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Difficult Conversations in the Modern Era of (Anti-) Social Media


Virtually everyone in our field knows about the wonderful book, Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen.  It focuses on everyday conversations and not just crystalized disputes.  It describes how people can better understand what is (and is not) happening in their interactions, identify erroneous assumptions, manage strong emotions, and recognize the effect of people’s self-image.  In particular, it advises people how to reduce defensiveness, listen for others’ meaning, constructively respond to attacks, and engage in productive problem solving.

Recent events show that our social problems are exacerbated by a wide variety of anti-social media behaviors.  We need good difficult conversations now more than ever, so we need to figure out ways to minimize these problematic behaviors and the damage they cause.

Vicious Political and Social Conflict

Liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote that “We live in two Americas.  In one America, a mentally unstable president selected partly by Russia lies daily and stirs up bigotry that tears our social fabric.  In another America, a can-do president tries to make America great again as lying journalists stir up hatred that tears our social fabric.  The one thing we all agree on:  Our social fabric is torn.  In each America, people who inhabit the other are often perceived as not just obtuse but also dangerous.”

He continues, “This is not to equate the two worldviews.  I largely subscribe to the first, and I’m a villain in the second.  But I do believe that all of us, on both sides, frequently spend more time demonizing the other side than trying to understand it, and we all suffer a cognitive bias that makes us inclined to seek out news sources that confirm our worldview.”

Mr. Kristof cites research showing that people who are best able to analyze public policy data “are not experts or even intelligence officials with classified information, not liberals and not conservatives, but rather those instinctively empirical, nonideological and willing to change their minds quite nimbly.  The poorest marks go to those who are strongly loyal to a worldview.”

He concludes, “It should be possible both to believe deeply in the rightness of one’s own cause and to hear out the other side.  Civility is not a sign of weakness, but of civilization.”

Similarly, his conservative colleague, Bret Stephens, criticizes the process in which too many people accuse others first and gather evidence later, reflexively feel insulted and indignant, and have a “hair-trigger instinct” to belittle and humiliate political rivals.  He writes, “It’s fair to say that Americans of different ideological stripes feel that many things have gone profoundly amiss in our social and political life in recent years.  We all have our diagnoses as to what those things are.  But one of them, surely, is that we are rapidly losing the ability to talk to one another.”

Our political differences these days reflect polarized “bubbles.”  I suggested that most of us probably live in “bubbles of geography, class, religion, ethnicity, and social worldviews.  These bubbles are related to people’s residence in rural, suburban, or urban areas.”  Reactions to the 2016 election and its aftermath have intensified the red-blue tribal conflict in the US.

Bitter conflict is not limited to people warring with the “other side.”  Some harsh attacks are on people who are supposedly on the “same side,” as described in an article by New York Magazine writer Jonathan Chait, commenting on interactions between feminists about the #MeToo Phenomenon.  Focusing on a controversial article by Katie Roiphe, Mr. Chait says that Ms. Roiphe’s “complaint about the tenor of discussion, and the way in which angry and extreme rhetoric crowds out more nuanced thought, has some merit.  Social media has made this dynamic more acute — not only in feminism but across the political culture, which has grown more polarized into communities in which the most strident iteration of the community’s shared belief is assumed to be the most authentic.”

Mr. Chait says that a “disagreement about power, and who has it, has formed the main basis for the argument between Roiphe and her critics.”  He argues that “The real issue she identifies is not oppression.  It is the increasing popularity of the strident discourse found on social media, in which the truth is seen within the community as fixed, and opponents motivated by evil.”

He says that the “call-out culture [of harsh criticism] is not something women are inflicting upon men, or the left is doing to the right.  It is something the left is doing to itself.  It is increasingly adopting norms and protocols of discussion that treat debate and deliberation as unnecessary or threatening.  In these subcultures, which are mostly found in academia and online, but also sometimes in regular politics, the most left-wing position is axiomatically associated with oppressed groups, and any criticism of it with privilege.  Any further search for truth or examination of the facts of a given case is superfluous, and an ever-expanding list of buzzwords can be deployed to categorize and foreclose any conceivable objection: it is #whitetears or #notallmen or #whiteinnocence or #mansplaining, etc., etc.”

He continues, “The issue isn’t that the many women who are telling Roiphe they’re afraid to share their views on sexual harassment are being oppressed.  The issue is that the left is being denied the opportunity to hear their perspective, to probe its own case for weaknesses.  Progressives should take the fear Roiphe is describing more seriously for what it says about their movement’s internal health and long-term prospects.”

