did not want your eyeballs they wanted to make something nice for their friend and there's one a day and that's all you get and it's fun! You can share it with your friends and then you put it away. That’s what that game was designed for. Just a person who wanted to enjoy themselves. The other games that my children play are not designed for that they're designed to make them stay on those games forever. I'm so excited you guys all love Wordle and I think that's just going to be my tagline: If you want to know what a differently designed social media environment would be like, start with Wordle and then kind of go from there,” she continued.

During a live question and answer session, hosted by student committee member Liam ‘23, Guggenberger handed the microphone to FitzSimons to ask the first question. “Should the government regulate these companies who through the free market have been able to build themselves into worldwide companies? Should the government now get in to break them up? Do you favor government regulation or not? What role should the government have or not have in regulating free speech in the social media market?” he asked.

live qa fitzsimons civics symposium

Dennis FitzSimons ‘67 takes the microphone at the inaugural Civics Symposium to ask the first audience question during the Live Q&A.

Kapczynski replied that she thinks “that the government has a role in tackling the size of some of these companies and we should be taking serious anti-trust action against some of [them].” 

Chander stated that he “is not convinced that it makes sense to break up Facebook into a world of 50 Facebooks.”  

“I don't think [it would be any] better than a world of one Facebook that is now,” he continued, adding that breaking off WhatsApp from Facebook doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll all of a sudden have a better system. 

“Instead of one Mark Zuckerberg, you have 50 mini Mark Zuckerbergs. Yes, it means that Zuckerberg has less power, but I think it doesn't reduce it. It actually increases the possibility of bad stuff emerging,” he said. He also brought up the fact that the Winklevoss brothers, who are very pro-speech, think that Zuckerberg is censoring the First Amendment freedom “too much” on Facebook. 

Students asked a series of thoughtful questions thereafter, encouraging discourse about the possible repercussions of legislating against targeted advertisements, imposing limits on data collection, and the impact of social media on politics.

At the conclusion of the event, the student committee gave the panelists and moderator gifts, Sean Griffin ‘22 thanked Dennis FitzSimons ‘67 for his gracious support of the Prep’s mission before calling him onto the stage to receive a gift and say a few words. 

“Well I don't want to stand between you guys and the end of your day your academic day,” he laughed, “but I want to say thank you first of all to the steering committee, thank you to our guests today, and our panelists for doing such a nice job. The biggest thing I want to say is this whole civics initiative is about awareness—about being an educated, informed, and engaged citizen,” he said.

After the Symposium, Friedman stated, “I distinctly remember thinking during the Symposium how I was so impressed by the generosity that made this gift possible and filled with gratitude that my sons will have the opportunity to share in this experience. Our community is blessed to have a caring commitment to developing civic-minded men for others. Not every student is able to experience this kind of engaging live event, and it is important to note that the Civics Symposium is just one very important piece of the Civics Education Initiative that is enriching the education of our students here at the Prep.”

FitzSimons is excited about the prospects the inaugural Symposium brings for the future of the Civics Education Initiative.

"The Civics Education Initiative is off to a great start," he said. "At a time when we read so much about the threats to our democracy, Fordham Prep is taking a leadership position in shaping educated, engaged, and informed citizens committed to the common good. In terms of protecting our democracy, what could be more important than that?"

View a recording of the 1st Annual Civics Symposium here.  

Learn more about the FitzSimons Civics Education Initiative at www.fordhamprep.org/fitzsimons-cei.