The National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) gives tools and tactics to elected officials, the media and the public, in an effort to help everyone engage in a more civil way. NICD director of social media Tracey Todd joins the show to discuss a series of common threats to civil discourse, and how we might approach them. Plus:
- The impact of Donald Trump on discourse
- Has civility become a buzzword used by those who aren’t actually civil?
- Where Tracey finds optimism in discourse right now
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“What we saw, with the implementation of the 24 hour news cycle, was this ravenous need for information at all periods. Which then, in turn, makes certain items pressing news that ordinarily wouldn’t have become top news in previous years. … I think that has added to the vitriol because there’s so much information. There are so many voices, and we have a number of people who are appealing to their baser instincts to really cut through the traffic.” -@TraceyTodd
“We’re seeing hate actually be validated from the highest office in the country, so I think we sit at a very dangerous juncture in our country and in our dialogue.” -@TraceyTodd
“Facebook is a news provider. Twitter is a news provider. Snapchat is a news provider. There’s a responsibility there in the messages that are spread using those platforms.” -@TraceyTodd
“I think we’ve seen civility utilized in ways where, whenever it’s convenient for a political side, that’s who will be the champion of civility. Which I think is really dangerous, because that’s a hollow civility. That’s not really civility. It’s really that you want to quiet the other side.” -@TraceyTodd
“I think there has to be a re-acknowledgement of the fact that a fact is a fact. Two plus two always equals four. There’s not a contention as to what that is. But I think now everything has become so malleable to where we think anything is subjective, and it’s open to interpretation, when it just isn’t the case. We also have to look at these groups that are utilizing [the perceived] amorphousness of information to spread their agenda. What is the ultimate goal of misinformation and disseminating information that will be less than true? There has to be some ambition behind that.” -TraceyTodd
“Likes and those sort of approval markers have become the currency for everything from advertisers to your self-esteem for today, so you’re having people doing whatever it takes to receive those individual approval markers and whatever it takes to stand out is often appealing to more base instincts or unsavory things because it goes back to ‘If it bleeds, it leads,’ which is essentially saying sensationalism wins out every time.” -@TraceyTodd
“When you value something, you’re less likely to try to ruin it.” -@patrickokeefe
“I think the incivility is the symptom of the larger sickness, which is economic uncertainty and political anonymity, where people feel anonymous to these politicians that they’ve voted in to represent them. I think those are the core issues that fuel the incivility, the vitriol, the hate, the harassment.” -@TraceyTodd
“It’s always a mistake when companies that deal with user generated content of any kind don’t prioritize policies and enforcement of those policies early on. When they try to do it later, it is so much more difficult because the culture and the expectations have already been set. Frankly, some platforms have only themselves to blame and perhaps even selfishly so. Like the reason some of them don’t prioritize these issues is because they want to get as much traffic as quickly as they can, and they see community standards as a hindrance to that because it leads to them turning some people away. And then when they make their money and they want to be respectable, they try to change and it’s a nightmare.” -@patrickokeefe
About Tracey Todd
Tracey Todd plays a leading role at the National Institute for Civil Discourse to encourage a social media environment where Americans can not only connect and have civil dialogues about the issues facing the nation but also feel connected to creating outcomes from those discussions.
This is a partial list of links that we will complete once our transcript is ready.
- Sponsor: Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers
- Tracey’s website
- National Institute for Civil Discourse, a nonpartisan center for advocacy, research and policy, where Tracey is director of social media
- “Danger of ‘Civility’ Being Used as Pretext to Shut Down Debate” by Tim Steller for the Arizona Daily Star, where NICD executive director Carolyn Lukensmeyer commented that we haven’t seen this level of political division since Reconstruction
- Rebecca Newton, Jonathan Bailey, Lara Harmon, Elizabeth Koenig, Rachel Medanic and Sue John, all of whom contributed threat suggestions to this episode
- Community Signal episode with Andrew Losowsky of The Coral Project
- “A Guide to Crap Detection Resources,” maintained by Howard Rheingold and Robin Good
- “How CNN and The New York Times Moderate Comments” by Patrick, where David Williams of CNN commented on anonymity
- “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” by Jon Ronson for The New York Times Magazine, which Tracey cited as an example of posting something online without thinking of the actual repercussions
- Wikipedia page for censorship of Facebook, mentioning China’s censorship of the social network after it was used as a tool by activists
- OpenGov Foundation, a “fiercely apolitical non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to serving those who serve the people in America’s legislatures”
- Countable, providing U.S. citizens with concise summaries of legislation
- Hoaxy, which visualizes how claims spread through social media
- Snopes, a fact-checking website, that has been identifying untrue claims since 1994
- PolitiFact, a Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking website
- Rest in peace, Prodigy
- NICD on Twitter
00:04: You’re listening to Community Signal, the podcast for online community professionals. Sponsored by Higher Logic, the community platform for community managers. Tweet as you listen using #CommunitySignal. Here’s your host, Patrick O’Keefe.
