AUSTIN (KXAN) — No, second graders at Austin ISD are not being taught about “furries.” But a false post making the rounds online would have you thinking otherwise.
On Monday, Libs of TikTok posted a photo of what the account claimed to be student worksheets on furries, defined as people with interests in “anthropomorphic animals” — animals with human characteristics or behaviors attributed to them. In some circumstances, there can be a fetish or sexual connotation with the term.
In a statement Wednesday, a spokesperson from Austin ISD confirmed the worksheets are fake and not affiliated with the school district.
“Our curriculum team looked at our resources and it is not in our curriculum nor is it part of counseling or social emotional learning,” the spokesperson said in an email.
Despite this, the post has circulated thousands of times on Twitter — indicative of a larger trend of political propaganda targeting school districts, said Dr. David Thomason, an associate professor of political science and director of The Civics Lab at St. Edward’s University.
“I think it’s always healthy for democracy to have conversations on the local level. I think it’s always good when we have conversations about issues related to communities, to the schools,” he said. “But in the cases like this, I think what you’re seeing is the use or manipulation through propaganda techniques, to try and essentially erode the trust that many in the public have of our schools, of our public schools.”
Why are these rumors spreading?
This isn’t the first, or an isolated, instance of false furries stories circulating in school settings. In January, a candidate running for House District 136 tweeted tables at Round Rock ISD cafeterias were being lowered for students who identify as furries “to more easily eat without utensils or their hands.”
RRISD school officials debunked that rumor, telling KXAN: “This is absolutely false. Tables are not being lowered in any Round Rock ISD cafeterias. In fact, cafeteria tables aren’t even equipped to be set up at different heights.”
Because of the sexual connotations affiliated with the term, Thomason said this is a dangerous, and susceptible, propaganda tool used to rile parents up about alleged dangers posed against their children.
“The number one thing that we think about as parents and community members is the safety of our children. And so we want safe environments for our children,” he said. “So if there are perceptions that we are afraid that our children’s health or safety is jeopardized, that’s going to be a key factor in that environment. And these kinds of campaigns that really get to the heart of our fear of our children’s safety, are what prompts a lot of people to act.”
With the prevalence of social media in everyday life can come the “echo chamber” effect often used in propaganda tactics, Thomason said. Just as a hammer or a saw is a tool, Thomason said, it can be dangerous when used inappropriately.
In that same manner, the community and access social media can offer in elevating public discourse can be used to dismantle it, Thomason said.
“These are propaganda claims. And when you’re looking at social media, make the distinction between what is and what is not a valid story,” he said. “Check the references in the stories, go and look and search at other places where you would see that story surfaced as well. And think about who benefits from that story.”
Local calls for media literacy training
One of the focuses of The Civics Lab is its push for statewide media literacy requirements in school districts. It’s an initiative Thomason said he and his colleagues hope to push for consideration at the next legislative session, scheduled to begin Jan. 10, 2023.
According to advocacy nonprofit Media Literacy Now, media literacy is the practice of developing critical thinking skills on how to analyze and decode media, its messaging and both its credibility and authenticity. With the prevalence of doctored images or fabricated claims making the rounds online, Thomason said it’s especially crucial for students to learn these decoding tactics early on.
Last August, Illinois became the first state to require news literacy courses at every high school, according to NPR reporting. The initiative aims to combat misinformation online, per NPR.
“[The courses] would examine how stories are covered. Maybe look at how a story is positioned — either on social media or traditional media — to look at the facts behind the story, to look at the information that was gathered by the journalists that cover the story or the media outlet,” Thomason said. “And then for students to evaluate the stories and to build those skills of evaluation on what is the legitimate, valid story, and what is a story that’s propaganda?”
As for the partisan politics behind propaganda, Thomason said misinformation and the potential dangers behind it are something all politicians should get behind.
“State legislators and elected officials in Texas are deeply concerned about civics education in Texas,” he said. “And so we hoped that they would consider this as part of the package to look at promoting healthy civics.”