Problems of nasty internal conflict are not limited to the left.  For example, strong supporters of President Trump and conservative NeverTrumpers regularly taunt each other.  For example, at the recent conference of the Conservative Political Action Conference, several conservative speakers were heckled and at least one needed security officials to protect her from hecklers.

A recent This American Life episode, Words You Can’t Say, illustrates the harsh condemnation that people sometimes experience from people on “their side.”  This episode tells two stories.  One is about Laci Green, a “famous YouTuber and sex educator” who got harassed on the internet.  The other story is about Dodie Horton, a “dyed-in-the-wool, glock-toting, blood-red Republican” Louisiana state legislator.  Her Republican colleagues accused her of trying to take away Second Amendment rights by sponsoring a bill to ban fake guns in schools (even though there already was a law prohibiting real guns in schools).

Modern (Anti-)Social Media

Extreme and unfair social attacks aren’t new, but modern social media make them exponentially worse.  For example, some revered founders of our nation spread scurrilous smears against their political rivals through anonymous pamphlets.  More recently, gossip columns, tabloid publications, and election campaign ads have done a lot to poison our social environment.

Today, the vast online environment creates seemingly infinite opportunities for anti-social media behavior.  “Viral” social media attacks can reach millions of people in an instant.

Noam Ebner writes that “Its positive characteristics and opportunities notwithstanding, the Internet has become something similar to a bad neighborhood after dark. … Even as the Internet has developed into a global library, a world of potential and a connecting media allowing meaningful interactions between everyone on the planet, it has become a hunting ground for predators looking for prey.”

Ethan Katsh and Orna Rabinovich-Einy describe an array of anti-social media behaviors including intentional acts of “harassment, invasion of privacy, communicating false information, accusations, criticisms, bad reviews, [and] threats.”  They analyze this in Chapter 5, The Challenge of Social and Anti-Social Media, of their book, Digital Justice: Technology and the Internet of Disputes.

Here’s a partial catalog of some social media horrors.

The recent indictment of Russian individuals and entities charged with attempting to subvert American elections illustrates how trolling has been “weaponized” on an industrial scale.

Russia is executing a strategy specifically designed to sow distrust in the US.  This not only applies to our election processes but also to our political culture generally.  In the wake of the recent school shooting in Florida, Russian bots immediately were deployed to spread conflicting messages about gun policy.  “The bots’ behavior follows a pattern, [one expert said].  The bots target a contentious issue like race relations or guns. They stir the pot, often animating both sides and creating public doubt in institutions like the police or media.”  Indeed, Russians may purposely leave clues of the identities of their bots precisely to spread fear of their interference.

Social media have made possible the incredible explosion of fake news, which is “a type of yellow journalism or propaganda that consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print and broadcast news media or online social media.  Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to damage an agency, entity, or person, and/or gain financially or politically, often using sensationalist, dishonest, or outright fabricated headlines to increase readership, online sharing, and Internet click revenue.”

More typically, people use social media to attack others in less organized ways.  Government officials and other public figures are constantly bombarded with online harassment by people with opposing views or those who just don’t like them.  The comment sections of online publications, tweets, etc. are full of hateful statements.

Private individuals have been mercilessly mocked and bullied because of differences in political and social views or demographic characteristics such as race, nationality, religion, and sexuality.  In some cases, attacks have caused people to commit suicide.  More commonly, such attacks cause intense disruption of victims’ lives as well as pain, humiliation, anger, isolation, and/or loss of business and employment opportunities.

Attacks on individuals sometimes are considered cyberbullying or cyberharassment, which is “a form of bullying or harassment using electronic means.  It has become increasingly common, especially among teenagers.  Harmful bullying behavior can include posting rumors, threats, sexual remarks, a victims’ personal information, or pejorative labels (i.e., hate speech).  Bullying or harassment can be identified by repeated behavior and an intent to harm.  Victims may have lower self-esteem, increased suicidal ideation, and a variety of emotional responses, including being scared, frustrated, angry, and depressed.  Cyberbullying may be more harmful than traditional bullying.”

The Laci Green story described people who essentially belonged to social media gangs that regularly spent time attacking others online.  In her case, groups of “feminist” and “anti-feminist” trolls continually mocked and harassed members of opposing gangs.

Social media enable rejected lovers to easily spread “revenge porn,” which is the uploading of “sexually explicit material to humiliate and intimidate the subject, who has broken off the relationship. … The possession of the material may be used by the perpetrators to blackmail the subjects into performing other sex acts, to coerce them into continuing the relationship, or to punish them for ending the relationship. … Victims, whose images expose them to workplace discrimination, cyber-stalking or physical attack, can have their lives ruined as a result.  Given the practice by some companies of searching for potential sources of bad publicity, many victims of revenge porn have lost their jobs and found themselves effectively unhirable.”

