For Dr. LeAnn Brazeal, assistant professor of communication at Missouri State University, the key to having civil discussions on the internet is simple: Just go back to the fundamentals.
“I think a lot of it is just basic good manners and things we were taught as children,” Brazeal said. “But once we sit down in front of a computer screen, we kind of forget sometimes. We often don’t think about the person on the other end of the conversation.”
Such is the trouble with online forums, where the participants are usually faceless and the opinions can be ruthless. As a result, Brazeal researched and wrote Playing Nice: Modeling Civility in Online Political Discussions, recently published in Communication Research Reports.
Brazeal and co-author Dr. Soo-Hye Han, assistant professor of communication studies at Kansas State University, set out to explore the reasons behind why people can so easily say mean things to one another in online environments. After participants read articles about obesity and gun control, they were randomly assigned to a pair of simulated Facebook-esque conversation threads. One conversation was modeled as civil, while the other was not.
Brazeal and Han found that commenters displayed tendencies to follow the leader, as the participants tended to post positive or negative comments in bunches, dependent on the format in which they were placed.
Maybe that’s not so surprising, but Brazeal pointed out one unanticipated outcome of the research.
“A bunch of them said, ‘You know what? This is the most uncivil thing we’ve seen in a really long time, and we don’t have to respond this way,’” Brazeal said. “As a scholar, that’s awesome because what we’re trying to do is help people learn how to engage more productively and solve problems.
“Knowing there are people out there who are willing to speak out and say that we need to behave in a different way gives me a lot of hope for our political process as a whole.”
What are the solutions to achieve civility in a digital age? Think about others, don’t react, temper your language and avoid classifying people into groups, she added.
“Another thing is to think about the kinds of labels we use, like from the Tea Party to people in the Democratic Party on the liberal end,” Brazeal said. “There are all kinds of clever, funny things that people say, but they’re not funny to the people who are being labeled.”
It’s simple enough. Back to basics we go.
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