00:24 Patrick O’Keefe: Hello and thank you for listening to Community Signal. On this episode, we’re talking with Tracey Todd about what threatens civil discourse online and what we can do about it. If you enjoy the show, please consider becoming a supporting subscriber at communitysignal.com/innercircle. You’ll receive bonus clips, early access and more. Thank you to everyone who supports the show already, including Carol Benovic-Bradley, Joseph Ranallo and Rachel Medanic. Just last night, I turned down a three to six thousand dollar sponsorship check, because the company demanded we put their CEO on the show. So, your support of our independent show is deeply appreciated.
01:03 Patrick O’Keefe: Tracey Todd plays a leading role at the National Institute for Civil Discourse to encourage a social media environment where Americans can not only connect and have civil dialogues about the issues facing the nation but also feel connected to creating outcomes from those discussions. The National Institute for Civil Discourse integrates research, practice, and policy to support and engage one, elected officials who are capable of working to solve the big issues facing our country. Two, a public that demands civil discourse as well as government that works in the best interest of the country as a whole. And three, a media that informs citizens in a fair and responsible way. Tracey, welcome to the program.
01:39 Tracey Todd: Thank you Patrick. Glad to be here.
01:41 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s a pleasure to have you. Now I’m an 80’s baby and it feels like there has never been a time in my life when civil discourse has been so bad. Do you feel that way?
01:53 Tracey Todd: I definitely feel like we’re at a crucial, critical point in time right now but I think that’s been onset by a number of factors. I think as you said, I’m also an 80’s baby but what we saw with the implementation of the 24 hour news cycle was really this ravenous need for information at all periods which then in turn, makes certain items pressing news that ordinarily wouldn’t have become top news in previous years. So I think we’ve only seen an uptick of that as information has become more available and accessible and I think that has added to the vitriol because there’s so much information.
02:36 Tracey Todd: There is so many voices and we have a number of people who are appealing to their baser instincts to really cut through the traffic. I mean one of the old adages of news is if it bleeds, it leads and we’ve seen sensationalism, vitriolic attacks constantly get superiority, supremacy in headlines. So I think that has all added to the instability crisis that we sit in now.
03:02 Patrick O’Keefe: So we don’t have the chance to take a break as much as they once did. Like there’s always information. 24 hour news cycle but also obviously the internet and independent media, I guess, as a whole which is great. I consider myself part of independent media but also there is that opportunity, I don’t know, everyone’s got their circle, right. Everyone’s got their experience so they can live in there and they have the news spun their way whether it’s right or left or something else.
03:31 Patrick O’Keefe: So I read an article where the executive director of the NICD remarked recently, “What’s really different this cycle, is eight months after the presidential election, voters who voted for one candidate or for the other are vilifying and expressing vitriol for each other. The last time that level of emotion and anger of one group of voters toward another was in Reconstruction.” So we very well may be at a historical low at least in some forms of discourse.
03:58 Tracey Todd: And you know that speaks to an important point of what’s going on in our society not just here in the United States but I think there’s been an undercurrent of populist movements that have been sort of underscored by this vitriol and the use of online tools to really spread misinformation as well as hateful and incendiary attacks using the tools of today.
04:22 Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned a populist movement. You know, personally, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this historical low in discourse also coincides with our election in the US of Donald Trump. The NICD was founded in 2011 and you’ve been involved for well over three years and it’s non-partisan but be that as it may, we have a president who objectively states obvious false hoods that can be disproven at various points both as president and especially during his campaign. He openly engaged in tactics that, in my opinion, threaten civil discourse. Things like name calling, you know, encouraging his supporters to physically attack protesters, mocking physical characteristics of his opponents and on and on the list goes. And I’ve spent my entire career beginning as a teenager, 19 years ago, telling people that the words they post online are important, powerful, and have meaning. Just like the things we say to each other face to face. And I’ve always cultivated community with a strong level of discourse and the other day I was thinking about how, unfortunately, President Trump’s spokespeople are out there kind of saying that his messages on Twitter are just tweets, right. They’re just tweets. You shouldn’t read into them as if the words he posts online are less valuable.
