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date: 23 May 2019

Political Discussion and Deliberation Online

Abstract and Keywords

As information and communication technologies have diffused, scholars have turned attention to online informal political discussion and formal deliberation because of the importance of online political talk for constructing society and informing government policy. This chapter examines the research on both formal deliberation and informal discussion online, identifies the importance of this research area, signals its major findings, and examines key unanswered questions. Along the way it argues that more research is needed to understand why women and minorities are less likely to talk politics online; better conceptual clarity is needed about the phenomenon of interest; more experimental work is required to isolate the causes and consequences of channel characteristics and mechanics that produce higher-quality discussion and decisions; and more work is needed that extends across information and communication technologies (ICTs), cross-culturally, and beyond democratically-governed societies.

Keywords: informal political discussion, political deliberation, Internet, information and communication technology, interactivity

As a variety of information and communication technologies (ICTs)—including e-mail listservs, Usenet/Google groups, blogs, microblogs, wikis, and social sites—diffuse globally, much research has focused on their democratizing potential. Since the early 1990s, scholars have examined how Internet-channeled communication might facilitate a variety of political behaviors, including talk about politics and social issues with friends and family or acquaintances and strangers. Some of that talk is formal, structured deliberations, but most is informal political conversation. This chapter examines the research on both of these forms of political discussion online, identifies the importance of this research area, signals its major findings, and examines key unanswered questions. First, it explains the importance of scholarship focused on informal political conversation and of more formal political deliberation over the Internet as well.

Importance

Several theorists have argued that ICTs and political conversation, discussion, and deliberation have important functions in democracies. John Dewey (1946), Harold Lasswell (1941), and Jürgen Habermas (1962/1989; 1984) among others, advanced the idea that informal conversation that critically engages political and social topics is a necessary component of a functioning democracy. Through political conversation, citizens’ opinions and perspectives are represented in their government, and in turn their government is more responsive to its citizens. Moreover, Benjamin Barber (1984) argued that interactive technologies can be harnessed to create a “strong democracy,” bringing citizens together for discussion and deliberation on community and policy matters, thus enabling them to better engage in the surveillance of their governments and to provide feedback to them.

(p. 838) For these reasons Internet–based political deliberation and discussion are important foci of research within political communication. Although much prior scholarship in political communication has been preoccupied with understanding the relationship between mass-media use and political knowledge, opinions, and participation, there have been moments that focused on face-to-face political talk. Empirical research from the 1950s on “Two-Step Flow” (Katz and Lazersfeld, 1960), for example, posited the importance of opinion elites within interpersonal communities as elite opinion leaders pass mass media information onto others who are not exposed to media information directly. In the first decade of this century, others have theorized the role of informal conversation as an important moderating factor in political participation (Nisbet and Scheufele, 2004) and recognized the value of informal political conversation in shaping and informing public opinion to mobilize and sometimes demobilize political action (see, for example, Mutz, 2002). In a similar vein, political theorists have focused attention on political deliberation, which brings an interested public together to talk through a common problem and come to consensus on a solution, giving the practice of deliberation a more direct role in informing on public policy (Coleman and Blumler, 2009; Fishkin, 2009; Gutmann and Thompson, 2004).

As ICTs have proliferated, intellectual interest in the role of social and deliberative political talk online has grown. These communication channels, most notably occurring through the Internet but also on mobile phone devices and interactive television, have been examined for their potential to increase the opportunities for political conversation and direct participation in policymaking (Coleman, 1999; Froomkin, 2004). Such channel characteristics as decreased perceived distance between people, increased speed of communication, nearly limitless volume and storage, and enhanced interactivity between people and between people and ICTs have been identified as opportunities for increased political talk and deliberation.

Not everyone has heralded ICTs as a panacea for democratization, however. Scholars have pointed to the increased opportunities for surveillance by governments that use the information to monitor and sanction their citizens and by campaigns to narrowcast to relatively small subsets of the public (Howard, 2006). In response to the optimism expressed in the early days of the World Wide Web, some have argued that in the United States in particular and the western world in general, a “normalization” ensures that the same hierarchies, power dynamics, and disparities seen in political life offline inevitably will be reproduced online (Margolis and Resnick, 2000).

