Digital Centership | Challenges to Productive Public Discourse

Digital Centership | Challenges to Productive Public Discourse

The internet feels like the Wild West. Since it became available to the masses in the late 90s, there have been all manner of people racing to this vast, uncharted land to set up shop or build their own little empires – with only the bare minimum of law and order in place to prevent hijacking, looting and barn burning. “Shootouts” happen all the time between people who find themselves in conflict, and if you happen upon a group of people who find you a threat or a nuisance, they’ll run you right out of town with virtual pitchforks and torches.

Social media companies are loath to place too many restrictions on their users in the form of Terms of Service or moderation, and with good reason. First of all, it’s impossible to rule with an iron fist online. People like to challenge authority, especially on the internet – and the more rules you make, the more people will be looking for ways to bend, if not break them.

I speak from personal experience. The years I spent moderating message boards were full of incessant personality conflicts in which rules were used as weapons, and moderators were dragged into the middle of petty arguments where disagreements were conflated as infractions (at best) and outright harassment (at worst). That’s not to say that online harassment doesn’t exist. It most certainly does, and it’s one of the hottest issues for online activists today. But in an attempt to win un-winnable arguments, it’s not uncommon to see users tossing accusations of hate and harassment at one another, each trying to gain the moral high ground when their logic or facts have failed them.

The second reason most companies use a light touch with rules and moderation is, of course, is that everyone values their freedom to express themselves authentically. While social media sites are not governed by the First Amendment, no one is going to stick around and use a social medium where they aren’t able to be themselves. So companies like Facebook and Twitter have a few rules about what is not acceptable, mainly focusing on hate speech (defined as speech inciting violence), spam and extremely graphic content.

That means that the responsibility for maintaining civility, information integrity and critical thinking online lies with the billions of users logging on each day. It also means we must learn how to create, develop, sustain and moderate our own communities within these platforms; and for this, leadership is needed.

We find a huge range of ideologies and beliefs in online spaces, not to mention innumerable forms of personal expression that we may even find personally offensive or hateful. Most of us have run into people online we may have never met before ‘in real life’. Online we find people mixing across social classes, religious communities, age groups or ethnicities freely mixing and sharing their thoughts. The results can be both comical and disturbing.

In theory, this should be awesome. A free marketplace of ideas where we can test our opinions with open debate across all kinds of ideological lines should be a great way for a society to make progress. In practice, however, productive public discourse is rare. And I don’t think it’s what we’re discussing – I do believe it’s *how* we are having our discussions that is the main problem.

The challenges of online communications are many, but there are a few that I think have really contributed to the dysfunction we see in many online spaces:

Meme Culture

At age 43, I can clearly see how my own communication style has evolved over time and become far less dogmatic and harsh. Psychologists agree that part of each person’s development is a transition from black-and-white thinking as children to the kind of nuanced thinking that comes with experiencing life as it is in practical terms, rather than in the theoretical terms of a young person who has yet to be tested by many of life’s challenges.

However, because much of the interaction happening online is theoretical discussion, it’s easy even for adults who should know better to slip into black-and-white thinking, especially when it confirms their own biases. I have observed that discussions around subjects on which the majority of people involved are neither experts nor have any real practical knowledge can become the most heated and abusive.

Meme Culture is a kind of political and social commentary that attempts to reduce complex ideas to single images in order to influence others. While Memes can be a brilliant form of culture jamming, they also inherently limit nuance, and are often responsible for promoting simplistic rhetoric and creating false dichotomies.

Memes are often single images that can be used purely for comic value, or they can be designed with the specific goal of promoting a philosophy, political or religious ideology, or world view. They are rarely, if ever nuanced even on the most complex issues; yet they are among the most shared content and discussed on any social platform.

Identity Crises

Who are you online? Are you there to represent yourself personally or professionally? Is it ok to use swear words? Post a picture of yourself on a beach in a bikini? Share your political opinions? Ask your friends for business referrals? In my consulting work, this is perhaps the most difficult challenge that my clients have to overcome as they build out their digital media strategies. There is a natural blurring between personal and professional selves that happens online that makes many people deeply uncomfortable.