05:30 Patrick O’Keefe: And I see myself as non-partisan too. I mean I’m a registered independent. I vote for everybody. I vote for Republicans, I vote for Democrats, I vote for independent. If you have a good idea, I’ll listen to you. Through that lens, I see President Trump and his people kind of as a direct threat to the work I’ve done to raise discourse online for nearly 20 years to try to get people to value their words. And I really think he’s impacting discourse in a negative way. What does it say about our country and how it values and how it demands, taking from the NICD about page, “demands civil discourse” that Donald Trump is president.
06:06 Tracey Todd: What it says is a really bleak answer but I think you touched on a very important point about the president’s tweets being disregarded sort of in a flippant way that they aren’t as serious say an in person statement and I think that denies some of the credibility that we’ve all seen these online postings take as they’ve been the facilitator of violent attacks over the last decade.
06:33 Tracey Todd: As they’ve led to multiple bullying campaigns and initiatives where young people have ended up taking their own lives due to online bullying so I think to regard the tweets and social posting as nothing more than sort of these…
06:49 Patrick O’Keefe: Ramblings.
06:50 Tracey Todd: Yeah. Non-valuable statements is really dangerous and I think we’re seeing the effects of that now is we’re seeing upticks in violent attacks on marginalized groups. As we’re seeing hate actually be validated from the highest office in the country so I think we sit at a very dangerous juncture in our country and in our dialogue.
07:12 Patrick O’Keefe: And it’s just disingenuous because we could talk about all the ways discourse happens, right. We can talk about face to face, town halls, you know, how people get their news information. Newspapers, magazines, TV, radio, whatever. But, in my opinion, the internet is really powering the discourse for our country.
07:30 Patrick O’Keefe: You know, the talking points, more often than not, the things that show up on TV, the things that motivate people to action, both good and bad and terrible, are more often than not, originating from some sort of movement, real, false or otherwise, online pushing that message that’s either getting people riled up with such an array of misguided information that they go out and they commit violent attacks or it’s helping them find some good, you know, movement, that’s actually moving us forwards. But either way, the internet, in all different forms, personal websites, blogs, online communities, social media, desktop, notebook, or laptop… I sound old saying notebook. Laptop, mobile devices. Like people aren’t talking face to face anymore and I hate to say, we’re not going to go back to that. I mean people are going to get their discourse by looking at their phone. That’s how they’re going to get their discourse and so the internet’s powering all this and that’s even more of a reason for the words we post online at least people with authority to underscore how important and valuable and impactful those words can be.
08:32 Tracey Todd: Absolutely. And, like you said, the internet is powering our discourse and even beyond that, the internet is powering how we receive and how we disseminate information. So at the National Institute for Civil Discourse, our social media platforms, we use them to curate an audience online where we’re incorporating their voices through our platforms but we’re still using the tactics of precision and sort of journalism based fact finding that really respects the importance of precise information. In today’s media ecosystem, if you have a large enough social following, you essentially become the news for several thousands if not hundreds of thousands or millions of people. So here at the National Institute for Civil Discourse, we work really hard to get the facts right before we are pushing that out so that we aren’t misinforming people because we do see it as a responsibility to our audience and we may not have taken the mantle as a news provider but that is the state that we sit in.
09:42 Tracey Todd: Facebook is a news provider. Twitter is a news provider. Snapchat is a news provider and there’s a responsibility there in the messages that are spread using those platforms.
09:52 Patrick O’Keefe: I would like to take a moment to recognize our excellent sponsor, Higher Logic. Higher Logic is the community platform for community managers with over 25 million engaged users in more than 200,000 communities. Organizations worldwide use Higher Logic to bring like-minded people together by giving their community a home where they can meet, share ideas and stay connected. The platform’s granular permissions and powerful tools, including automated workflows and consolidated email digests, empower users to create their own interest-based communities, schedule and manage events, and participate in volunteer and mentoring programs. Tap into the power your community can generate for you. Higher Logic, all together.
10:29 Patrick O’Keefe: I find that there are a lot of politicians who say they want civility but who aren’t actually civil – not in debates, not with their colleagues, not in their ads. They may be civil right after they win or right after a tragedy but after that, it dissipates. Do you think that civility itself can be a buzzword that some politicians and operatives throw around for points?
10:48 Tracey Todd: Absolutely. I think we have seen it used as a buzzword and to that point, actually, before last year’s election, here at NICD, we often saw civility used in service of bringing conversation together but we often were sort of marginalized to the side of being a more liberal leaning organization because a lot of the incivility was targeted at former president Barack Obama and the Democrats and people have more liberal leanings. Now, fast forwards to the 2016 presidential election and now in 2017 we’re hearing a lot of Republican voices and voices on the right calling for civility and saying hey, these protestors.
