“The problem now is that some campaigns have sanctioned — have said it’s okay — to harass people for their politics,” said Craig Newmark, founder of both Craigslist and Craigconnects, an organization that promotes civility online, among other goals. “I’m hopeful that this is confined to this political season and to a small number of people, and that this is not part of the persistent new normal.”
This survey did not, we should note, define harassment for its participants, so the reported behavior likely includes a wide range of experiences. But it’s safe to say that these interactions were all, at the very least, uncivil — an increasingly common occurrence.
According to a recent Weber Shandwick survey, 95 percent of all Americans consider incivility a “problem.” Seventy percent consider it a crisis, which is up from 65 percent in 2014. Experts agree that this incivility has intensified online as well as during the current election cycle.
During the primaries, supporters of Bernie Sanders doxed and threatened Clinton delegates; Sanders supporters, meanwhile, accused Clintonites of passing around pictures of their children. Both factions thrived in secret Facebook groups, the better to avoid trolling and raids. On Twitter, some of Trump’s alt-right fans have become infamous for their gendered and racist attacks on journalists, particularly Jewish ones.
This is just the marquee harassment, mind you: Beneath that, there’s a constant current of second-degree nastiness, name-calling and bickering. Just yesterday, the Verge’s Thomas Ricker recounted his one attempt at political dialogue with a relative on Facebook, concluding that it was “a terrible mistake.”
As his wife put it, disapproving: “Never discuss politics on Facebook, dummy.”
But that’s not quite the right prescriptive, says Carolyn Lukensmeyer, executive director of the National Institute for Civil Discourse at the University of Arizona. Lukensmeyer’s organization works with academics, journalists, politicians and individual members of the public to encourage bipartisan conversation and collaboration — not an easy task, in our current climate.
While there’s often a tendency to blame social platforms for the tone of the conversations that take place on them, larger factors also play a role here, Lukensmeyer said. Twitter and Facebook need to deal with actual harassment, of course — but we as a society need to confront pervasive nastiness and disrespect.
That state of affairs can be attributed in large part to long-term, structural sources like the fact that many people no longer live in income-diverse communities, and many children no longer go to public schools. People simply don’t trust or understand people with differing perspective and don’t see much value in trying to.
“There’s been an enormous increase in social distance over the past 30 or 40 years,” Lukensmeyer said. “In our everyday lives, we don’t interact significantly with people whose lives are different.”
In that regard, social media could be a powerful tool for lessening political incivility and harassment: After all, there’s nothing the Internet does quite so well as condense distances. In late May, NICD launched a campaign, called #ReviveCivility, that encourages participants to sign a pledge promising to be “respectful” in their online and offline dealings and to share that message on Twitter and Facebook. The campaign also sends weekly email blasts with ideas for combating incivility, and Lukensmeyer says those have been surprisingly successful.
In one recent exercise, #ReviveCivility participants were encouraged to find an acquaintance with a radically different point of view and sit down with them face-to-face to discuss the life experiences that shaped that attitude. The goal, Lukensmeyer said, is for the participants to engage without attempting to change each other’s views. That can be difficult, but it’s definitely more productive than letting your Facebook frustration build to a flurry of apoplectic “f— yous.”
Newmark, of Craigconnects, would seem to agree: He doesn’t think that the solution to political harassment and incivility lies with platforms, alone.
“Tech companies can help solve the problem,” Newmark said. “But it is a human problem.”
That means that, for better or worse, we may just have to wait for humans to solve it. And we dare not hope for that miracle until the election passes.
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