Discussion over social media, civic engagement sheds light on issues

Matthew L. Self

A social media and civic engagement discussion occurred on campus hoping to shed light on some issues.

The discussion took place at 1 p.m. on Monday Feb. 24. A group of panelists met in the Rita-Blitt art gallery to discuss the future of journalism, the impact of incivility on social media and the topic of false news reports.

The panelists discussed a variety of topics related to journalism and its future. They included Maria Stover, Ashley Muddiman and Joseph Kendall-Morwick.

The discussion began with Maria Stover, the chair of the mass media department at Washburn. Growing up in a country where free speech was stifled, Bulgaria, Stover related the benefits of having the ability to write and publish without fear of reprisals.

“I told my grandparents that I wanted to be a journalist,” said Stover. “Journalists, as a professions, a lot can be said of the importance of free media and free democracy. We have a role to keep things like the government in check with our reporting.”

Stover then began to address some of the major issues facing journalism and the news industry today. Chiefly concerning sensationalism. Stover related how less research was being conducted for articles and how they are mainly relying on eliciting an emotional response from their viewers.

“The word of the year in 2016 was post-truth,” said Stover. “We have bad manners, fake news, incorrect facts and a president who openly disagrees with the media. All of these challenge basic democratic norms and undermine clear communication among citizens.”

Following Stover was Muddiman from the University of Kansas with her presentation on the civility of people on popular social media platforms. Muddiman’s recent study mainly focused on the comment sections of news pieces on the New York Times’ website. What she discovered through her research was a trifle unsettling but not wholly unexpected.

“Many people engage in political discussions on social media, it’s not all bad stuff but the bad stuff is pretty bad,” said Muddiman. “The downsides to this language hasn’t been fully studied yet. The risk of participating in these discussions is that you could get some things thrown back at you. We’ve found that women and people of color tend to get the brunt of the damage from uncivil comments.”

Muddiman’s research found that uncivil comments not only hurt the targets of them, but also the reputation of the news site. She found that if a news article had negative comments on it, the people reading it would garner negative feelings towards the site itself. A correlation can also be made with these findings with political candidates who garner negative feelings with the comments they post online.

However, her research did find that some good came from political discussions online. Those who participated in uncivil discussions were more encouraged to interact and participate.

“It might not be a bad thing for a small amount of incivility to exist,” said Muddiman.

The next speaker to take hold of the conversation was Joseph Kendall-Morwick from Missouri Western State University, the husband of Kara Kendall-Morwick from Washburn’s English Department. Joseph Kendall-Morwick’s work involves the study of artificial intelligence (AI) and how it will come into play in the future.

“I think when I first started with studies on AI people thought it was more or less a joke of some sort,” said Joseph Kendall-Morwick. “In the same sense that engineers working on the atom bomb had to discuss ethics, the same thing struck me as I was doing this study.”

The discussion moved to the topic of algorithms and their presence in today’s technology. He related how Facebook algorithms can manipulate information easily now. He also spoke of how when we’re working to influence one another, we’re engaging in citizenship.

The panel discussion concluded with questions being accepted by the dozen or so attendees who gathered to listen to the conversation. Muddiman’s studies can be found online at the Journal of Communication where she discusses in depth the topic of incivility on online platforms.

Edited by Adam White, Abbie Barth