Civility Online – Why are you hurting America?

When Jon Stewart appeared on CNN’s Crossfire, he essentially brought that show to an end, with the admonishment:

And I made a special effort to come on the show today, because I have privately, amongst my friends and also in occasional newspapers and television shows, mentioned this show as being bad …

And I wanted to — I felt that that wasn’t fair and I should come here and tell you that I don’t — it’s not so much that it’s bad, as it’s hurting America. … Stop, stop, stop, stop hurting America.

Since then, I’ve been thinking how do the major media online news sites get their Jon Stewart moment for the incivility they are fostering (by poor design, perhaps not intent) with online news commenting. It is not that I expect partisan blogs to be civil, I don’t. But with major media hosted online points that connect people in local and national conversations across political lines, I expect far more than a virtual civil war among partisans. I expect some attention to quality, impact, and democratic mission of a free press.

With the tragic shootings in Arizona, the cause and motivations aside, the acidic and vitriolic nature of online (and broadcast media-based) exchange has hit the center stage. The New York Times noted:

What’s different about this moment is the emergence of a political culture — on blogs and Twitter and cable television — that so loudly and readily reinforces the dark visions of political extremists, often for profit or political gain.

Whether in conversations with online news professionals or the session on civility that I hosted in DC at Public Media Camp, I’ve noted an earnest, “It is a disaster. We know we need to do better. But how?” response. Again, let the partisan blogs have their echo chambers, but for online sites that seek to contribute to the whole of democracy across the political spectrum it is time to step up.

To that end, I am circulating a call widely for a “Civility Online” virtual conference and possible webinar specifically to connect online news and social media hosts interested in enhancing civility with effective techniques, approaches, tools, and technology to make improvements across the field. Sponsors are being sought to make this possible. Note the interest among the dialogue and deliberation crowd. Contact us if you would like to help sponsor this or contribute in some way.

In terms of’s experience, we use real names and have a simple ban on name calling. We accept that this requires the subjective role of a volunteer forum manager as we feel the democratic community benefit from strong civility with issue-based discussions is far greater than the backlash from those who think the freedom of any one individual to attack people or groups with name calling and insults trumps that benefit. Most media sites avoid real names (one reason Facebook is eating their interactive lunch) and they are concerned about the resources it takes to truly facilitate in an active way rather than react to just the most abusive posts. The problem is as the 2% of the most vitriolic take over commenting on a site, everyone else leaves.

To build on this theme, see my recent 14 minute speech on “Local Matters, Civility Matters, Inclusion Matters” (slides only here) is now available in video from the UK-based Guardian (see more speeches from other keynote speakers like the CEO of Google, Clay Shirky, etc.) :

My remarks calling for greater civility were controversial because they run counter the cyber-libertarian myth that it is a good thing that no one knows you are dog on the Internet. (No wonder some people then act like animals.) It led to an interview with the Guardian’s podcast and a live radio interview a few weeks later on BBC Radio 4.

Lastly, I’ve seen this problem taking root for over a decade and here is an excerpt from my speech “Democratic Evolution or Virtual Civil War” in 2003.

Join the revolution? I don’t believe the Internet is inherently democratic. To me, most people and organizations are fundamentally anti-democratic by nature. Many of those in power and those clamoring for power are self-centered actors. They operate within the miracle we call representative democracy. Most accept the idea that democracy is good, but these actors do little to ensure its strength.

After a decade working directly with e-democracy issues, I’ve concluded that “politics as usual” online may be the tipping point that finishes off what television started – the extinction of democracy and democratic spirit.

Those hoping for an almost accidental democratic transformation fostered by the information technology will watch in shock from the sidelines as their favorite new medium becomes the arsenal of virtual civil war – virtual civil wars among partisans at all levels.

When I open e-mail from all sorts of American political parties and activist groups, I see conflict. I see unwillingness to compromise.

Let’s be optimists and suggest that the Net is doubling the activist population from five percent to ten percent. The harsh reality is that we are doubling the virtual soldiers, an expendable slash and burn online force, available to established political interests.

As the excessive and bitter partisanship of the increased activist population leaks into the e-mail boxes of everyday people, I predict abhorrence of Net-era politics among the general citizenry. I fear the extreme erosion of public trust not just in government, but also in most things public and political.

Instead of encouraging networked citizen participation that improves the public results delivered in our democracies, left to its natural path, the Internet will be used to eliminate forms of constructive civic engagement by the other 90 percent of citizens. A 10 percent democracy of warring partisan is no democracy at all.

Compounding the problem, the billions of Euros in e-government focus almost exclusively on one-way services and efficiency. Government makes it easy to pay your taxes online – while doing little to give you a virtual – anytime, anywhere – say in how those taxes are spent. Many elected officials are turning off their e-mail for citizens, leaving it on for lobbyists to reach their staff directly, and building what I call “Digital Berlin Walls” of complicated web forms. One-way “e-governments” based on efficiency to the exclusion of “two-way” democracy are the norm. Unfortunately, most governments are saying e-services first, democracy later.

In summary, online political strife combined with governments that are incapable of accommodating our public will present a dark future for democracy in the information age.

Join the democratic evolution!

Everything I’ve just said contrasts dramatically from the exceptional experiences of citizen groups and governments leading the way with the best e-democracy practices.

Everyday in Minnesota, I experience the power of online discourse among citizens. I am impressed by online innovations in many parliaments and government agencies. And I’ve been inspired by the online activism of many groups.

However, we have an enemy. It is not “politics as usual.” They must compete to survive. Our enemy is our indifference to our generational democratic obligations. We have a duty to make the most honorable use of the unique information age opportunities before us.

We have a choice, we can strategically use ICTs to improve our communities, strengthen society, and address global challenges or we can ride the ICT-accelerated race to the post-democratic bottom.

It is time to give more than lip service to e-democracy experiments, research, and best practices.

It is time to bring the democratic intent and values required to make the demonstrated possibility of the new online medium a universal reality.

Build the democratic evolution!

To make what is possible probable, the time for action has arrived.

The new media, led by the Internet, must be used to help us meet public challenges. It must be used to transform anti-democratic states and break apart hyper-partisan and unresponsive politics at all levels. We must be smarter, faster, and more committed than “politics as usual.”
More: Democratic Evolution or Virtual Civil War

So what should we do about civility online?

7 thoughts on “Civility Online – Why are you hurting America?”

  1. You go, Steve! Wonderful idea. Count NCDD in as a partner. We can help with outreach to the dialogue & deliberation community, and possibly with content – depending on what you plan (we can help identify speakers, planning team members, etc.). This is a particular interest of mine, so just let me know what’s needed.

    Sandy Heierbacher
    Director, National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD)

  2. You go, Steve! Wonderful idea. Count NCDD in as a partner. We can help with outreach to the dialogue & deliberation community, and possibly with content – depending on what you plan (we can help identify speakers, planning team members, etc.). This is a particular interest of mine, so just let me know what’s needed.

    allthings b2b | social b2b marketing

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