Building a Stronger Democracy Through Civility
Each year during election season, an uptick in political content circulates online. David E. Silva, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Schools of Communication Studies and Emerging Media and Technology at Kent State University, is studying online conversations and shedding light on how online civility plays a role in building a stronger democracy.
“I think the heart of what I’m trying to do with my research is to look at how online discussion changes how the public thinks about normal behavior,” Silva said. “And that is played out in a bunch of different ways. When you add the technology layer on top of it and the data layer on top of that, it gets a little blurry.”
Silva’s research lives in that blurry area of tension, understanding the motivations of users and how they engage in political discussions.
“I really wanted to know how these types of comments are understood by American readers. An early piece published looked at the difference between mockery and insults. They are two different tools in our rhetoric and our language, but they're read differently by different people,” Silva said. “For some, to make an insult is appropriate when it's within their in-group. For others, not so much. In those cases, the same words have different meanings to different readers.”
Now Silva’s research focuses on the concept of online civility and the current state of our democracy. Silva says democracy empowers citizens to self-govern. But, he says, civility must be in the conversations surrounding that.
“Right now, we're at a place where what makes for a good society is debated.” Silva said.
A common misconception is that disagreeing with something and something being uncivil are the same. Silva wants to clear up this confusion.
“You can hate that comment, but you shouldn’t be expecting that Facebook is going to ban that person for that particular comment,” Silva said. "There are other things that are said very politely but are extremely uncivil like, ‘Oh your type of person shouldn’t be allowed to vote,’ that can be said in a rosy polite kind of way but is pressing to remove the democratic rights of another citizen.”
Silva was quick to explain that this isn’t a pass for people to post unkind words online, just a way of understanding the complexities of online conversation and what areas we need to focus on most.
“What comments are bad for democracy, versus what comments are unkind? Of course, we don’t want to be living in an unkind society or an impolite society, but kindness and politeness are defined in cultural communities. Students have a different idea of politeness than professors. We see tensions there, but it wouldn't necessarily be called incivility. It’s just a disagreement about how we should be engaging in a polite or kind way,” Silva said. “When you understand what comments are bad for democracy versus what things are just unkind, you have this hierarchy of ‘What do we need to tackle first?’ versus ‘This might hurt your feelings, but it's not dangerous for the collective good.’”
Silva previously studied group and online conversation. His team examined how political affiliations influenced the participants' perception of the content. In experiments, they would switch names and profile pictures to make the people appear more left or right leaning. At the end, their team found that political identity played a large role.
When talking about politics, it is important to not only talk about the extremists, but those who fall somewhere in the middle. Silva pointed to research about ambivalence.
"Someone who is highly ambivalent has strong emotions, has thought about this, and is probably pretty well informed," he said. "We actually know that more information increases ambivalence, but they're less likely to post something publicly. So, those people who are conflicted are already removing themselves from the public conversation.”
With so many conflicting opinions, it’s likely impossible to create a perfect platform. Silva recommends redirecting conversation from large discussion threads to more intimate spaces to foster real conversation.
“Even if we had a perfect platform, we still need to be having actual conversations with people and getting off this walled garden of whatever TikTok thinks is appropriate to share. And then moving those into discussion spaces where we can develop our own rules, our own norms, our own community and form our own ideas, organize and advocate,” Silva said.
Fostering real conversations isn’t always easy. With the holidays approaching soon, Silva has a few recommendations for having tough conversations with family members.
“I think my recommendation is first to think about the relationship. If this is a family member that you see once a year and this is the only conversation with them, it’s unlikely that either of you will be effective in changing attitudes or like hashing to issues,” Silva said. "I think you don't have to grandstand and combat in the same way. I think it's more effective to build a relationship, and if this is someone who you truly want to change their mind, you need to have conversations more than once a year.”
Having these conversations takes effort, but Silva is hopeful that they will contribute to a stronger society.
“It's creating deeper conversations with actual human connections,” Silva said. “And that can happen online, that can happen digitally, but I think that's where you can have the most fruitful discussions.”