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."
"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
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
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 PopularScience.com
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 Time
s 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 PopularScience.com
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
techcrunch.com 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.