Digital Civics: A Manifesto

The widespread adoption of digital technologies over the last two decades has ushered in a long-awaited and much-idealized era of democratized media. Certainly, having knowledge and information accessible to the greatest number of people at any time in history is a marvelous development for global human society. But along with our new media landscape have come challenges that were both unforeseeable, yet in retrospect, inevitable.

Today, the American public finds itself in an information crisis. The sheer volume of information we consume today is overwhelming, even for the most discriminating media consumer. News, opinion and entertainment is coming to us at light speed, giving us only seconds to react to ideas and stories – some of which have profound intellectual, spiritual or political implications for our collective. These “big” conversations are packaged together with all manner of inanity in our feeds, which can make us feel that everything is equally relevant; or even, perhaps, that nothing is. In the past, we may have spent time reflecting on these critical issues, but with the widespread adoption of social media, we are poised (and encouraged) to respond with emotion-infused knee-jerk reactions informed almost exclusively by our biases within seconds of consuming new information.

Furthermore, while we struggle to process this excess of information, the wisdom and expertise of professional journalists, teachers and intellectuals has been drowned out by a cacophony of self-proclaimed subject-matter experts and citizen journalists, none of whom have any professional or ethical obligation to preserve the integrity of the information they share. Individual users can now create media micro brands and influence public opinion that rivals those of long-standing institutions. In this murky environment, even terrorist organizations and criminal operations have been able to achieve a veneer of legitimacy.

While politicians argue about whether or not to even invest in our nation’s physical infrastructure, Americans have flooded the internet and are building and inhabiting a thriving online society that has no formal system of civics or governance. Might makes right, and, much like in our Wild West days, the fastest draw is the one left standing.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2022 Social Media and News Fact Sheet: about half of U.S. adults – 50% – get news on social media, and 17% do so “often.”

When it comes to where Americans regularly get news on social media, Facebook still outpaces all other social media sites. Roughly a third of U.S. adults (31%) say they regularly get news from Facebook.

A quarter of U.S. adults regularly get news from YouTube, while smaller shares get news from Twitter (14%), Instagram (13%), TikTok (10%) or Reddit (8%). Fewer Americans regularly get news from LinkedIn (4%), Snapchat (4%), Nextdoor (4%), WhatsApp (3%) or Twitch (1%).

When looking at the proportion of each social media site’s users who regularly get news there, some sites stand out as having a greater portion of users turning to the site for news even if their total audience is relatively small. For example, while Twitter is used by about three-in-ten U.S. adults (27%), about half of its users (53%) turn to the site to regularly get news there. On the other hand, roughly the same share of adults (31%) use LinkedIn, but only 13% of its users regularly get news on the site.

What is most concerning about this trend is that many users of social media are unable to differentiate between authentic, verifiable information and what has now been dubbed “fake news.” The media site Buzzfeed did an analysis on the kind of news people were sharing on social media during the 2016 presidential election and found an alarming trend:

In the final three months of the US presidential campaign, the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, NBC News…During these critical months of the campaign, 20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyper-partisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook. Within the same time period, the 20 best-performing election stories from 19 major news websites generated a total of 7,367,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.

Propaganda, revenue-driven content marketing, mis/disinformation, and other forms of manipulative engagement on social media are having real world impact that we simply cannot afford to ignore. American society is now inundated with media, yet there is almost no effort to ensure the voting public has basic media literacy skills. Even if there were, it’s not clear that Americans believe they need help understanding their new reality. (Though they will readily agree that other people do.) 

Fear and Loathing Online

The online communities where the majority of Americans are getting their news and information are intense hives of discussion where the loudest, strongest, often most vitriolic people set the tone and interpret the facts for others. There’s a sort of arms race of consumption and dissemination of information, rhetoric, and opinion that takes precedence over our shared humanity. As such, is not uncommon to see high-level conversations around the loftiest of subjects devolve into name-calling, personal attacks, and the lusty embrace of logical fallacies (often by people who really should know better). The intellectual bastions of critical thinking and thoughtful debate have been effaced by even those in historically austere leadership roles. It is not uncommon to find elected officials, academics and celebrities exchanging abuses online.

Interestingly, those who disparage the lack of civility on social media platforms display a lack of personal responsibility for contributing to an unhealthy online culture. A long-running poll titled “Civility in America” (Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research) found in 2016:

Nearly all Americans, 95 percent, say civility is a problem, with three-quarters (74 percent) saying civility has declined in the past few years and two-thirds (67 percent) saying it is a major problem today. In the online poll conducted among 1,005 adults 18 years and older from January 7 to 14, 70 percent also say that incivility in this country has risen to “crisis” levels, up from 65 percent in 2014.

Asked to identify the groups contributing most to the lack of civility in society, both likely voters and the overall public cite politicians, the Internet/social media and the news media as the top three sources – each being named by more than half the respondents.

But… We Are The Media

Today, more people can make and disseminate media than at any other point in human history. At the same time, distrust in the media is at an unprecedented high. These two phenomena are not unrelated.

We blame The Media” for the lack of online civility, but we fail to recognize that because media has become democratized, we the people are “The Media”. No longer are we passive consumers. We all are making media every day through with our content and comments in digital spaces; not to mention that professional journalists have defaulted to ripping content directly from public online spaces and placing them on their news sites and broadcast programming as under the auspices of “reporting” the news.