11:34 Tracey Todd: They’re really uncivil and it’s getting out of hand. Where’s the civility? So I think we’ve seen civility utilized in ways where whenever it’s convenient for a political side, that’s who will be the champion of civility which I think is really dangerous as well because that’s a hollow civility. That’s not really civility. It’s really you want to quiet the other side so we’re working to make sure that civility and at the heart of civility like a respect and an acknowledgement of the other person’s humanity and viewpoint is the foundation so that there can be some mutual or at least agreed to disagree solutions where people aren’t agreeing that we have to go to these violent extremes to take out someone whose ideas or race or identity maybe different from yours.
12:29 Tracey Todd: It’s just something that we disagree on and that’s really at the heart of what it is to be American is diversity, this inclusion and this feeling that even though I’m different, I still have the right to exist here as well.
12:44 Patrick O’Keefe: In advance of our conversation, I put a call out asking people, “What do you think threatens civil discourse online?” I want to go through some of the responses and talk about how we can address these issues as we facilitate conversation online. Rebecca Newton mentioned adopting or promoting extremist, militant, misinformed fake news views. I had Andrew Lasowsky on the show a while back. He’s a journalist and project lead at the Coral Project which helps news outlets build better community with readers. He said, “I think that managing a community, it really comes down to what your community stands for, what are the limits of acceptability, and to what extent do you allow the community to define those. … I think your responsibility needs to be towards the community and the foundations of that. If you’re a news organization, the foundations of that will need to be around truth and facts. If it’s in a different kind of community, I think that you start to get into much trickier ground around defining whose truth, and who gets to decide what is and isn’t true. ”
13:33 Patrick O’Keefe: There are communities out there who exist to propagate falsehoods. That’s not my audience. That’s not who I speak to here on Community Signal. We have a major problem right now simply getting to agree on what is fact so that we can then discuss that fact. Instead, we’re operating on two separate “facts.” What can we do about it?
13:52 Tracey Todd: I think there has to be a re-acknowledgement of the fact that a fact is a fact. Two plus two always equals four. There’s not a contention as to what that is. But I think now everything has become so malleable to where we think anything is subjective and it’s open to interpretation when it just isn’t the case. And I think we also have to look at these groups that are utilizing sort of the malleable and amorphousness of information to spread their agenda. Like what is the ultimate goal of misinformation and disseminating information that will be less than true.
14:35 Tracey Todd: Like there has to be some ambition behind that and then once we look at that route, I think we can then begin to address it at the places where it’s having the most effect with the communities where it’s taking the most route.
14:47 Patrick O’Keefe: And I think there’s not a whole lot of nuance there and what you can do as a community manager, right. You can say these links are trustworthy and these are not. You can explain why, right. You can cite past instances of that publication being untrustworthy. Of course you can cite cases where The New York Times did something wrong or The Washington Post or any credible news outlet makes mistakes right. And so that’s kind of latched on but you can say these links are good, these links are bad and then you can kind of moderate for those. At scale that can be tough. Really, really large communities that get thousands of posts per day. Tens of thousands of posts per day. We’re not even talking about a platform like Facebook but it’s such a challenging thing because most people I know, and I know a lot of professionals in the community space, don’t want their communities to be used as a means of spreading untruth.
15:33 Patrick O’Keefe: It’s just not something they want. They don’t set out to do that. They don’t desire that. They don’t want it. They don’t even want the traffic, they don’t want the reputation, right. But there are pockets like that in many communities that might otherwise be well meaning. And so determining what is fact and what is true often does get left to members to kind of suss out because you have so many things you could dedicate resources to from a moderation perspective and that’s everything from posting things twice to people threatening to commit suicide, right. And there’s this whole kind of span of things from harmless to very dangerous that you can dedicate time towards and fact checking posts from members tends not to be at the highest scale. So I guess the best thing you can often do is provide people with education and resources. You know, Howard Rheingold who’s a respected voice in the community space has a crap detection, I think he calls it, starter kit that is basically a series of documents that speak to how you detect true and false information online.
16:33 Patrick O’Keefe: So I guess it has to still come back at some level to the person being responsible for themselves. Like you provide them with the tools and then they have to make a choice at some point what to follow.
16:42 Tracey Todd: Absolutely. And what you’re highlighting is we have more information in our pockets than we’ve ever had and we have less time than we’ve ever had so we’re making these snap judgements based on headlines. Based on memes. Based on the bare essentials of all of this information that we’re receiving so it’s being utilized in malicious ways. Ultimately, as you said, it’s on to the community builders to curate an audience that stands for fact and truth and verifiable information. But then it’s also up to the community to say hey, we want information that is able to stand up against any sort of test. Any litmus test and it’s something that we can really set our clocks by.
