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Is Civic Media the Solution to Trolls, Misinformation, and Abuse Online?

On March 11, the John W. Kluge Center held its first public event in the Our Common Purpose Series with Kluge Prize winner Danielle Allen.

Using Civic Media to Build a Better Society brought experts on the use and misuse of media together to discuss the role of information in democratic society, the difficulties of balancing open discourse and safety from abuse, and the challenges citizens face in consuming the deluge of materials available in the digital age.

Participants began by describing what called them to study media and civic engagement. Brendesha Tynes, of the University of Southern California, said her interest in the ways that people interact online grew after she saw how frequently individuals make use of racial and gender-based epithets and slurs when able to act anonymously.

Richard Young, founder of nonprofit CivicLex, described a moment in the city council chambers of Lexington, Kentucky, when significant legislation was being considered that would impact much of the community. Despite its importance, only two people arrived to give comment on the matter, he said, both of them lawyers. Young was concerned about this lack of involvement in matters that affect the future of local communities.

Talia Stroud, of the University of Texas, talked about an experience hearing from a news executive whose organization had decided to leave comments on its news stories unmoderated. A series of stories in the publication about immigration received many racist comments. The executive was concerned, Stroud said, that allowing those comments to sit alongside the journalism was normalizing them, and helping those views move from the comment section into regular discourse.

Stroud said that intentionality is essential when creating an environment for news and discourse. Those creating the environment have to plan for the likelihood of offensive comments and decide whether they plan to moderate those comments to combat the problem, and how they plan to implement that.

Tynes pointed out the connection between far-right ideologies expressed online and their manifestations in politics in the form of extremist groups. While new forms of communication have sometimes made us more aware of extremism that already existed, increased visibility can feed back on itself, she said, normalizing more extreme expressions of online extremism like calls for genocide or removal of rights on a racial basis.

Even at the local level, Young said, misinformation is a significant problem, and can spread quickly, whether related to national political issues, or more local matters. Supporting the idea that increased polarization can have major real world impacts, Young pointed to a campaign of harassment against Lexington city council members over the summer of 2020 that resulted in systems for public comment and involvement in the legislative process being shut down for safety reasons. This created even more fertile ground for misinformation, Young said, by breaking down a system that allowed constituents to engage with their lawmakers.

Watch the full event here, and learn about some of the strategies and solutions participants hope will improve civic life with a civic approach to media.

There are still two more public events with Danielle Allen in the Our Common Purpose series. Register here for How Political Institutions Shape Outcomes and How We Might Reform Them on April 15 and Finding a Shared Historical Narrative on May 15.

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