Facilitating Respectful Online Dialogue on Controversial Issues

Anyone who’s spent time on the Internet is no stranger to trolling, cyberbullying, and online harassment. A study by the Pew Research Center found that “73% of adult internet users have seen someone be harassed in some way online and 40% have personally experienced it.” From ad hominem attacks to disseminating misinformation, one of the affordances of anonymity is the ease with which people can incite anger and derail the conversation through inflammatory, offensive or irrelevant comments.

As decision-makers increasingly recognize the importance of incorporating online citizen engagement as part of the policymaking process, they have had to contend with these challenges around negative online behaviour. In many cases, the unwelcoming and unsafe online environment deters people from contributing in a meaningful and impactful way. There is also no way to determine who the participants are – controversial issues often draw people with strong opinions who will never be impacted by the final decision. Filtering through the noise and spam poses a challenge for decision-makers, who may decide that facilitating open and transparent online dialogue is too much effort.

In the United States, conversations around challenging issues such as race, healthcare, immigration, gun control and others have emotions running high on both sides of the aisle. In Elkhart County, Indiana, county commissioners were seeking public input on a proposed rezoning to build an Immigration Detention Centre by a for-profit detentions company, which would house up to 1,400 immigrants being held and facing possible deportation.

In the Goshen News: Commissioner sets up online poll, survey for immigrant detention center issue

While county commissioners had received hundreds of emails and social media comments about the issue from people all across the country, they were specifically interested in the opinions of residents within Elkhart County – those they were elected to represent. PlaceSpeak’s unique geo-verification technology enabled them to limit responses to residents and observe the distribution of participants across different parts of the County. Within a week of its launch, the issue had garnered significant attention with over 5,200 page views and 780 participants.

Despite the contentious nature of the project, the online discussion is a far cry from what most people have come to expect online. (For example, the discourse on many media sites has become so toxic that outlets are choosing to disable or remove commenting features entirely.) In this case, while community members reflect a diversity of perspectives, they have come to engage respectfully with decision-makers and amongst themselves. The following practices have contributed to reasonable dialogue from participants on all sides of the issue:

Authentication of participants: While debate about whether technology is dehumanizing continues, there is no doubt that anonymity has made it easier perceive the other party (be they other humans, or increasingly, bots) as a faceless entity. People make comments online which they would never say in a face-to-face interaction. Authentication acts as a deterrent. As participants have to verify their address prior to engaging, participants know that they are responding to and communicating with other community members. Even if they do not personally know the other participants, the reminder that there is a real person on the other end disincentivizes negative behaviour.

Reducing anonymity: Studies on the psychology behind trolling point to the effects of deindividuation. In anonymous contexts, people have a reduced sense of personal responsibility and feel comfortable partaking in behavior that deviates from the norm. Through the authentication process, people are expected to be accountable and take responsibility for their comments. Even though PlaceSpeak allows users to determine their own privacy settings once they have been authenticated, less than 5% of PlaceSpeak users choose to be publicly anonymous.

Active hands-on engagement: There is a common perception that the public input process is just for show, and that the decision has already been made. Under those circumstances, participants don’t think that it’s worth engaging sincerely and respectfully, because nothing that they say will make an impact on the outcome. County Commissioner Mike Yoder actively engaged with community members by responding to their questions and concerns in a timely manner. He took a genuine interest in what participants have to say; in turn, they continued the conversation without resorting to ad hominem attacks or slurs. When participants can see that decision-makers are genuinely open to feedback, they are more likely to respond in good faith.

Establish clear guidelines: Everyone will have a different expectation of what is acceptable behavior online. It’s important to define exactly what will and will not be tolerated. For example, PlaceSpeak has established a moderation policy which outlines the principles by which comments will be reviewed. Once the guidelines have been made public, it is important to enforce them and remind participants of what is appropriate in the discussions. By establishing these norms, participants will quickly understand the best way to contribute to a healthy and lively discussion.

See the Immigration Detention Centre consultation here.