17:28 Patrick O’Keefe: So moving to like tactics of actual conversation with people, right. Jonathan Bailey made an interesting point. He said that people sometimes get too personally attached to their opinions. That often prompts them to turn to personal attacks and avoid civil debate because their opinion is them. They’ve made that association. What can we do about that? How can we separate that?
17:47 Tracey Todd: Wow that’s such a deep, ingrained question because what we’re talking about is really how do we separate what many people have come to form as their idea of their identity. So a lot of these ideas when they’re truthful, are not truthful. People perceive them as attacks on their identity. They feel like they’re attacks on who they are, which is earth shattering to anyone’s psychological state so which is why we would see the push back that we’re seeing now. How do we attack that? I really don’t have the answers but I think what we can do is just to create circumstances where we allow people to be truthful and honest about their feelings in a way that they won’t feel attacked or ostracized for feelings that way.
18:36 Tracey Todd: And then they’re able to make informed decisions while still holding on to a sense of self, an identity that they can feel strongly about.
18:45 Patrick O’Keefe: Because it’s easy to want people to believe like you believe but it’s a lot easier said than done. When you actually talk to people.
18:52 Tracey Todd: Absolutely.
18:53 Patrick O’Keefe: And I think from the community side of things, I think one of the things a lot of us do well and a lot of us have sorted out pretty well is just kind of an old, old thought of attacking the point and not the person and actually enforcing that on a community level where discussions occur around the point being discussed and they’re not allowed to kind of sneak into the person or venture into the person, i.e. you are this because you believe this. You lack this because you believe this. You’re thoughtless, selfish, dumb, whatever, you know. Just keep it on to the discussion and on to the points and less to the person and I think when we do that, we do two things.
19:31 Patrick O’Keefe: One we drive away people who refuse to do that which is good and bad because it’s not converting anyone but also we have to defend our communities. Like we’re not there to be everyone’s doctor or teacher or friend. But also we are then creating spaces where people can have discussions and maybe… Because I do believe that well moderated and managed online communities are sort of our last great hope for great political discourse in this country. Like these pockets of community that are well managed and I’m not talking about a platform like a Twitter or Facebook or anything but actual communities that have standards that are moderated sort of our… One of our last great hopes for anything productive online when it comes to discourse and that has to happen by us saying okay, these are the standards and we’re applying these standards and yes it’s going to make some people mad but without standards, we’re essentially just… We’re nothing. I mean if you don’t stand for something, you stand for nothing to sound, like a quote book. But it’s very true where you just attract everything and anyone and you end up driving away the reasonable people.
20:26 Tracey Todd: Well, Patrick, I’d take your quote and I will one up you another one. It brought to mind about community building and standards. There’s a quote by the famed Italian, politician and writer Antonio Gramsci where he talks about the old world is dying and the new one is struggling to be born and now is the time of monsters [Editor’s note: This quote is actually misattributed to Gramsci]. I think that’s actually applicable to today in now is the time of trolls. So it really is up to community moderators to protect the dialogue and really the way that information is spread by protecting against trolling in all of its malicious and sometimes very tactical and strategic forms that it’s taken shape in the last few years.
21:08 Patrick O’Keefe: Once upon a time when you were building community online, it was mainly just usernames and words. It wasn’t a whole lot of bells and whistles. I mean it was a lot of long posts, right. If you go back to sort of Usenet, BBS, early forums, it was usernames and their post and a lot of them were long winded. I mean that’s just the way it was. There were some short ones obviously.
21:27 Patrick O’Keefe: And then we had things like a thanks button where you could click thanks and that was your response and reputational scores on the community based on up and down votes, right. People agree, they tend to vote up. Disagree, down. That wasn’t really what you wanted when you launched that feature. You wanted people to be like oh this post is harmful, vote it down or yes, this post is really thoughtful. I don’t agree with it, but it’s thoughtful so I voted up but often times it’s not how it works out. It mostly turns into agree, disagree. And so people had those reputation scores and then we move into like microactions. Facebook’s likes. Hearts on Twitter, Instagram hearts. Even retweets to some extent. Anything with a number that you just click and it goes up one really quick. That’s the whole thing. You made a click, that’s the whole interaction. That’s your whole contribution to the conversation. And let’s just say anything that assigns points gets used at a very surface level often times and as Lara Harmon said, people start to see interactions as points to score publicly for their peer’s approval. And that’s not say that people don’t use these same microactions. These same likes and retweets to recognize good points and good discourse but it often feels like that gets drowned out and who can write the snarkiest, meanest, hottest, most gif friendly take.