Also of concern is the prospect that ICTs will contribute to fragmentation and polarization. Fragmentation has been of particular interest in the digital age, given the greater choices the public has for its media diet. If people act on their disposition to enclave themselves in a world filled with like-minded friends, associates, and media, there can be no common public (Sunstein, 2001). This, in turn, risks severely harming democratic society, which requires some shared basis of common information and experience upon which to associate and to solve its problems (Davis and Owen, 1998; Selnow, 1998; Sunstein, 2001). The related concern, polarization, may be the by-product of a high choice media environment. If so, those interested in politics will become more (p. 839) knowledgeable as well as ideologically extreme and rigid in their perspectives, while the less interested “middle” becomes less knowledgeable and involved (Prior, 2007). This potentially creates more extreme ideological positions with less room for compromise on policy or political matters.

With these concerns as a backdrop, researchers have asked who engages in online discussion and who does not, why they do so, what is the quality of such discussions, and what role the technological infrastructure and context plays in shaping those discussions. In the sections that follow, I synthesize their answers and note areas requiring additional work.

The State of Knowledge

One of the most basic questions for scholars of ICTs is who participates in online political discussions, whether informal or deliberative. This can be a challenging question to answer, in part because observing online forums does not reveal much about user identity, given the fairly anonymous nature of much online interaction. The surveys that have been the best sources of information on who participates are often limited because those who talk politics are a relatively small percentage of the online population. As a result, our basic understanding of who participates in informal political conversations or more formal deliberations is still surprisingly thin. What the research suggests is that relatively few people in the United States use the Internet to seek political information (Hindman, 2009; Tewksbury, 2003) and that those who actually talk politics online are an even smaller minority, especially in nonelection years. A recent study of the 2008 presidential election suggests that 38 percent of surveyed Internet users reported talking about the election online (Nam and Stromer-Galley, 2012), and in 2012 nearly 35 percent reported encouraging others to vote and posting their thoughts about the election through social media (Rainie, Smith, Schlozman, Brady, and Verba, 2012). Sometimes up to three times as many people read or “lurk” than post, however (Albrecht, 2006; Davis, 1999; Tsaliki, 2002). For most ordinary Internet users, exposure to cross-cutting political views and disagreements tends to happen on sites or channels that are not necessarily devoted to political topics (Graham, 2010; Wojcieszak and Mutz, 2009).

Those who do participate in online political discussions are historically advantaged and enfranchised groups. Specifically, those who are more affluent and have more education are more likely to participate; this was as true in the late 1990s as it is today for both informal conversation and formal deliberation (Baek, Wojcieszak, and Delli Carpini, 2012; Davis, 2005; Johnson et al., 2007; Nam and Stromer-Galley, 2012; Trénel, 2004). An example of this can be found in blog writing, where authors are likely to be well-educated professional white men (Hindman, 2009). Although blog readership is relatively small, weblogs influence the larger political discussion within the public sphere because their audience is populated with political elites and journalists (Farrell and Drezner, 2008; Perlmutter, 2008).

(p. 840) Although young people tend to be less engaged in and knowledgeable about politics, research on informal political discussions finds that they are relatively overrepresented in online discussions in the United States (Baek, Wojcieszak, and Delli Carpini, 2012; Davis, 2005) and in European countries (Albrecht, 2006; Calenda and Mosca, 2007). This can be partly explained because young people are more likely to use ICTs over the Internet than are older people; however, young people are not necessarily overrepresented in all online communication channels. Research suggests that younger individuals are drawn to newer Internet-channeled communications—for example, social media sites like Facebook (Nam and Stromer-Galley, 2012), while those who are older tend to use blogs and older ICTs, such as listservs and Usenet/Google groups (Stromer-Galley, 2002b).

