The widespread adoption of the internet over the last two decades has ushered in an era of democratized media. Having knowledge and information accessible to the greatest number of people at any time in history is certainly a marvelous development for global human society. But the democratization of media has presented us with a new set of challenges.
First, the American public finds itself in an information crisis. The sheer volume of information we consume today is overwhelming, even for the most discriminating media consumer. News, opinion and entertainment is coming to us at light speed, giving us only seconds to react to ideas and stories that have deep intellectual, spiritual or political import. In the past, where we may have spent time reflecting on these issues, the widespread adoption of social media has us poised to respond with emotion-infused knee-jerk reactions informed almost exclusively by our biases within seconds of consuming new information.
Furthermore, while we struggle to process this excess of information, the wisdom and expertise of professional journalists, teachers and intellectuals has been drowned out by a cacophony of self-proclaimed subject-matter experts and citizen journalists, none of whom have any professional or ethical obligation to preserve the integrity of the information they share. Individual users can now create media micro brands and influence public opinion that rivals those of professional media organizations. In this murky environment, even terrorist organizations and criminal operations have been able to achieve a veneer of legitimacy.
This environment is where the masses are getting their information.
According to a 2016 report by Pew Research Center about News Use Across Social Media Platforms:
A majority of U.S. adults – 62% – get news on social media, and 18% do so often… Two-thirds of Facebook users (66%) get news on the site, nearly six-in-ten Twitter users (59%) get news on Twitter, and seven-in-ten Reddit users get news on that platform.
What is most concerning about this trend is that many users of social media are unable to differentiate between authentic, verifiable information and what is now being called ‘fake news’. The media site Buzzfeed did an analysis on the kind of news people were sharing on social media during the 2016 presidential election and found an alarming trend:
In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News…During these critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyper-partisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. Within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.
Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Information is the currency of democracy.” The information and engagement on social media are having real world impact that we simply cannot afford to ignore. American society is now inundated with media, yet there is almost no effort to ensure the voting public has basic media literacy skills. The currency of democracy has been corrupted.
Fear and Loathing Online
These online communities where the majority of Americans are getting their news are intense hives of discussion where the loudest, strongest, often most vitriolic people set the tone and interpret the facts for others. Information takes precedence over humanity and it is not uncommon to see high-level conversation around the loftiest of subjects devolve into name-calling and rhetoric. The intellectual bastions of critical thinking and thoughtful debate have been effaced by even those in leadership positions. It is not uncommon to see elected officials, academics and celebrities exchanging abuses online.
Interestingly, those who disparage the lack of civility on social media platforms display a lack of personal responsibility for contributing to an unhealthy online culture. An ongoing poll titled “Civility in America” (Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research) found in 2016:
Nearly all Americans, 95 percent, say civility is a problem, with three-quarters (74 percent) saying civility has declined in the past few years and two-thirds (67 percent) saying it is a major problem today. In the online poll conducted among 1,005 adults 18 years and older from January 7 to 14, 70 percent also say that incivility in this country has risen to “crisis’ levels, up from 65 percent in 2014.
Asked to identify the groups contributing most to the lack of civility in society, both likely voters and the overall public cite politicians, the Internet/social media and the news media as the top three sources – each being named by more than half the respondents.
We Are The Media
More people can make and disseminate media than at any other point in human history. At the same time, distrust in the media is at an unprecedented high. These two phenomena are not unrelated.
We blame “The Media” for the lack of online civility, but we fail to recognize that because media has become democratized, we the people are “The Media”. No longer are we passive consumers. We all are making media every day through our content and comments in digital spaces.
It is true that social media platforms employ algorithms that make it more likely to see information that confirms our biases. This has been widely discussed and documented by communications experts and again speaks to the need for greater media literacy for the general public. (Media literacy meaning not just knowing how to identify good information, but how to actually use social media to our benefit, rather than passively consuming whatever is served up to us.) However, many users knowingly self-select and construct their ideological bubbles because challenging our deeply held beliefs is hard. It’s a painful process, made even more difficult in a harsh environment where the opposition is free to be abusive. Really understanding opposing viewpoints online requires engaging with people who will say awful things about you and your ideals. It’s a lot easier, and a lot more fun to stick to your own on the internet.