22:36 Tracey Todd: And you know that that actually highlights where we are today because those likes and those sort of approval markers have become the currency for everything from advertisers to your self-esteem for today, so you’re having people doing whatever it takes to receive those individual approval markers and whatever it takes to stand out is often appealing to more base instincts or unsavory things because it goes back to the “if it bleeds, it leads,” which is essentially saying sensationalism wins out every time. And those approval markers that played a point in that advancing to where it is today.
23:20 Patrick O’Keefe: And thinking about that as a problem, obviously when we talk about things on Twitter, like those approval makers are fairly obviously gamed and that’s the thing about any sort of numbers that are tied to such simple things is that, sooner or later, people come to game them.
23:33 Patrick O’Keefe: And are successful and so you get these retweets of whatever point it might be… There are stories out there about these botnets and about just massive networks of Twitter accounts that do nothing but advance this agenda forward by retweeting these things or trying to trend these topics or whatever it may be. And as a community builder, a lot of communities are adding these types of microactions in. I think in a lot ways that’s helpful but it’s always been the problem of those reputation scores from the beginning that they will be gamed and people will use them in the way you don’t want them to. It’s such a tough problem to deal with that sort of thing because that’s where we’re at. We’re not going to take those things away at this point and there’s a lot of value in those things but it’s almost like, the value that comes with them, you always have to caution people on putting too much faith in them which then goes against people’s natural ego and instincts is to want to have that good feeling from seeing your thing retweeted or liked.
24:32 Patrick O’Keefe: And then you go back and create more content or write in a similar fashion no matter if that was civil or otherwise that then generates that same reaction over and over again and we get ourselves into a never ending cycle until we all end up in a dystopian society.
24:49 Tracey Todd: And I think the gamification aspect of it is really… It’s been used to beneficial and to not so beneficial means because I think the gaming aspect of it is really what entices people to continue using the platform so that’s why we see the expansion of these approval markers but the gamification also sort of delegitimizes some of the very serious topics and misinformation that is being spread, so it’s a catch 22. It’s essentially the tool that can be used to build can also be used to destroy.
25:25 Patrick O’Keefe: People often try to tie anonymity to civility and Elizabeth Koenig, who was a guest on the show, brought up perceived anonymity and I like that she included perceived because what we often find in community work is that civility is not usually tied to using your real name. What people think of as anonymous community is usually pseudonymous. That’s people using a username or a handle of some sort and that itself can be an identity that can be trusted or not. David Williams, who has done a bunch of community work at CNN, said something really smart once. He said that anonymous commenting isn’t the problem. The problem is when commenters feel anonymous. When people don’t feel like they’re being heard, that leads to greater incivility. Do you think that’s true?
26:06 Tracey Todd: I think it does. I mean there have been a number of instances where we can see people making these comments online and really not connecting it at all to actual, physical repercussions. I mean we can talk of any of the number of social community builders or the Justin Sacco/has Justine landed situation. I mean, any of these incidents where people were making these sort of incendiary statements and there was a sense of anonymity to those statements or that they would have no real impact and it ultimately was to their detriment.
26:41 Tracey Todd: So I do agree that people feeling anonymous has played a big role in the deterioration of the civility and the dialogue. To feel that there’s no real consequence to the words that you type as opposed to the words that you might physically say.
27:00 Patrick O’Keefe: And I think the corollary there is if you want healthy communities, then, obviously, make sure people feel heard but beyond that, the idea that people come into a community. They’re welcomed to a community. When things go wrong, you don’t just let it slide whether that’s something you have to remove content wise and let them know about it or something great that happened and you point out how great it was. The fact that they are heard leads them to having an increased investment in the space and sort of a greater feeling of worth of that space.
27:31 Patrick O’Keefe: So when you value something, you’re less likely to try to ruin it, right. You’re less likely to try to damage it and try to do bad things to it if you have derived value from it, then you want to give back to that and have it continue to be a valuable thing. I mean a lot of this anger at town halls that you see right now, in person, I think of it as being largely the result of people feeling like their voices mean nothing.
27:54 Tracey Todd: Absolutely. And you know I think at the heart of the incivility, if we really stripped down all of the tactics and the vitriol and the sort of weaponization of these harassing words through social platforms, I think we’ll see that a lot of the issues are very human where people feel like, for a long time, they felt disconnected from the political system or they may feel there’s an economic strain and that continued economic strain where they’re not being represented by the decision makers in Washington. So I think all of that fuels the incivility that may spill out onto Facebook or Twitter or Reddit or any of these platforms.