A noteworthy gender gap exists in online political conversation, with men more likely to participate in online political discussions in the United States (Davis, 1999; Garramone, Harris, and Pizante, 1986; Harp and Tremayne, 2006; Hill and Hughes, 1998; Savicki, Lingenfelter, and Kelley, 1996; Stromer-Galley, 2002a; Trammell and Keshelashvili, 2005) and in European countries (Albrecht, 2006; Hagemann, 2002; Jankowski and van Selm, 2000; Jensen, 2003, Uldam and Askanius, 2013), which raises questions about how representative such discussions can be. So, for example, Harp and Tremayne’s (2006) analysis of top political blogs in the United States finds a “boys’ club.” Male bloggers are less likely to link to blogs authored by women, and when women are part of the conversation, they are attacked, marginalized, and sexualized, making it harder for them to be part of the conversation. As well, the issues that tend to be the focus of political discussions online are typically not “female” ones, such as child care and education (Davis, 2005). This lack of focus on issues of particular concern to women may further exclude them.

The relationship between race and political conversation online has been and continues to be an understudied area. Few studies specifically examine differentials in participation or the reasons why. This absence may be attributable in part to the rhetoric in the early days of the World Wide Web’s diffusion, which stressed the idea that when online we were identity-free; one’s bodily identity could be left behind and a new one constructed (Turkle, 1995). Yet there is good reason to think that race cannot be left behind (Burkhalter, 1999). One potentially empowering aspect of ICTs is enabling marginalized and minority groups to find each other online. In her interviews with Latino/Latina and African American bloggers, Pole (2010) found influential activism among groups of African American and Latino bloggers on issues related to race and immigration. Yet, Byrne’s (2007) examination of social media sites notes that few are dedicated to African Americans and issues of particular concern to them. One exception is “Black Twitter,” the distinctive style performed by blacks on Twitter—because of its distinct communication affordances—as a means of connection, identity construction, and empowerment (Brock, 2012; Florini, 2014).

It should be noted that race and age cannot be readily disentangled online. Garcia-Castañon, Rank, and Barreto (2011) find that in the 2008 US election, when an African American ran for president and won, young racial minorities were as proportionally engaged in ICTs such as campaign-related blogs during the election as were young whites; but among older voters, whites were more likely to use ICTs related to the 2008 election. This suggests that the digital and access divide may disproportionately affect older minorities.

(p. 841) One of the potential benefits of informal political discussion and especially more formal political deliberation is the opportunity for discussants to be exposed to other opinions and values. Online exposure to different, cross-current points of view and to discussions where disagreements are expressed have been shown to increase “argument repertoire,” defined as the ability of people to articulate both reasons for their own perspectives and for those held by others holding opposing positions (Price, Cappella, and Nir, 2002). Online discussion also has the potential to shift people’s opinions. Research that examined a political discussion on sexual minorities and same-sex marriage found that those who had strong opinions on the topic did not change their positions, but those who were strong supporters shifted to a more moderate position on the issue (Wojcieszak and Price, 2010).

Even though there is evidence of increased opinion sophistication and opinion shift because of online deliberation, scholars have raised concerns about online discussions, especially the quality of informal discussions that one might find on blogs, in open chat rooms, and on social media. In theory, a high-quality discussion would include not only opinion expression but reason-giving for those opinions, sustained interaction with others in the discussion, focus on the topic at hand and not to other unrelated topics, a limit on ad hominem attacks but the presence of a mixture of agreement and respectful disagreement, and a range of evidence in support of arguments, including linking to Web sources and providing personal experience (Stromer-Galley, 2007). If those are one’s expectations, much research suggests that online political discussion is severely lacking (Benson, 1996; Noveck, 2000; Streck, 1998). Several scholars have characterized online discussions as not delving deeply into important political issues (Wilhelm, 1998), exhibiting fairly low rationality (Hagemann, 2002) and underdeveloped arguments (Ellis and Maoz, 2007; Weger and Aakhus, 2003), and a lack of understanding or even an attempt at understanding ideologically opposed perspectives (Jankowski and van Selm, 2000; Schneider, 1996). Some research suggests that online discussions tend to be dominated by a few outspoken people rather than exhibiting equality of participation (Davis, 1999; Graham and Wright, 2014; Koop and Jansen, 2009; Robinson, 2005). Some research suggests that when ill-informed people or those who are strongly partisan are exposed to online disagreements, they become less interested in politics, suggesting a “dark side” to online political discussion (Torcal and Maldonado, 2014).

