Thursday, September 26, 2013

The World Table: Transforming our Incivility for Clarity of Thinking and Persuasion

There seems to be a growing recognition that something is not quite right about the way in which we engage each other over our differences on the Internet. In fact, some websites are changing their procedures in this area, and others are calling for a new platform that helps transform behaviors that make up this problem.

In August of this year The Huffington Post announced that it would no longer allow anonymous comments to be posted in response to their essays. A piece by Lorraine Devon Wilke explained why in "What Trolls Are Doing to Our Politics, Our Culture... Our Brains." She writes, "On a societal level, particularly since the internet opened comment features under most offerings, negative dialogue has become the norm; the loud, persistent, often vicious norm of most online interaction. In fact, the degree of irrational response exchanged online is so high, so automatic, that one expects any article, no matter how logical, fact-based, positive, or even neutral, to be immediately ripped apart by trolls who seem bent on the task." After discussing some findings in Psychology Today on the psychological effects of focusing on negativity, she continues and describes the unfortunate results of such hypercritical and negative commentary on individuals who read it. She says that "the more one sits at a computer spewing savage, hateful criticism, the more one translates life through the filter of hostility and personal attacks, the more one builds brain pathways toward greater and greater negativity. In fact, as online commenters, media pundits and politicians have grown uglier and more malicious, the more the bar seems to have moved, making 'ugly' more accepted, more accessible." For The Huffington Post the way to address this issue is to disallow the posting of anonymous comments. The hope is that if people have to take public ownership of their comments and the way they relate to others that it will contribute to more positive and civil forms of exchange.

More recently included an essay that went even further in exploring the impact of uncivil exchanges on the Internet. This website is going further than HuffPo, and is removing the ability for readers to comment entirely. Suzanne LeBarre in "Why We're Shutting Off Our Comments," also discusses the impact of trolls on the shaping of perspectives of readers. Although they acknowledge that they receive lots of positive comments, the negative ones have an enormous ability to shape perceptions. LeBarre cites a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison professor Dominique Broassoard about reader perceptions of a particular technology, which revealed that "even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story."  From a New York Times op-ed the following results were discovered:

Uncivil comments not only polarized readers, but they often changed a participant's interpretation of the news story itself.

In the civil group, those who initially did or did not support the technology — whom we identified with preliminary survey questions — continued to feel the same way after reading the comments. Those exposed to rude comments, however, ended up with a much more polarized understanding of the risks connected with the technology.

Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought.

LeBarre states that this ability of uncivil comments to negatively alter perceptions of a story is causing readers to think uncritically about accepted scientific notions. For the way forward is to end the ability of readers to comment and interact with each other over ideas.

The final threads in this discussion come through a new book and another online essay. Os Guinness is the author of The Global Public Square (InterVarsity Press, 2013). In this volume he sets forward a proposal for religious freedom and freedom of conscience, as well as the need for a civil public square. He recognizes that the public square is now far more expansive than it was previously given the importance of "new technologies and social media" which are so influential and formative that the "public square has morphed again through the power of the Internet and has gone from the physical to the metaphorical to the virtual." This worldwide platform means that "...even when we are not speaking to the world, we can be heard by the world," often by way of increased incivility and "degrading rhetoric" from anonymous individuals. Guinness wonders whether we can "in the next twenty-five years forge a new understanding of what it means for global citizens to debate other global citizens in a manner that the issues deserve..."

Related to this, in February of this year Sarah Perez argued at that "The Best Platform for Online Discussion Doesn't Exist Yet." While not mentioning trolls specifically, Perez does mention the problem of uncivil comments, as well as questions related to credibility. She states, "The problem, which the Internet hasn’t solved at all, and has in fact even made worse, is that opinions are not created equal and therefore shouldn’t be considered in equal measure. The Internet has put people on such an even playing field that we now have to create entirely new systems to verify who’s worth listening to. From Google rankings to Techmeme headlines to retweets and number of followers, we’re still struggling to figure out who deserves to be heard." Perez concludes her essay by writing, "We’re ready for a radical overhaul that reflects how people are communicating and sharing information today; one that shows which comments or shares have resonated and why, and one that understands who deserves to be heard."

These various elements come together to paint a picture of a tremendous challenge. Serious issues need to be discussed, but it is usually the negative and polarizing voices that are the most influential. The result is that critical, thoughtful, and civil discussion and persuasion is stifled, and opinions are unfairly shaped along the way. The Internet has become a cyber extension of the physical public square and a very important place for discussion of the pressing issues of the day, but it is presently hampered by incivility. We need a new platform, a new mechanism to transform the way in which we engage each other to empower the best of what the Internet has to offer.

But while Perez opines that the best platform for online discussion doesn't yet exist, I'd beg to differ. The Foundation for Religious Diplomacy is currently involved in beta testing for The World Table. Participants must verify their identity and allegiances, and then agree to a set of ethical guidelines called The Way of Openness. Participants are then rated on the way in which they engage others, and rate others in similar fashion. The goal is to earn the highest rating possible as a badge of honor. Drawing upon accepted principles of social psychology that resonate with many religious traditions and ideologies, The World Table promises to change behaviors by shaming the trolls and making civil conversations a highly desired virtue, thus setting a new tone for exchanges about the most serious issues that divide us, from religion to politics and beyond.

A new movement for civility in the way in which treat each other over our deepest differences is taking shape. It's happening at The World Table. Come and take your seat.

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