28:34 Tracey Todd: I think once we get to the root of those issues, I think we can begin to solve some of the symptoms. I think the incivility is the symptom of the larger sickness which is economic uncertainty, political anonymity where people feel anonymous to these politicians that they’ve voted in to represent them. So I think those are core issues that fuel the incivility, the vitriol, the hate, the harassment.
29:02 Patrick O’Keefe: You mentioned people being online and just viewing it online rather than being face-to-face and that’s something that Rachel Medanic mentioned when I put this call out online. The idea that they don’t connect to anything face-to-face. It’s always going to be digital. That’s the promise. The promise of the interaction always being digital. They’re just people online. Who cares? And once upon a time, I mean I met all of my close friends online first. All the people that I consider close friends who I know in person. I know their families. I mean I talk to them all the time.
29:30 Patrick O’Keefe: Like these are all people I met online and my thought, once upon a time, was like my parents had kind of viewed, “That’s just the internet.” It was after their time. My parents are not trolls, I should point that out. They just don’t bother with it, that’s all. They just don’t bother with it. They’re just like, “it’s just the internet, whatever.” My younger brother, I’m the oldest of three, his generation would see these as equal. As maybe the pinnacle of interaction just like we used to view face-to-face, like that is as meaningful as anything else. My hopes feel dashed in a way. I don’t know. Maybe that is the case. Maybe the kids are getting there but just when I look at younger demographics tied to how people vote or what resonates with people and how they get their news or information. Or how disenfranchised they are or how they view the internet. I mean my hope was that they would be further along and view these interactions as more valuable than previous generations. I’m no longer convinced. I don’t know.
30:24 Tracey Todd: They say evolution is a jagged path, so I think that we will get there and I think it’s also a sense of, at one point, the radio changed the way that people communicate and the way that media was spread and television did the same thing. I think the internet, with it being so multiple faceted, has done the same thing and people are struggling to figure out all of the different ways in which communication within this new space work and take place. And those interactions that you talked about, about building real connections through the online space are just as credible as any face-to-face interaction that you would make in the physical world but we’re just all struggling to catch up to this evolution. Our tools are evolving faster than we are as humans.
31:11 Patrick O’Keefe: You had talked about platforms and how communities and platforms bare at least some level of responsibility for the level of discourse that occurs on their platforms and just a particular nuance in that is Sue John pointed out how a lack of community guidelines and moderation means that we reap what we sow.
31:28 Patrick O’Keefe: That, in a sense, we get what we deserve when we don’t have any policies and we don’t have any enforcement arm to that. And the thing it makes me think of is that it’s always a mistake when companies that deal with user generated content of any kind – it could be text messages, it could be photos, it could be short video, whatever – but people who deal with user generated content of any kind and they don’t prioritize policies and enforcement of those policies early on and when they try to do it later, it is so much more difficult because the culture and the expectations have already been set. Frankly, some platforms have only themselves to blame and perhaps even selfishly so. Like the reason some of them don’t prioritize these issues is because they want to get as much traffic as quickly as they can and they see community standards as a hindrance to that because it leads to them turning some people away. And then when they make their money and they want to be respectable, then they try to change and it’s a nightmare. It’s a nightmare because it’s so hard to change the culture when it’s already ingrained and I don’t know how that impacts our current or relates to our current state as a democracy, but it’s so hard to change when people are used to getting away with a certain thing and we see this everywhere.
32:37 Patrick O’Keefe: We see this on Twitter probably as evidently as anywhere else online when you let things get to a certain point and then you try to reign it back in, it’s so hard and it speaks to the importance of having a strong foundation.
32:49 Tracey Todd: Absolutely. And it’s funny to hear you speak about that, because one of the key examples that came to my mind, whenever you talked about having this access and this power to spread information and then having it dialed back is a really tough road to walk, and I remember in China in 2008 [Editor’s note: It was 2009], there was a protest where Facebook helped facilitate the organization of the protest and then after that, the Chinese government banned Facebook. So I think the examples that we have of that happening are countered to the ideals of what our democracy is and we have to work to find a way to sort of re-right this ship.
33:34 Tracey Todd: I mean, there are really key issues that are driving all this nastiness in the internet and I think once we target those, we won’t completely eliminate those issues ever but I think we will see an addressing of those issues in ways where people are able to really clearly think about it and aren’t as emotionally tied to some of these outcomes and some of these statements and rhetoric. I think we have to address the underlying issues that the hate speech is symptoms of.