However, the character of online discussion is not uniformly bleak. Although comments on YouTube, for example, can have a high proportion of vitriol and attack, there also is evidence of complex and thoughtful exchanges (Uldam and Askanius, 2013). Other work suggests that synchronous chat is more coherent and engaged than that on other topics (Stromer-Galley and Martinson, 2009), and political topics tend to draw in a broader network of people (Gonzalez-Bailon, Kaltenbrunner, and Banchs, 2010). Some scholars even provide evidence for a fairly high degree of rationality (Graham, 2010). For instance, collaborative editing on the Wikipedia exhibits a genuine quest for high-quality information and of inclusion in the discussion of anyone who shares that goal (Klemp and Forcehimes, 2010). Online discussants make use of URL-link posting in their discussions, which generates greater interaction among participants but also seems to foster even greater opinionated rather than informed discourse (Polletta, Chen, and Anderson, 2009).

Why people participate in online discussions given this mixed picture of its quality is another topic of interest. Understanding the motives that drive particular people to engage in political conversations might prove useful in considering ways (p. 842) to encourage more people to participate in online discussions, given the possibility for increased opinion sophistication for those who participate. Some research suggests that people participate to be sociable, to become more informed on political topics, to hear diverse perspectives including those from the “other side,” to learn more about their own opinions, to vent their anger at current events or policies (Stromer-Galley, 2003), and to pass the time and have fun (Svensson, 2015). People also report that they feel less inhibited about expressing their opinions online than face to face (Ho and McLeod, 2008) and that, when online, they experience fewer negative emotions and more consensus but also are exposed to more extreme ideological positions (Baek, Wojcieszak, and Delli Carpini, 2012). Little similar research exists that measures motives for online formal political deliberations.

Research is mixed with regard to fragmentation and polarization, two concerns raised earlier. Some research supports the fragmentation hypothesis (Soon and Hichang, 2014), concluding that linking practices in the blogosphere reveal that liberal and conservative bloggers are more likely to connect their own work to other blogs that share their political worldview (Hargittai, Gallo, and Kane, 2008) and suggesting that uncivil online discussion increases perceptions of a polarized public (Hwang, Kim, and Huh, 2014). Yet other scholarship suggests that people actively seek online discussions that engage a diverse range of perspectives (Kelly, Fisher, and Smith, 2005; Stromer-Galley, 2003). Research suggests that fears of online echo chambers of like-minded people only talking with each other may be unfounded because people with an interest in politics will necessarily end up talking with people from other political perspectives online (Liang, 2014), and that even those with strong ideological leanings tend to link to neutral third-party sites, giving the two polarized sides a common information stream and frames of reference (Reese et al., 2007).

Scholars agree that the structure of the online environment affects the quality of the discussions that happen within it (Beierle, 2004; Coe, Kenski, and Rains, 2014; Freelon, 2015; Noveck, 2004; Wright, 2006). Researchers have found that recruiting people who are interested in and knowledgeable about the topic increases discussion quality (Wright and Street, 2007), and that having political elites and politicians coparticipate in the discussion also elevates quality (Coleman, 2004; Jensen, 2003). It is also helpful to have a moderator who oversees and manages the discussion (Albrecht, 2006; Trénel, 2004), or a journalist or editor in the case of online news sites (Stroud, Scacco, Muddiman, and Curry, 2015). The open, nonthreaded, unmoderated discussions that take place on social media sites such as Facebook and YouTube may not be conducive to quality discussion (Hess, 2009).

Researchers have investigated ways in which to harness ICTs for discussion. New digital mapping technologies, such as Google maps, that allow people to tag locations and comment, can be employed to facilitate online deliberations that deal with spatial/geographic issues (Rinner, Kessler, and Andrulis, 2008). Argument mapping has been viewed as a way to structure formal political deliberations by having discussants tag their messages with a predefined tag set, such as question or disagree, which then invites visual mapping of threads of discussion and the polarities within those discussion threads. Some research suggests, however, that although they view such systems favorably, participants resist the predefined tag set, and moderation and guidance is needed to help users with the system (Gürkan et al., 2010).