Today’s digital media landscape is a recipe for a total communication breakdown from which no society could be expected to survive. However, it is also an opportunity for real leadership to bring their knowledge and expertise to overwhelmed citizens who desperately need to make sense of the issues on which they are expected to contribute.
Yet, many of the brightest minds and most authentic thought leaders shy away from engaging online around the very subjects where they have real expertise. Part of the reason is that there is a lack of familiarity with the unique social environments and platforms where these conversations are taking place. But a large part of their aversion to social media engagement is because they see the extreme vitriol that has taken hold on public discourse in digital spaces–from which no one is immune.
A Leadership Vacuum
Efforts at building leadership in digital spaces have focused almost exclusively on creating a few ‘power users’ that wield influence over huge numbers of ‘followers’. Many of these ‘leaders’ have succumbed to bad communication practices (either through their own lack of ability or by being influenced by the hostile environment they find themselves in…or both).
Today, online leadership spends much of its time reinforcing itself, building influence by prioritizing issues over people. Some of this influence is used for the common good (social justice activism or fundraising for causes), while others use it to market themselves and their ideas. Still other ‘leaders’ use influence for more nefarious purposes like manipulating voters or reinforcing hierarchies that oppress. Still, influence of any kind online must take positions that are loud and polarizing (often with hyperbolic posturing) in order to win the fight for attention online.
Witnessing the general lack of respect for fellow citizens–even those who have made great contributions to our society–has caused many intelligent and sensitive people to reject social media as a platform for sharing their ideas, knowledge and wisdom, leaving a vacuum that bad actors and unqualified pundits are happy to fill.
There is a desperate need for digital leadership that leads from the center.
We need Digital Civics.
Digital Civics is a form of leadership that exists in online spaces (sometimes exclusively, sometimes in relation to offline leadership) and positions the leader at the center of the diverse community of people to whom they are related. This is a conscious effort by dedicated individuals to reshape public discourse, and to set high standards for digital communications across a broad range of subjects and issues.
What digital civic leadership does:
- Builds and curates a healthy digital community in which they are centrally located.
- Leads by example.
- Acts as a gracious host for community engagement.
- Facilitates healthy discussions and productive disagreements.
- Sets a clear standard for engagement in their community.
What digital civic leadership does NOT do:
- Builds consensus.
- Acts or speaks in a duplicitous way.
- Tries to please everyone.
- Ignores or shuts down disagreements.
Digital civic leadership is defined by leaders who can serve as guides, educators and facilitators—not only in their own areas of expertise–but in productive online engagement that employs emotional intelligence.
We need leaders who know how to navigate digital spaces and harness the benefits of social media for real world impact. Leaders with a strong identity, a clear voice the ability to manage online conflict. Leaders who are committed to lead by example and to master social listening so that they can speak to the real concerns of even their detractors.
This is not about ‘getting more followers’ or building mass movements that can battle other mass movements. It is about transforming online culture by infusing humanity into digital spaces. Healthy online leadership means building influence through person-to-person engagement that honors pluralism and prioritizes education, truth and productive disagreement.
Real, human communications are never easy. They require discipline, conscious decision-making and patience. It is the lack of these very things that have brought American society to where we are today: conflicted, frustrated and unable to work together when we need to the most.
Healthy digital civics will not emerge on its own. It must be consciously cultivated and supported through a network of leaders who all agree on a set of principles to which they will hold themselves and one another accountable.
For a cultural shift to occur online, it must start with a small number of determined, passionate people willing to prioritize the greater good over their own selfish pursuits or the short term, superficial gains of web traffic, likes and media coverage.
We at the Institute for Digital Civic Culture envision a national network of professionals, educators and subject-matter experts who agree on core principles of productive digital engagement and are committed to support one another as leaders in transforming digital culture into a place where intelligent conversation, healthy conflict and rigorous truth-seeking are valued.
Beginning now, we are seeking leaders in various fields who can bring both subject-matter expertise and emotional intelligence to digital spaces, so that we can provide them with the tools, training and community support they need to transform digital culture for the betterment of global society.
Are you ready to lead online?
Learn more about the Institute for Digital Civic Culture where it is currently housed, at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California.