This leads many to create multiple profiles on multiple platforms, make aliases for themselves or self-impose complicated rules of engagement that are hard to keep up with. The problem with a lot of these ‘solutions’ is that you’re often not able to bring your whole self to any of your online profiles, and that means your authenticity will take a hit. It’s also exhausting to try to maintain so many different versions of “you”.


The speed with which online communications happens makes it difficult for busy people to keep up with things that matter most to them. Social media is demanding. The life of a Tweet is 15 minutes. Snapchat stories only last 24 hours. You snooze you lose! It can feel overwhelming; and when you do try to keep up with everything you’ll often be criticized for being glued to your phone and ignoring the people around you at work and at home.

Furthermore, there is an enormous amount of pressure to be on top of news and information as it breaks—and to respond publicly; even for people who are not part of professional news organizations. Not only that, but with the internet now in the palm of everyone’s hand, we actually can respond to events in real time.

This can lead to embarrassing situations where people are responding with outrage or sympathy to events that haven’t even happened; or that turn out to be quite different from the original breaking story after all the facts are known. Strangely, the public seems far more tolerant of missteps and misinformation than of those who appear ‘out of touch’ simply because they take pause before responding to major events.


I’m convinced that most of the hate online has less to do with the sharing of different opinions, and far more to do with the lack of relational accountability that results from internet anonymity. After all, I have members of my own family with whom I vehemently disagree on very big issues, and somehow we manage to not only tolerate one another, but actually love and appreciate one another. I’m pretty sure it’s because we know one another intimately that we are able to tolerate these differences.

A favorite exercise of mine is to imagine how I would react if a random stranger on the street approached me and said things that random people on the internet say. Sometimes the thought is hilarious. Other times, I imagine myself being arrested for assaulting that person. Because really, who would put up with half of the things people say online in a ‘real world’ environment?

Yet the internet is rife with social media platforms, comment sections and applications where users don’t need to use their real names, and never have to look another person in the face as they spew their opinions in whatever form they find self-gratifying. Any public conversation is a welcome invitation for someone to rudely interject themselves and their opinions, feeling perfectly justified in doing so. To put people in a space have absolutely no relational accountability for the things they say is a recipe for conflict.

Moral Licensing

In her book The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It, Dr. Kelly McGonigal describes a fascinating study done at Stanford University in which researchers made a series of sexist and racist comments to their subjects (Monin & Miller, 2001). The researchers then followed up with real-world scenarios in which the subjects were required to make a decision on hiring various candidates. They found that the people who responded most vehemently against the sexist and racist comments were more likely to discriminate against others based on sex and race in the hiring process.

It seems that most of us are far more interested in feeling moral than in actually seeking true moral perfection. The subjects who responded strongly against the racist and sexist comments felt that they had established their own moral superiority, and therefore exerted less rigor in analyzing their own hiring practices for sexism or racism.

We all do this. It’s a psychological phenomenon called Moral Licensing. When we do ‘good’, we convince ourselves that we are good, and that gives us license to do things that may not be so good. It can be as simple as over-eating at one meal because you took the stairs to your office that day, or a politician convincing themselves that they ‘deserve’ the expensive gifts they are receiving because they’ve given up the possibility of a lucrative career in the private sector to go into public service.

What does this have to do with communications online? I see people doing good work or fighting for a just cause that I agree with, but am regularly shocked by the form that their online interactions take, particularly when it comes to dealing with those they consider ‘opposition’ to their cause. At best disrespectful, and at worst spiteful–and even vengeful.

Just because we are working for positive change in a non-profit, or we’re an activist who has dedicated their lives to social change doesn’t mean we have a moral license to mistreat others. Anything less than the full respect for another human being in our communications is, I believe, evidence of moral licensing. We know better but we allow ourselves to mock, abuse or harass other people we disagree with because deep down, we feel we have some moral justification. We assign moral superiority to victimhood and feel justified saying or doing unkind things on behalf of ourselves or other victims of injustice.

I feel that this is especially compounded online where we don’t have to see the faces of the people we are fighting with. We reduce other people to the ‘opposition’ and feel morally justified in our cause to fight dirty.