(p. 843) Contemplations on the State of This Area of Inquiry

One of the central challenges in studying political communication behavior and ICTs is the fact that the channels for communication are ever-evolving. Although some have existed since the 1970s and 1980s, such as email and bulletin board systems respectively, others, such as microblogging and social network sites, have emerged only in the past decade. These evolving technologies mean that on the horizon there seems always to be yet another new technology whose effects we need to investigate. Yet that focus on individual technologies overlooks the larger social, media, and political ecology in which we now live and often fails to see the forest for the trees. Put another way, by focusing on the diffusion of each new ICT, scholars fail to examine the broader social and media context and the larger media system into which each is set. As well, this emergent digital communication environment often leads researchers to focus on the “newest” or “hottest” online discussion forums, often at the expense of a richer understanding of some of the long-standing online discussion environments and discourse practices and their effects, such as email listservs and message board forums, which still serve as outlets for political talk.

The scholarship also tends to concentrate on research questions that are relatively easy to pursue, without investigating similarly pressing questions in environments that are more challenging to access. For example, as described earlier, a few studies now have looked at the link practices across blog sites to determine whether blogs or message boards of one political ideology connect to those of opposed ideologies (see, for example, Kelly, Fisher, and Smith, 2005). This is a relatively easy pattern to study, since these forums are publicly available, relatively easily “scraped,” and their links categorized. We have not seen similar investigations on private social media groups or on older channels such as email lists. Part of the reason for this omission is the difficulty in gaining access to such discussion spaces in order to study actual conversations occurring in those online domains.

Despite the challenges in so doing, a small number of scholars are studying actual talk. Since systematic content analysis, thematic analysis, and other qualitative examinations of the interactions are slow, time-consuming, and labor-intensive, increasingly communication scholars are partnering with computer scientists who have developed lexicons (large lists of words, their meanings, and their relationships to other words), machine learning algorithms, and Natural Language Processing capabilities to process large volumes of text. These systems are being used to visualize online discussions (Kelly, Fisher, and Smith, 2005) and to analyze their characteristics (e.g., leadership within forums [Huffaker, 2010; Broadwell et al., 2013]). Such partnerships will be fruitful in years to come.

Not only the media environment but also the population using ICTs is changing. Research conducted about political discussion online in the 1980s and 1990s depicted a (p. 844) stereotypic actor: highly educated, likely employed in the high-tech sector or in higher education, overwhelmingly male, and fairly antiestablishment (Garramone, Harris, and Pizante, 1986; Hill and Hughes, 1998), a conclusion that reflected the relatively small percentage of Americans who were using the Internet at that time. As it has diffused and digital and mobile technologies become more ubiquitous especially in western countries, speculation has centered on “digital natives,” the political actors born and raised in the digital era who may learn, socialize, and engage with politics in ways that differ from those of earlier generations. Thus, as the generational cohorts change, what we think we now know about political discussion online may not hold.

Finally, two conceptual problems plague research in this area. The first relates specifically to the terminology used to characterize discussion online. The second, which stems from the first, is the adequacy of the yardstick used to assess online deliberation. In writing about online discussion, many researchers use the term deliberation, which as described earlier connotes a formal process of discussion with a clearly identified problem and a common task of identifying consensually agreed-upon solutions. The trouble, however, is that much political discussion that occurs online is framed as deliberation and so little of it satisfies that definition. For example, Graham’s (2010) research on the fan site for Big Brother, UK, finds political discussions infused with nonpolitical ones. Yet, it is important to note that the fans who congregate on that website are not there to solve any particular problem or find consensus on a solution. Theirs, then, is a very different type of conversation from that studied by Trénel (2004) and Black (2009), who examined online deliberations that brought New Yorkers together to discuss the redesign and development of Ground Zero, the former World Trade Center site in lower Manhattan, a shared problem for a community that had a collective need to identify agreed-upon solutions. Framing the latter as deliberation makes conceptual sense, but applying that term to political chat that emerges as part of a conversation about a T.V. show does not and leads to the related problem discussed next, that of assessing the character and quality of the discussion.

Scholars’ study of the quality of online discussions often has been informed by deliberative theory, especially that of Jürgen Habermas. Unsurprisingly, much of this work finds that online discussions fail to live up to Habermasian ideals of rational-critical discussion (Dahlberg, 2001). It is worth mentioning that the rational-critical deliberative ideal that Habermas envisioned was never meant as a measuring stick against which to assess discussions on or off line. Having said that, most informal political conversations cannot and should not be expected to do the heavy work assigned to more formal deliberations. Put another way, neither a conversation about homosexuality that emerges on the fan site for Big Brother nor any other informal online political discussion should be expected to embody rational-critical, deductive argumentation, with high reciprocity and equality of participation. That is not the function of such a discussion and likely does not fit with the motives of those who are there to share their thoughts (see, e.g., Svensson, 2015). Put simply, being clear about the function or purpose of the interaction for the participants and within the broader social context would go a long way to clarifying the scholarship on online political talk.