A particularly egregious example is the felony indictment of Missouri Governor Eric Greitens for taking a photo “in a manner that allowed access to that image via a computer.”  He allegedly took a woman into an “exercise room for sex, taped her hands to some rings, blindfolded her and then … snapped her picture.  ‘He said, “You’re never going to mention my name,”’ the woman recounted later.  Otherwise, she said, the governor warned ‘there will be pictures of me everywhere.’”

Ethan and Orna distinguish social media conflicts from those involving commercial transactions.  In the latter conflicts, it is easier to identify the parties, they generally have limited interests, and designers of online systems can manage these conflicts more easily.

Websites like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Wikipedia have been developing automated and human systems to prevent and deal with anti-social activities on their sites, including processes to punish people determined to be “bad actors.”

Jason Kotkke writes, however, “Punishing the offenders and erasing the graffiti is the easy part …. [F]ostering ‘a culture that encourages both personal expression and constructive conversation’ is much more difficult. … It requires near constant vigilance.”

Changing the Anti-Social Media Culture

We desperately need to increase pro-social behavior and reduce anti-social behavior in social media interactions.  The predominant online culture should effectively reinforce virtues that Mr. Stephens advocates, including “openness, reason, toleration, dissent, second-guessing, respectful but robust debate, individual conscience and dignity, a sense of decency and also a sense of humor.”

In these intensely polarized times, this is very hard to do especially considering that social cyber-space is hard to manage.  Noam offers helpful suggestions for negotiators and mediators in online dispute resolution, but most of these ideas wouldn’t apply in unstructured interactions.

Ideally, people would be more careful consumers of social media, appropriately considering the sources, motivations, and veracity of the messages we receive.

Experts identify distrust as a significant element of online conflict and they recommend trying to build trust and decrease distrust.  In their book, The New Handshake: Online Dispute Resolution and the Future of Consumer Protection, Amy Schmitz and Colin Rule describe how eBay recognized that building and maintaining trust was essential to preventing and handling conflict between users of its site.

Similarly, the Ohio State Divided Community Project report, Divided Communities and Social Media: Strategies for Community Leaders, includes recommendations to build trust to help prevent and manage community conflicts.

Jen Reynolds recently wrote a post describing Better Angels, a “bipartisan citizen’s movement seeking to bridge Red-Blue divides through more skillful, thoughtful dialogue.”  Her post links to an article about the organization, whose goal is to “build a group of people whose personal bonds with their fellow citizens redefine how they engage in the political system.”  The Better Angels process involves carefully structured face-to-face discussions in which people with strong partisan feelings learn to undo hurtful stereotypes.

These efforts in the commercial, community, and political realms all seem constructive and promising.  Presumably, different strategies are needed, however, to prevent and deal with anti-social media interactions.

In addition to developing pro-social norms of curiosity, empathy, and constructive disagreement, we need strong norms causing people to feel embarrassed to engage in – and condone – anti-social behavior.  Although most people don’t troll, I suspect that many of us “reward” unnecessarily nasty messages by “liking,” retweeting, etc.

When we see anti-social behavior, we should respond in a way that offenders can hear without reacting too defensively.  The comedian Sarah Silverman provided a remarkable example of this.  A guy trolled her on Twitter and, instead of escalating the conflict, she “wrote a series of sympathetic and compassionate tweets that the man said changed his outlook on life.”

Although respectfully engaging with people who troll won’t always produce good results, especially with truly bad actors, the experience of Ms. Silverman and the Better Angels group suggests that we shouldn’t be too quick to write off others as irredeemable villains.  David Axelrod’s interviews of public figures provide a good model of gracious conversations even when he vigorously disagrees with his interviewees.  Hopefully, sympathetic acknowledgment of others’ values, hurts, and fears could help build some common ground and reduce anti-social behavior.

The Situation is Getting Worse.  How Can We Make it Better?

The internet is a combination of heaven and hell.  It produces an incredible volume and range of very valuable benefits for individuals and society.

But it also facilitates an appalling amount of anti-social behavior and damage.  Society needs to take effective action to counter-act it.

Do you know of any initiatives – or have any ideas – to make cyberspace a safer place where people generally can have good difficult conversations?


John Lande

John Lande is the Isidor Loeb Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri School of Law and former director of its LLM Program in Dispute Resolution.  He received his J.D. from Hastings College of Law and Ph.D in sociology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  He began mediating professionally in 1982 in California.… MORE >

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