Discourse in the Digital Age

Talia Stroud, Center for Media Engagement, University of Texas at Austin

Credit: Rami Al-Zayat

It’s easy to have a nostalgic vision of what public discourse could be; think about the romanticized version of robust dialogue in Parisian salons of the 18th century or the democratic back-and-forth among citizens in town hall meetings characteristic of the early American republic. In modern times, digital public discussions seem to pale in comparison: bombastic, poorly reasoned, partisan, and uncivil content seems to reign.

To be fair, these comparisons ignore substantial . Yet the consequences of poor public discourse warrant attention regardless of the era. Research documents that incivility and antagonism in the public square can and in news, among other democratically worrisome consequences. A polarized public that distrusts sources of information is primed for manipulation and gridlock.

In an era where much of our public communication takes place digitally, why don’t we see better discourse online? If democracy functions better with reasoned public discussion, shouldn’t we see wide-ranging efforts to create digital spaces that foster this form of conversation? Today, organizations are doing some of this work, but it isn’t enough.

One reason fostering healthy online discourse may not be highly prioritized is that these efforts do not necessarily align with business objectives — and most of our digital life is dictated by for-profit businesses. Ultimately, engagement is a key business metric, and if polarizing content and partisan attacks result in more engagement, why would corporations prioritize cultivating vibrant spaces for civil and productive public discussion?

While it is true that business and democratic goals can conflict — celebrity gossip can drive clicks but undermine the ideal of an informed citizenry, and a detailed voting app can have the best of civic intentions and yield no clicks — they don’t have to. This is a key insight from what the at the University of Texas at Austin has been learning about digital spaces. For organizations with a civic pulse, figuring out how to advance both democratic and business outcomes is paramount. Fortunately, scholars have been investigating strategies for improving digital spaces. Below, I outline a few steps forward by considering how digital features, people, and words influence the quality of online discussion.

We know that the quality of our public discourse could be improved. We can, and should, expect higher quality conversation spaces. And we know there are steps that platforms, newsrooms, and scholars can take to help do this work.

Today, we know that the features available in digital spaces can influence how people engage with content. We know that the ways can influence whether people leave thoughtful comments. Communication scholars, Kokil Jaidka, Alvin Zhou, and Yphtach Lelkes, for instance, found that , it resulted in healthier online conversations. Platforms also have options for how to hande content that may not be in line with the space they want to cultivate. Google, for instance, has been , to detect content that people perceive as toxic. Organizations like The New York Times and the Coral Project’s platform have been incorporating this algorithm to improve comments.

People can also affect the bounds of public discourse online. In one project, the Center for Media Engagement worked with a local television news station to understand . We found that when a popular political reporter got involved by contributing to the comment section, incivility declined by around 15 percent and people were also about 15 percent more likely to provide evidence for their claims. Citizen groups, such as the German #, work to improve the status of digital discourse by intervening in news comment streams on social media.

We also know that word choice in digital spaces has a direct influence on behavior. Telling people to leave a comment to “enrich the discussion” and encouraging them to make their contributions constructive are elements of . In our work at the Center for Media Engagement, we found that , instead of a “Like” button, people were more likely to behave against their partisan inclinations. We detected patterns where people “Respected” content that disagreed with their views, and there was no reduction in the amount of engagement.

We know that the quality of our public discourse could be improved. We can, and should, expect higher quality conversation spaces. And we know there are steps that platforms, newsrooms, and scholars can take to help do this work. Even more, the business reasons to avoid doing it may not make sense in the long run, as the public awakens to the negative individual and societal consequences of social media. The increased media and societal attention to the detrimental effects of social media, for example, could result in audiences changing their habits and spending less time with these platforms. Even if polarizing content grabs eyeballs today, it seems a fair bet that this won’t work in the future. Finding ways to create democratically beneficial and commercially viable places for online discourse is key.

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Natalie (Talia) Jomini Stroud (PhD, University of Pennsylvania) is on the faculty of the Department of Communication Studies and the School of Journalism and the founding and current Director of the in the Moody College of Communication at The University of Texas at Austin. The Center for Media Engagement examines commercially viable and democratically beneficial ways of improving media. Stroud’s research has received numerous national and international awards, including the International Communication Association’s prestigious Outstanding Book Award for her book Niche News: The Politics of News Choice. Stroud twice received the Outstanding Faculty Member Award from the Communication Studies Graduate Community.

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