Ad Age | The Devil in Discourse by Dan Gardner

How Media Platforms Are Contributing To The Embarrassing State of Online Discussion

This content was originally published in Ad Age

By taking the right steps, confrontational exchanges can become constructive conversations.

No one needs to be told that online discourse can be toxic. Whether you are commenting or lurking, the discussion is often profane, stress-inducing and backed by all the facts and logic of a playground fight. According to our recent survey, conducted online by The Harris Poll among more than 2,000 U.S. adults, 70 percent of Americans feel that differing opinions in online conversations are more confrontational than constructive.

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Social psychologists have uncovered a range of causes: the anonymity of sites like Twitter and Reddit cause people to lose their inhibitions; a lack of physical and verbal cues removes the ordinary restraint imposed by politeness; and bots spewing negative comments compound the perceived permissibility of bad behavior.

Perhaps it’s time to go back to basics. The role of the media is to inform, educate and offer new points- of-view—and it should recommit to that. Discourse is a necessary and positive step to exposing people to new perspectives. But, rather than promoting healthy discourse, current media platforms actively discourage it in a number of ways:

Filtering content for users
Sites present what they think you’d like to see based on what you’ve seen before. The problem with this is that in a race for engagement, media sites tend to overdo it. Rather than suggest things you might like, along with other, more-random content, they eliminate everything else and create one-dimensional news feeds—and one-dimensional viewpoints. Our poll found that 81 percent of Americans believe online news content tends to be biased toward one point-of-view.

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Poorly aggregated content
Aggregators, like Facebook, do a poor job of presenting multiple sides of an issue. They tend to treat content as a commodity that can be pulled from anywhere and put in front of a reader, rather than a curated experience that can tell a story. This also results in homogenous feeds without alternative opinions. (Though, in fairness, the Facebook Journalism Project is a promising step that at least acknowledges the problem.)

Limited social participation on media sites
Storytelling formats in the media are often boring and formulaic. According to our poll, while 40 percent of millennials (ages 23-38) participate daily in online conversations about news and current events, less than one quarter (17 percent) of Gen X (ages 39-54) and Boomers (ages 55-73) combined do so. That’s likely because social engagement on media sites is primarily an afterthought and not a storytelling tool.

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Creating positive discourse

To escape this quagmire, we must change the way these platforms work. Social media is about creating new forms of communication and it drives media innovation. So it can just as easily foster positive discourse as facilitate our current state of rancor.

This hasn’t been a priority up until now. Technology has so far created a single tool, the emoji, that communicates emotion and empathy. The emoji is, of course, about more than just this—it’s a whole new way to engage and connect. But we also need to be able to mimic tone, body language and familiarity in a way that brings true intimacy.

Most media sites rank comments using a primitive system in which other readers upvote the ones they like. Unfortunately, the people who vote are a subsection of any audience, and they tend to prefer more noxious and divisive comments. Instead, it’s time to start using artificial intelligence to promote comments. We can build smart systems that intentionally foster discourse, but in a positive social framework.

Friends vs. acquaintances
We can also redefine the meaning of online friendships. Social media makes the assumption that you have the same opinions as your friends and want to engage with the same things.

This brings several problems. First, online social groups are too large to be an appropriate sample size for your interests. Next, people collect online acquaintances at the same level as friends, but only true friends have the ability to be honest and open with one another. Social media innovation needs to focus on distinguishing real friends—the people we respect and listen to—from people we sat next to in high school.

Lastly, news aggregators can change the way they facilitate discourse. If media sites narrow their focus to be more meaningful to an audience, aggregators can understand and work across sites to highlight a full spectrum of viewpoints when curating an experience around a topic.

Discourse trumps discord
In recent years, we have seen a massive decrease in positive discussions and a corresponding increase in mud-throwing across the political and social spectrum. As a result, we should refocus our innovation efforts to promote real exchanges of views.

We need to expose people to alternative opinions and restore a degree of randomness and sanity to our online media feeds. I believe this needs to start with both media sites and social-media platforms, but it eventually needs to trickle down to everyone. We all could use more discourse and less discord in our lives.

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