It is true that social media platforms employ algorithms that make it more likely to see information that confirms our biases. This has been widely discussed and documented by communications experts and again speaks to the need for greater media literacy for the general public. (Media literacy meaning not just knowing how to identify good information, but how to actually use social media to our benefit, rather than passively consuming whatever is served up to us.)

However, many users knowingly self-select and construct their ideological bubbles because challenging our deeply held beliefs is hard. It’s a painful process, made even more difficult in a harsh environment where the opposition is free to be abusive. Any effort to truly understand opposing viewpoints online requires engaging with people who will say awful things about us and our ideals.

Today’s digital media landscape is a recipe for a total communication breakdown from which no society could be expected to survive. However, it is also an opportunity for real leadership to bring their knowledge and expertise to overwhelmed citizens who desperately need to make sense of the issues on which they are expected to contribute.

Yet, many of the brightest minds and most authentic thought leaders shy away from engaging online around the very subjects where they have real expertise. Part of the reason is that there is a lack of familiarity with the unique social environments and platforms where these conversations are taking place. But a large part of their aversion to social media engagement is because they see the extreme vitriol that has taken hold on public discourse in digital spaces–from which no one is immune. Why would a thoughtful, intelligent, and empathetic person willingly subject themselves to it?

A Leadership Vacuum

Efforts at building leadership in digital spaces (social, political, or otherwise) have focused almost exclusively on creating a few “power users” that wield influence over huge numbers of “followers.” Many of these “leaders” have succumbed to bad communication practices (either because they lack competencies that allow them to effectively use digital media for the greater good, or simply because they are culturally influenced by the hostile environment in which they find themselves online. Usually, both).

Today, online leadership spends much of its time reinforcing itself, building influence by prioritizing issues over people. Some of this influence is used for the common good (social justice activism or fundraising for causes), while others use it to market themselves and their ideas. Still other “leaders” use influence for more nefarious purposes like manipulating voters or reinforcing hierarchies that oppress. Regardless, influence of any kind online must take positions that are loud and polarizing (often with hyperbolic posturing) in order to win the fight for attention.

Witnessing the general lack of respect for fellow citizens, even those who have demonstrably made great contributions to our society, has caused many qualified voices to reject social media as a useful medium for sharing their ideas, knowledge and wisdom, leaving a vacuum that bad actors and unqualified pundits are happy to fill.

There is a desperate need for authentic, courageous digital leadership that is invested in humanizing the space and consistently reframing the conversation around our shared human experience.

We need Digital Civics.

Digital Civics is a framework for online spaces that positions leadership at the center of the diverse community of people to whom they are related. Digital civic leadership is defined by leadership that serves as guides, educators and facilitators—not only in their own areas of expertise–but in productive online engagement that employs emotional intelligence. This is a conscious effort by dedicated individuals to reshape the nature of public discourse to be productive, and to set high standards for digital communications across a broad range of subjects and issues.

What digital civic leadership does:

What digital civic leadership does NOT do:

We need leaders who know how to navigate digital spaces and harness the benefits of social media for real world impact. Leaders with strong identities rooted in the communities they represent and a calm, clear voice with which to manage online conflict. Leaders who are committed to lead by example, to master social listening so that they can speak to the real concerns of even their detractors. Leaders who are more interested in the realities of the people they claim to be helping than in self-promotion and vanity metrics.

This is not about getting more followers or building mass movements that can battle other mass movements. It is about transforming online culture by infusing humanity into digital spaces. Healthy online leadership means building influence through person-to-person engagement that honors pluralism and prioritizes education, truth and productive disagreement.

Authentic human communications are never easy, especially when conflict arises. It requires discipline, conscious decision-making and patience. It is the lack of these very things online that have brought American society to where we are today: conflicted, frustrated and unable to work together when we need to the most.

But How?

Healthy digital civics will not emerge on its own. It must be consciously cultivated and supported through a network of leaders who all agree on a set of principles to which they will hold themselves and one another accountable.

For a cultural shift to occur online, it must start with a small number of determined, passionate people willing to prioritize the greater good over their own selfish pursuits or the short term, superficial gains of web traffic, likes and media coverage.

We at the Institute for Digital Civic Culture, along with our colleagues who represent associated institutions, communities and programs, envision a national network of professionals, educators and subject-matter experts who agree on core principles of productive digital engagement, and who are committed to support one another as leaders in transforming digital culture into a place where intelligent conversation, healthy conflict and rigorous truth-seeking are valued.

We are seeking leaders in various fields who can bring both subject-matter expertise and emotional intelligence to digital spaces, so that we can provide them with the tools, training and community support they need to transform digital culture for the betterment of global society.

Join us as we explore our human potential on the internet; be part of a movement to discover ways that we can build and facilitate online community that actually makes the world a better place—for everyone.

There's no greater honor for a writer that the time and attention of a thoughtful reader. If you've enjoyed your visit here and would like to support my work, please know that anything you offer is accepted with gratitude:

And if you're looking for a nice place to hang out on the internet, consider joining me on the RealSocial.Life federated community.