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Civil Discourse Online: NICD Research Brief No. 1

By July 19, 2011July 9th, 2020No Comments


Some observers expected the proliferation of digital media to expand meaningful, democratic discourse by increasing the accessibility that users of media have to diverse interlocutors. Other observers anticipated that digital media would further fragment the public sphere and that the anonymity afforded by online communication would exacerbate already present levels of incivility. Research to date is hampered by ambiguity about the meaning of civil discourse, absence of systematic comparison of online with offline political discourse, and treatment of “new media” or the “Internet” as a single entity, without attending to the diversity of technologies, practices and forms.

Empirical research yields inconsistent findings. Both offline and online, Americans tend to discuss politics with those with whom they agree. When they encounter those with differing political views online, it is usually inadvertent, but they do not necessarily seek to avoid those with differing views. People actively seek out opinion-confirming information, but do not go out of their way to avoid opinion disconfirming information. In the 2004 Presidential election, Internet users were aware of a greater range of political arguments than were non-users, when age, education, use of other media sources, and level of interest in the election were held constant. Under some conditions, engaging in online political discussion may lead to a small increase in diversity of users’ political discussion networks. Fragmented discussion taking place within ideologically homogenous subgroups may or may not increase extremist views depending on a particular group’s position on the ideological spectrum. Anonymity and incivility in online discussion may be far less prevalent than is commonly assumed. Finally, some studies suggest that when some posters in online political discussion are selected at random to moderate and rank other posters with respect to reasoned, civil discourse, the incidence of incivility is very low.

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