Recognizing The Impact Of "Uncivil" Discourse Online

As someone who chooses to discuss her opinions online -- usually on my Facebook wall after linking to an article that invokes thoughts of sexism, racism, environmental or legal issues -- I'm used to having heated discussions with both friends and strangers on the internet.

The common advice for those who publish their work online is to not read comments at all, and for those who read online and discuss in forums like Facebook, the advice is "don't feed the trolls." In other words, don't engage with people who are just being terrible for the sake of being terrible. Ostensibly because it will make you look bad yourself, and also because if you don't pay attention to them, they'll go away.

It's pretty solid advice, depending on your definition of "troll." But what used to refer to an anonymous commenter looking to derail any conversation at any cost seems now to apply to anyone who says something false, argumentative, hostile, racist, sexist or otherwise offensive.

Whenever someone tells me, "It's just Facebook/Twitter/the internet! Who cares what they think?" I can't help but feeling like we've slid back toward the belief that things said or published on the internet somehow "don't count."

Some of them don't, of course. And when it comes to comments, there is certainly a healthy army of legitimate trolls ready and willing to fight for fighting's sake.

But a great deal of legitimate discourse now takes place online, and we've spent years arguing that it is not cheapened by its location. Insisting that code can be as useful as the printed word in telling a story, convincing investors that a micro-blogging platform with a 140-word limit will encourage conversations and the free flow of information, demanding freedom to express ourselves here and be protected from hacking and censorship.

We need to also be aware that the people who harm true discourse offline -- not the hecklers but the bigots, the manipulators, the willfully ignorant, those unwilling to hear the other side but insistent on proclaiming theirs -- are present online as well, and are having an impact.

Last year, Popular Science famously turned off comments on its articles after finding that "even a fractious minority wields enough power to skew a reader's perception of a story."

Former digital editor Suzanne LaBarre wrote at the time of a recent study led by Dominique Brossard of University of Wisconsin-Madison which found that the prevalence of "uncivil comments" on an article about the risks of nanotechnology impacted readers' perception of the information the article presented.

"Simply including an ad hominem attack in a reader comment was enough to make study participants think the downside of the reported technology was greater than they'd previously thought," Dietram A. Scheufele wrote of the study in the Times.

The takeaway was that commenters shape public opinion. And there's a good case for arguing that the people we call our friends -- both literally and in the Facebook sense of the word -- shape our own opinions and levels of understanding more than we might think, as Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler wrote in their 2011 book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives -- How Your Friends' Friends' Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think and Do.

At this point in our cultural relationship with social media, it's irresponsible to brush off ignorance, the spreading of false information, sexism, racism, hatefulness and threats as "something some idiot said on the internet." The internet is our home, it's where a growing number of us work, meet the loves of our lives and get the majority of our news.

Because of this, we need to recognize -- and yes, attempt to ameliorate -- threats to productive communication online. If we starve trolls, they may go away and bother someone else, never doing any "real" damage that we can see. But when we ignore the influence of lies, indignance and hostility and encourage others to do the same, we aren't showing how we are "above arguing on the internet." We're helping to perpetuate ignorance.