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Talking Policy: Carrie James on Youth and Online Civics

The use of social media and digital technology has made it easier for social justice movements around the world to collaborate and organize. Yet, as evidenced by the recent U.S. election, the internet can also facilitate vitriol and hate speech. This divisive rhetoric has turned some youth away from online political discussions. Carrie James, Harvard School of Education researcher and author of Disconnected: Youth, New Media, and the Ethics Gap, talks with World Policy Journal about how the unique nature of digital communication creates “ethical blindspots” and the ways she and her colleagues are teaching youth to engage in constructive dialogue with those holding opposing views.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: Could you first describe your concept of ethical blindspots and how online communication and social networks contribute to these developments among youth?

CARRIE JAMES: This study really came out of our interest [at Project Zero, which studies and promotes education in the arts] in looking at ethical issues but also, increasingly, civic and political issues. So we started out curious about the sensibilities that young people bring to their online activities and created instruments for in-depth, qualitative conversations that we felt would reveal the degree to which they were really thinking about and grappling with the moral and ethical dimensions of participating in an online context, especially in public networks. I talk in my book about ethical sensitivity—the degree to which they were sensitive to the way they were operating in these new spaces. In writing up some of the results of the book, I started to look at other literature, and I was really taken by a book called Blindspots by Max Bazerman, which was mainly about blindspots that occurred in organizational cultures and the business world. Bazerman is a professor at Harvard Business School, but I thought that the way he defined and framed blindspots really resonated with some of what I was seeing in the narrative that young people shared regarding how they thought about online life. What we heard loud and clear is that the principal consideration of young people was often very individualistic and consequence-driven—will I get into trouble for whatever I like to do online? Are the rewards of doing something (like sharing a series of terrific photos from last night’s party) in terms of pure validation worth the risk? Adults were only really emphasizing the negative personal consequences of engagement in online spaces. And so the concept of blindspots spoke to the fact that youth were often completely blind to some of the ethical considerations associated with putting out content without thinking about how that content can not only be fun to share with their friends, but can also set norms for larger communities. Recognizing this requires doing some broader ethical thinking, but we didn't see that ethical thinking, especially among the younger participants. Instead we saw more self-interested, individualistic considerations. 

WPJ: Could you speak to the specific features of social media that facilitates this way of thinking?

CJ: First, I think there are unique features of digital technologies, spaces, and content—but I want to be clear that I'm not a technological determinate. I don't think that these features actually cause the ethical blindspots I'm talking about. I think they can contribute to them, but I'd stop short of saying that they actually cause them. So in my book, and in other places, I've often talked about this set of unique qualities of digital technology—like the fact that content can stick online, as well as the persistence, replicability, and scalability of online content. Once you put something out there it can stick, it can be copied and pasted to new contexts, it can spread across the web, and it can be scalable to a broad audience, and that's quite different from when I was a teenager and you could write something on the bathroom wall but it wouldn't necessarily spread. So those qualities are important. 

I often think about the interpretive gap, or how our meaning and intention can be obscured, especially when we are communicating in environments where text is dominant. Emojis and emoticons can help convey tone, but misinterpretations are quite common regardless. There is also the ability to remove content from its context, and that's another case where misinterpretation can widen and cause harm. But one of the most important, and most challenging, qualities is the inherent distance in mediated communication—the fact that we're often physically removed from people we’re communicating with and the effects of the things we put out online are quite visible to us. Just that fact means that we have to exert more cognitive effort in order to think about the moral and ethical implications of what we're doing and to imagine who our audiences are, and then to consider their perspectives. We need to be ethically sensitive and motivated to do that kind of ethical thinking. Like I said before, these qualities challenge us, but they don't cause us to be blind to ethical issues. The key is in where those qualities intersect with why and how we use digital technology. I often think about the “why” part—what are the goals, purposes, and agendas that we bring to our tweets, snaps, and Instagram photos? Why are we in this business of sharing all this content? Are we in it for personal gain? Are we looking for peer validation? That's quite relevant for youth. Are we looking for social status? Are we looking for a claim? Are we in it to vent about, spread hate toward, or objectify another person? 

I wrote about the case of the West Indian American Day Parade [where New York City Police officers created a Facebook group called “No More West Indian Day Detail” and the parade participants were described as “savages” and “animals”], and the example of the more recent case of the Marine United Facebook group [where nude pictures of female service members were shared]. But we can also be guided by a higher purpose, something with civic or social justice goals. 

The “why” is really important, but then the "how" is also critical—what are our habits of use? Is our attention partial? Are we being reflective, or are we being impulsive online? Are we moving really quickly? That fast pace is of particular interest to me, and over the past couple of years I've been involved with colleagues in designing a curriculum and an online community for young people with an emphasis on slowing down to observe the world carefully and, importantly, to listen attentively to others. Listening is a feature both of the curriculum we've developed and of the online platform. We've developed a dialogue toolkit that encourages young people to be very slow and mindful when commenting on one another's posts. That's an example of where I'm really trying in my work to look at the habits of use dimension and what we can do to build more reflective habits of use.