While we may be blind to our own moral licensing, it can be very clear to those looking at our work from the ‘outside’, and makes it easy for detractors to dismiss our work. Being a leader requires rigorous self-examination, and the self-discipline to maintain a high standard of engagement for everyone – even those who you may consider adversaries.

Fundamental Attribution Error

The basic Wikipedia definition of the Fundamental Attribution Error (also known as correspondence bias) is “the tendency for people to place an undue emphasis on internal characteristics (personality) to explain someone else’s behavior in a given situation rather than considering the situation’s external factors. It does not explain interpretations of one’s own behavior, where situational factors are more easily recognized and can thus be taken into consideration.”

There is a brilliant example of this in Steven Covey’s famous book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He tells this story as part of the chapter on Paradigm Shifts, but it’s also a perfect example of Fundamental Attribution Error:

 I remember a mini-paradigm shift I experienced one morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly – some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.

Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway.  The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.

The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing. And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive as to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, “Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?”

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, “Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.”

Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, and because I saw differently, I thought differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. “Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry! Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?” Everything changed in an instant.

We have a nasty habit of assuming the worst of people and the phenomenon of Fundamental Attribution Error makes us jump to conclusions about others’ behaviors, often without any real context or first-person knowledge about their circumstances to back up our judgement.

Learning how to withhold judgment and really explore the reasons for others’ attitudes or behaviors takes effort. It’s not efficient—it can take a lot of time to overcome the barriers between humans with drastically different views and ways of doing things; but it’s not impossible. And furthermore, those relationships that must be built through perseverance and effort often turn out to be the most enriching.

Logical Fallacies

Much has been said about the use of logical fallacies in online discussion, but I think some of it bears repeating.

A logical fallacy is “an incorrect argument in logic and rhetoric which undermines an argument’s logical validity or more generally an argument’s logical soundness.” These are deployed for several reasons, but the main reason people rely on them is that they don’t understand why they believe what they believe; and in an effort to convince someone else, they must resort to various forms of intellectual dishonesty.

This is not to say that you have to be able to prove every single thing you personally believe—but it does mean that if you want someone else to believe it, you need to be able to prove it.  Using your opinions and cherry picked facts to build a case can only take you so far; and inevitably you’ll run into people who express skepticism of your views. These people are not the same as ‘trolls’ who are known for taking an opposing viewpoint simply to cause drama or harass you. People who question the statements and information you present in a reasonable way can’t just be dismissed as ‘stupid’ or ‘hateful’.

It’s a good idea to understand the reasons for the things you believe, and the limitations of your knowledge before you attempt to convert others to your point of view – politically, religiously, economically, socially or otherwise. Logical fallacies might work on some people, but they won’t work on everyone – and they especially won’t work on people who are really thinking critically about the problems they see in the world around them. Resorting to logical fallacies will undermine your credibility, and in turn, will undermine your hard work.

Bad Info

Finally, much has been written about the excess of fake news and media bias that proliferates deliberately and incidentally on social media. Conspiracy theories, half-truths, spun facts and a lack of journalistic standards on most content platforms filtered through individual influencers’ commentary means that we are forced to wade through information that is at best of no use, and at worst destroys our ability to make informed decisions. Trust is low and rapidly diminishing.

On top of that, we are simultaneously battling our own confirmation biases which makes it even harder to determine if something is true or false. Even those most committed to facts can be lured into sharing bad information if it appears to support their beliefs. Thomas Jefferson wrote that information is the currency of democracy. What do we do when our currency has been corrupted and lost value?

We face all of these challenges each day as we navigate the social web. The questions we have to ask ourselves are:

  • Who can we trust to share good information?
  • What role am I playing in making the social web better or worse?
  • Am I holding myself and others accountable for the way they are using social media?

At the end of the day, there will never be a way to force people to adhere to morals, ethics and humanity in their online interactions. The quality of engagement that we want has to be modeled by people who care about online culture and believe in it’s potential. This is not the role of agnostic digital platforms, and it will require a movement beyond a handful of popular leaders.