34:05 Patrick O’Keefe: Where do we start? What is that? Is there anywhere that you think is doing it really right now? Is it new platforms that have to spring up and have that as a priority from the start? Some try. Some fail and close. Lack of revenue, lack of resources but where would you start?
34:17 Tracey Todd: There are a number of groups that are doing really positive work in civic tech. A lot of people have really busy lives and hardly anyone has the time to really take th3 moments to really dive into what legislation means and all of the nuance of policy.
34:35 Tracey Todd: So one organization that’s doing really important work in that way, in opening up the legislation process to people so that they can understand it, so that they can see bills before they reach voting floors is OpenGov Foundation. Another organization that is working to boil down these complex laws and these very intricately written policies that are legalese, that many lawyers wouldn’t even be able to understand. There’s an organization named Countable that’s working to boil those down into speech that the average voter would be able to connect with and understand so that they’re able to be more informed as a population and thus maybe more engaged in the process. A lot of the statements of people feeling left out includes that in terms of civic education. They feel like a lot of these policies are complex. They don’t understand what they’re voting on, so then in turn, they’re turning to emotion.
35:33 Tracey Todd: Emotional intelligence and what they’re seeing and responding to in terms of emotional cues, from these legislators, but never really understanding the policies that they’re enacting and how they affect them.
35:45 Patrick O’Keefe: Say that name again.
35:46 Tracey Todd: Countable. C-O-U-N-T-A-B-L-E.
35:49 Patrick O’Keefe: Oh, Countable. Go it.
35:50 Tracey Todd: And OpenGov Foundation.
35:51 Patrick O’Keefe: You know I think a lot of our talk today has focused on sort of political discussion and nuance which is a very tough area. I’ve always told people, who don’t have a political community, to ban political discussion. Otherwise I say you know what, here’s the reality. If you run a community for sports, for example, you don’t need to be talking about the presidential election. Like it’s not worth your time. They can go to places that talk about those things but there are corollaries here. There are things you can tie to your own community, and I think no matter what we’re talking about, I want, most likely if you’re listening to this show, you want civil discourse so I think we talked in the general a lot today, but it’s really because it is sort of a thing where the specific ideas and how you attack them in your community is going to be unique to you.
36:31 Patrick O’Keefe: But just to summarize them, putting things in place that help people to understand what is fact and what is not fact, whether that’s some sort of education. Not even necessarily moderation but just education in your community about identifying truthful links and untruthful links. And then we talked about how important it is to keep people from diving into personal attacks. How important it is to have policies and set foundations. How microactions can influence that in a negative way and how you should be aware of that. How it relates to identity in your community. Not necessarily anonymity but identity. How giving people an identity of some kind, it’s not their real name but just a username, helps to increase some investment in the space. So for a lot of people, as I said at the top of show, myself included, it feels like discourse in our country is getting worse not better. That doesn’t mean we give up but being honest and recognizing those trends is important I feel but where do you find optimism right now?
37:21 Tracey Todd: Where I find optimism most is in the organizations in the civic tech space that are seeking to solve some of these very complex, Gordian Knotesque problems. Countable, OpenGov Foundation, Hoaxy, Snopes, PolitiFact, any of these organizations, as well as NICD, is working to infuse the technological capabilities of today with the very human problems that are plaguing our nation and it’s citizenry, as well. So we’re working to connect people through the technology to solutions that make sense and also build upon the foundations of what it is to be American, which is multi-faceted community, recognition of other groups as still being a part of the overall fabric of what makes the country really unique. So that’s really what gives me hope. There’s a lot of opportunity with the internet and these platforms and ultimately, I think it’s essentially a Promethean-type analogy where we have fire and we can either use it burn things up or we can use it to light the rest of the world, so really we’re at this crossroads on how we want to use the fire that is the internet.
38:39 Patrick O’Keefe: I like that. I like that Tracey. Thank you so much for coming on the show and for sharing your experience with us.
38:44 Tracey Todd: No problem. Thank you, Patrick. I also want to highlight someone who was always dedicated to fact. A very prominent American legend, Prodigy from Mobb Deep. He died yesterday so I wanted to send a shout out to him. He was tremendously impactful in my own life, so I would be remissed if I didn’t mention Prodigy.
39:04 Patrick O’Keefe: We’ve been talking with Tracey Todd, director of social media at the University of Arizona’s National Institute for Civil Discourse. You can learn more about them on their website at nicd.arizona.edu and on Twitter @NICDInstitute. You can connect with Tracey at traceytodd.com. That’s Tracey spelled T-R-A-C-E-Y. For the transcript from this episode plus highlights and links that we mentioned, please visit communitysignal.com. Community Signal is produced Karn Broad and I’ll see you soon.
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