(p. 845) Key Unanswered Questions

As suggested earlier, in this area of work, several significant questions remain unanswered. We need to know more about who participates, who does not, and why. For example, the reasons for the gender disparity in online discussion and deliberation remain something of a mystery. In-depth interviews and surveys with women who do and who do not participate in online informal political discussions or deliberations and participant observation of their online discussions to identify and better understand the discourse practices in these environments would be a helpful addition to this body of scholarship. Relatedly, scholars need to understand in more detail the racial divide online, determine where it does and does not exist, and identify the motives and the social, political, and technological enticements and obstacles that bring certain racial groups but not others to informal talk or formal deliberation online.

We need to better understand which variables affect the quality of informal discussion and formal deliberations. What exactly causes opinion to shift and does the type of digital channel matter (e.g., email, Twitter, chat forums)? Are there particular methods of moderation that produce better discussions, and that create better decision outcomes for formal deliberations? Are there particular digital affordances, such as synchrony (time) or visual presence (e.g., pictures of participants), that facilitate higher-quality discussions? What mechanisms—such as gamification techniques (e.g., badges, points, stars)—might promote greater sustained engagement and broader involvement of participants? Are there more effective mechanisms for participants to self-moderate and self-govern in order to produce higher-quality discussions and better outcomes? These and related questions would be best addressed by researchers conducting controlled experiments. Most research about online discussion, however, analyzes individual case studies or surveys of people who report discussing politics online. Careful experimentation would help researchers to identify explanatory variables as well as isolate the digital and structural characteristics that promote high-quality discussion and better decision outcomes.

Fragmentation and polarization have been identified as key social processes that have been exacerbated by our increasingly diverse media environment, with potentially devastating consequences to democratic societies. The scholarship is mixed with regard to whether people seek homophilous or heterogeneous others with whom to talk politics. My own suspicion is that it is not an either/or situation; that is, in some instances people seek out like-minded others, but at other times they want diverse opinions. We need to better understand the underlying motives and the exigencies that give rise to such media choices. More research is needed to chart and characterize fragmentation and polarization in the context of political talk online and to examine its consequences, both desirable and dire.

Finally, little research has examined how national, political, and cultural climates shape online political discussion and more formal deliberation. One study (p. 846) that analyzed newspaper comments online in three countries—Brazil, the United States, and France—before and after the terrorist attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, found noteworthy differences in the length of comments, the use of humor and ad hominem attack, and methods of argument across the three countries (Robinson, 2005). More scholarship is needed to reveal whether channel characteristics or the national, social, and political culture explain some of the communication practices exhibited in and effects of online discussion. We need to better understand, for example, the ways and functions of political talk online in authoritarian regimes, such as on Sina Weibo in China, or the use of social media in highlighting political issues in authoritarian and transitioning governments as in Egypt.

Conclusion

Online political discussion and deliberation will remain important areas of scholarship in the years ahead, especially as ICTs continue to diffuse and are used not only democratically organized governments but also in authoritarian and oligarchic regimes. Although we now know a fair amount about who uses particular channels for political talk, have identified some of their motives for doing so, and have gathered insight into the positive and negative effects of these behaviors, more work is needed. First, we have yet to unpack the factors that lead women and minorities to engage or avoid online discussions and formal deliberations. Second, more experimental work is needed to understand what produces higher-quality discussions and decision outcomes. Third, scholars must work toward conceptual clarity about the phenomenon of interest. Because informal political conversation and formal deliberation are distinctly different in purpose and in character, analysis of online discourse must attend carefully to its purpose. Fourth, more research is needed that extends across ICTs, cross-culturally and beyond democratically governed societies. As globalization continues, we need to shift our focus beyond the United States and the democratic West to understand nonwestern social and political environments and the nature and function of online political discussion within them.

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