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Civility, Politics, and Social Media

Author: perkinsk


The news that caught my ear on NPR on May 23 was, “Facebook says it removed 3.39 billion fake accounts from October to March.” CEO Mark Zuckerberg “ … touted the company’s progress in curbing hate speech and graphic violence across the platform.” I found it very interesting that, “… nearly all of the fake accounts were caught by artificial intelligence [AI] and more human monitoring.” [i]


I wondered how computer algorithms or human monitors at Facebook would know a “fake” site from a real one. It’s also concerning that the AI and monitors may have an implicit bias in terms of the content and “voice” of the banned sites. How can you be an objective censor?


As we look forward to the Greenlee School Summit this fall on “Communications and Civility in our Democracy”, we will be challenged by the delicate balance between encouraging civility in all our discourse especially politics and that inconvenient First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of speech. (For more information on the Greenlee Summit and to register:


Professor Catherine Nolan-Ferrell at the University of Texas San Antonio (UTSA) brilliantly shared the hard dilemma in her article “Balancing Classroom Civility and Free Speech.”[ii]


Many students in her class are immigrants from Latin America. They shared with her the frequent threats such as “we don’t want you ‘illegals’ that live off welfare,” or “we will take back our country.”


She summarized the free speech vs. civility conundrum thus; “A person can express opinions about political ideals or religious beliefs without censorship. According to the US Supreme Court’s ruling in Schenk v. United States, such speech is protected unless it “incites actions that would harm others.” Indeed, colleges and universities actively encourage diverse viewpoints. On the other hand, UTSA has an explicit policy on classroom civility that asserts “students share in the obligation to maintain a classroom environment that is conducive to learning. Accordingly, students are prohibited from engaging in any behavior that obstructs, disrupts, or interferes with any class.” Presumably “hate speech” is prohibited.


Once upon a time media was institutional and limited. Editors not only were gatekeepers expected to “filter” material according to journalistic principles, but they could be held accountable and often sued for liable, false statements, calumny, and character assassination that is damaging to a person’s reputation.


As Yu Rong Lim avers in “Everyone is a journalist: the truth of social media,” Cyber space has shattered the restraint that characterized most media.  [iii] Journalism professor Jennifer Brannock Coxin in an article titled “#everyoneisajournalist”  (Chronicle of Higher Education) [iv] argues that the reliability of information online when non-journalists (anyone!) become “virtual journalists,” we face a profound reliability challenge. Moreover, civility in speech clearly disappears when there is anonymity and thus no accountability, which is common in cyber space.


A second conundrum is the decline in civility among public figures and leaders. When politicians insult each other in debates and campaign advertising, it sets an example that is hard to ignore.  My political science class of almost one hundred students was deeply divided on the acceptability of candidates mocking their opponents. Is it a civility breach for a candidate to call opponents “little,” “low IQ,” “lying,” “clown,” “low energy,” “con don,” and other terms? Most said that demeaning works and that’s how politicians can highlight the exaggerated (or made up) characteristics of their opponents. Other students in my class felt that civic leaders have a responsibility not to bully, demean, or insult their opponents in politics.


The Greenlee Summit on civility is a very important endeavor to move the needle from discourtesy, rudeness, and harshness to more civility, comity, courtesy, decorum, politeness, and respectfulness. That will require all elements of society to commit to this goal including the traditional media, advertisers, public relations firms, politicians, creators of on-line gaming platforms, social media as well as the entertainment industry (i.e. Hollywood). In the end we are all responsible for making this so. And we need to accomplish this goal without excessive censorship.



Steffen Schmidt is the Lucken Professor of Political Science at Iowa State University and the author of eleven books and numerous articles. He is a frequent political commentator on national and international media.