Playground politics: The truth of parents’ WhatsApp groups

Class chats can spread misinformation and pit parents against school staff

Is there any solution? Principals say contacting schools directly about concerns rather than letting them mushroom online is one approach. Photograph: iStock

Is there any solution? Principals say contacting schools directly about concerns rather than letting them mushroom online is one approach. Photograph: iStock

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“Does anyone know if there’s a half-day tomorrow?”; “Anyone else struggling to understand the maths tonight?”; “Did anyone take Saoirse’s jumper by mistake?”

At its best, the class WhatsApp group offers connection in the fast-paced, multitasking world of modern parenting. At its worst, it spreads misinformation and pits parents against school staff.

“It got out of control pretty quickly,” one Cork mum confides, referring to a petition started on their class WhatsApp group recently, aimed at removing a newly appointed principal following an incident.

“It became a sort of campaign to get rid of him. It was a WhatsApp mob, and nobody was willing to step up and put a stop to it. People mentioned their right to know, commenting on the principal’s apparent shortcomings. There was an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ tone to everything. Comments began with, ‘everybody thinks’, that kind of thing,” she says.

“Looking back on it now, there were one or two vocal, angry parents, and the rest of us got lost in the tide.”

One Waterford principal, who acknowledges there are positives for parents on class WhatsApp groups, has a clear defence strategy when the mood turns hostile.

“I refuse to meet parents as representatives of a wider group, unless it’s the parents’ association. So, if a parent says ‘everyone is saying that…’, I insist on meeting each parent who wants to speak about it. It usually turns out there’s only one.”

Online gossip

Staff at Presentation College Carlow recently became the victims of damaging and unchecked gossip online. Girls who were wearing leggings were reminded of the official dress code late last year. Soon, false reports of male teachers’ discomfort that this clothing was making them uncomfortable, multiplied online. The story, based on rumour rather than fact, dominated newspapers and radio shows.

A Dublin principal of a large secondary school says parents are often 'very careless with what they put into writing'

The Press Ombudsman recently upheld a complaint by the school principal who said the allegations were false. Ray Murray said the school originally declined to comment on the controversy as it did not want to “provide fuel for the fire of a non-story frenzy circulating on social media”. He ended up going on national radio to point out that what was being claimed online was incorrect.

Such findings, however, gain far less traction than the original controversy. Teachers and principals say much of their time is increasingly given over to correcting “fake news” or scaremongering over issues ranging from use of technology to sex and relationships education.

A legal precedent was set in 2017 when Roisin Corr, a music teacher at St Joseph’s Grammar school in Donaghmore, secured a public apology from a parent who posted defamatory comments on her personal Facebook account. Campaigners believe the case could prompt more teachers to seek legal action over parents’ online comments.

A Dublin principal of a large secondary school says parents are often “very careless with what they put into writing”.

“My big worry is when they start to mention an individual teacher. I have a duty of care towards that teacher.

“I’ve had to email parents, warning them about the dangers of posting libellous, discoverable comments. I also rely on individual parents who keep me informed if phones are lighting up at night. It happens organically with every group. There’s always a decent person with everyone’s best interest at heart.”

Misinformation

At its most extreme, online misinformation can kill. The case of Samuel Paty in France serves as a stark reminder. A 13-year-old girl told her father that she’d been asked to leave the room while her teacher showed them cartoon pictures of the prophet Muhammad during a class on free speech and blasphemy.

Later, it was revealed that the girl was absent that day; she confessed to reporters, “I didn’t see the cartoons, it was a girl in my class who showed me them.”

The father filed a legal complaint against the teacher, embarking on a social media campaign wherein he identified Paty and the school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, west of Paris. Prosecutors established a “direct causal link” between the online campaign against Paty and his death.

After Paty’s murder by beheading, French president Emmanuel Macron presented the teacher’s family with the nation’s highest honour, the Légion d’Honneur.

One principal recalls an incident where he ended up advising a parent like he might a child experiencing cyberbullying.

“In Dublin as a class teacher it became a thing with a particularly bad class I had [parent-wise]. One parent emailed me looking for advice on something that had come up on their WhatsApp group. I advised her to leave the group.”

A Cork-based principal also sees a comparison with school bullying and online campaigns.

Principals say contacting schools directly about concerns rather than letting them mushroom online is one approach

“Many schools in Ireland educate staff and students on the necessity to avoid blaming, shaming and comparing in their relationships, online or otherwise. These practices happen frequently on WhatsApp groups...

“Parents aren’t in the class and they’re not the students. There’s a dynamic of entitlement on them where people feel they’ve a right to know why a member of staff is absent, say. There may be complex and personal details involved, as is the case in any workplace.”

Another principal in Carlow compares the bullying of staff on WhatsApp to road rage.

“We’re all happy to shout and gesticulate at the wheel but we’re unlikely to hurl the same abuse facing someone. WhatsApp is us shouting together from behind one wheel.”

Solutions

So, is there any solution? Principals say contacting schools directly about concerns rather than letting them mushroom online is one approach. Another option, some say, is educating parents.

Prof James O’Higgins Norman of DCU and Unesco’s chair on tackling bullying in schools and cyberspace says parents especially need to be careful around how they behave.

“There’s a broader societal issue here. This is all very new to us adults. We must reflect on the example we’re setting. We talk about what our children are doing online, but we don’t reflect on our own behaviour; we don’t have an agreed etiquette,” he said recently.

Research carried out by Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018 found that false stories are 70 per cent more likely to spread on Twitter than the truth

The university runs an anti-bullying and online safety programme called Fuse. It is used in more than 100 schools, reaching thousands of students and school staff.

“Fuse recognises the need for adults to register the impact their online behaviour can have, particularly in closed forums like WhatsApp. We suggest that students host training sessions for their parents once they’ve completed the programme. Schools can help facilitate that,” he says.

Lurkers or informers: which class WhatsApp tribe do you belong to?

Research carried out by Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2018 found that false stories are 70 per cent more likely to spread on Twitter than the truth. A similar pattern can emerge on parents’ WhatsApp groups.

Such misinformation is often carried out by a vocal few, a well-established phenomenon of “participation inequality”. According to one report, up to 90 per cent of users “lurk”, 9 per cent communicate a little and just 1 per cent – dubbed by some as “informers” – provide most of the action.

For example, Elad Gov-Ari, a product manager, decided to run a statistical analysis on his own child’s pre-school parents WhatsApp group; he found that one parent out of the group of 47 was responsible for more than a quarter of all messages.

There’s a lot at stake if parent-school relationships break down. Drawing upon data from more than 10,000 students, the University of Sussex found positive school-family relationships are a predictor of academic achievement.

A 2021 Ipsos MRBI Veracity Index tracking public trust in key professions found that social media influencers are trusted by only 6 per cent of the population. Teachers are trusted by 88 per cent.

Though suspicious of social media, the power of it seems enough to jolt parents out of their offline convictions.

A study in the International Journal of Learning, Teaching and Educational Research into school WhatsApp groups – which also included teachers – found that parents became overinvolved in the school, while the informality of the channel made the relationship too close and led to message overload and misunderstandings.

It found that “there is no substitute for the continued existence of face-to-face communication channels that allow close contact which creates trust and professional working relationships between parents and educators”.