WPJ: There are spaces online that cause a lot contention dealing with social or civic issues. It seems that the internet or social media have intensified the spread of certain kinds of racist or xenophobic rhetoric. Are there ways to mitigate the amount of vitriol that often emerges in debates online?

CJ: That's definitely an area of concern and interest. I mentioned that we have recently been interviewing people who are more civically and politically active. We've been talking with youth who are in the fray in talking about social justice issues or confronting people who are hateful online. They are really trying to use this media as a vehicle for social change, a vehicle for voice. I've been part of a research network called Youth in Participatory Politics, which was funded by the MacArthur Foundation, where we did a series of studies of youth across the country with qualitative interviews, survey studies, and ethnographic studies. We looked at how young people who care about civic and public issues navigate the opportunities that digital and social media provide for having a voice and maybe exerting influence, as well as some of the challenges. We found really inspiring examples of youth putting themselves out there on the internet and aiming to reach a broader public with some of the issues that they cared about, such as anti-racism campaigns like Black Lives Matter, transgender rights, and environmental issues. 

But when we went back two years later, we also observed among the same youth a growing amount of concern about a couple of different issues. The first was the impact of having a politicized digital footprint—the fact that they were civic actors online but were leaving political footprints that could be held up against them in some way in the future. The second issue was the challenge of managing backlash, conflict, and disagreement about political issues with both strangers and friends. In an article that we published in the International Journal of Communication called "A Hush Falls Over the Crowd,” we talked about youth who, in that two-year period, went either quiet or silent online. They got quiet, meaning they narrowed their online audiences for their political views, or they got completely silent. That was troubling to us and the finding led us to do some other work where we talked with youth who were much more willing to stay in the fray online and to continue to talk about political issues. We referred to these youths as online civic dialoguers. They engage in frequent political talks, and we saw a really interesting array of strategies and tactics used for talking about political issues, such as storytelling and questioning. They're levering platforms very strategically: timing their posts, hashtagging, and tagging people. They were almost like mini-PR agents on behalf of their causes. However, even among that group we saw that when overt disagreements came up, they tended to back away. It all went very well if their crowd or audience was fairly like-minded or responding positively, but the most common response when a disagreement came up was to back away. We saw an unwillingness to stick it out in more difficult conversations that required youth to really listen and deal with a little bit of conflict. 

Related to this, the youth reported very little direct support for navigating conflicts. So one of the things that we've been doing, as a product of that research on participatory politics, is focusing on educational materials for schools. For better or for worse, in schools you have a captive audience and teachers can leverage that time to talk with youth, help to prepare them, and give them tools so that when they want to stay in a conversation, they actually can. I've been thinking about developing a new online toolkit for civic and political dialogue as part of the educational materials our group is currently developing.

WPJ: What, specifically, are you developing in the toolkit that could help facilitate dialogue and lead to productive conversations?

CJ: Some of the things that we are thinking about have to do with the strategies we heard these young civic dialoguers say they are using. As I said before, they typically are using those moves and strategies for like-minded audiences. For some reason they're not able to extend them when they have disagreements, but they're pretty interesting, like telling a personal story or asking questions in a couple of different ways. So we are going to be mining some of the strategies that these young people have talked about using, even if they were used to interact with like-minded others. 

The other thing that I intend to draw on is the dialogue toolkit I mentioned earlier. On another project I worked on, we developed an online global learning community, [called Out of Eden Learn], for youth and a curriculum that emphasizes “slow,” but we also designed the community itself and the platform, and built a dialogue toolkit essentially into the comment box for youth to comment on one another's posts. There are icons in the comment box that remind users of different moves they can make when commenting on posts. The online community itself is an inter-cultural dialogue—we get youth from different parts of the world together to share their experiences. They are not necessarily discussing civic issues—though we do have one curriculum on migration, which can be a charged topic—but are involved in a more open-ended inquiry. 

That said, within the toolkit there are specific moves that users can make. The moves are things like “notice”—talk about something that particularly intrigues you and what this person has to say, or "snip"—draw a direct quote into your comment and then say something about it in order to be very specific about what the commenter is appreciating, pushing back on, or responding to. Another move is “extend”—articulate how the perspective this person shared extended the commenter’s thoughts in a new direction. And then we have more open-ended options like “probe." All of those moves are designed with the goal of having youth make their listening visible. It's all about visible listening—it's not just about responding with whatever I have to say, but actually making it clear that I've actually read what you had to say and that I'm listening to you. 

Another move from a prior iteration of the toolkit that I'd like to bring back is called “reflect back.” Here, we ask students to articulate how they interpret the other person, but also to check their interpretations with the original commenter. Basically it’s asking if they’re on the same page and walking away with the same interpretation. It’s a direct effort to close the interpretative gap that came up in my research.

*****

*****

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Nicholas Cappetta]

[Photo courtesy of Carrie James]

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