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Cycle of silence: How the Internet changed public discourse
Deborah Vailes - photo by Chandra Johnson
It was just before 6 a.m. on a school day like any other when Louisiana teacher Deborah Vailes posted a photo to Facebook that would put her teaching career in jeopardy.

Vailes posted a photo of female students crying in frustration over "illogical" Common Core school assignments.

Vailes had a spotless conduct record in her more than 10 years in Rapides Parish School District, but by 1 p.m. the same day, all of that would change. Vailes received her first-ever reprimand from her school's principal in response to the Facebook post, saying it made Vailes appear "anti-Common Core."

According to a lawsuit Vailes filed early this year against the district, Vailes was also singled out for expressing her opinions online in a faculty meeting two days after the reprimand. Despite an executive order from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal that teachers have the same rights of expression as anyone else, Vailes' attorneys say her punishment continuted and she was reassigned to a position she was told would be eliminated the following school year.

Vailes' case illustrates how the Internet has changed public discourse. Irina Raicu, director of California's Internet Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, says the Internet gives people a false sense of security about speaking freely, and the fallout ultimately scares others out of saying anything at all.

The tone of the Internet is outrage, Raicu said. This is not about people disagreeing and figuring out of each others positions, its an immediate jump to outrage that creates silence.

Erin Mersino of Michigan's Thomas Moore Law Center, who represents Vailes, argues that public employees, including teachers, have a right to their opinions under the First Amendment.

"It's free speech whether it's written on Facebook or in a letter to the newspaper editor public employees can speak on matters of public concern," Mersino said. "However, employers are sometimes heavy-handed (in their response to employees asserting their opinons) and we do caution people about anything they assert on the Internet, but it is free speech."

To the Rapides School District, who were unavailable for comment, public employees should keep their personal opinions and beliefs to themselves and out of the public eye.


A huge factor in the way people talk to each other online is anonymity. Even on platforms like Facebook or Twitter where users are often identified, theres a level of distance that makes people behave as if theyre anonymous, University of Pennsylvania philosophy lecturer and author Stephen Steinberg said.

Whenever communication is anonymous and instant, people tend to respond relatively thoughtlessly and say whatever comes into their head, Steinberg said. On the Internet, its hard to have a sense of community because that sense is built out of doing things together. There are few places where that happens on the Internet, but it does happen on sites like Wikipedia, for example.

Steinberg says the lack of a sense of community makes people feel like theyre on their own or unsupervised and that makes it easy for courtesy to fall by the wayside.

Where community is absent, people say anything they want without consequence, in a sense, so incivility gets ratcheted up, Steinberg said.

Incivility feeds a theory that sociologists call the Spiral of Silence. The idea is simple: The more people are shamed or humiliated for speaking their minds, the less likely other people are to share their perspectives.

Raicu says the Internet makes airing opinions even riskier when mistakes are seldom forgiven online.

"When someone says something stupid (on the Internet), rather than checking with them, we just assume theyre bad," Raicu said. "Even when they come back and say it was taken out of context or they apologize, we dont believe them its too late. Theyve said one thing wrong and thats it."

A 2014 Pew Research Center report explored how social media played into the Spiral of Silence theory when it surveyed adults about how they discussed NSA surveillance leaks. The researchers found that people were less willing to discuss their views online than face-to-face and that people who used Facebook and Twitter were less likely to talk about their opinions in person.

This was especially true if they did not feel that their Facebook friends or Twitter followers agreed with their point of view, the report stated.

Santa Clara University communications professor Christine Bachen says that while people have plenty of ways to share their views on the Internet, the system is far from perfect.

Weve opened up all these online spaces to try and encourage public discourse to clarify issues and allow us to have discussion, Bachen said. But in many cases, these spaces have been used to shut down discourse and allowed for more debasing discourse to occur.


Steinberg says incivility in discourse is nothing new, and time is the main factor in changing the culture of incivility online.

This is just part of the world we live in now, and the instantaneous nature of it and the lack of filtering is something well just have to adapt to, Steinberg said. Its made being a prominent person and saying something stupid much more high-risk, but back when the free press was getting started in this country, politicians had to get used to people reporting what they said. Theyve adapted we all will.

Bachen says theres already some evidence people are making online discourse more civil when comparing different online platforms like blogs vs. more public platforms like Twitter or YouTube.

Bachen cited a 2014 study from the National Institutes of Health that studied fat shaming on the Internet, which found that instances of shaming, humiliating or joking about overweight people was much higher on less personal sites like Twitter or YouTube. The study found that more personal sites like blogs exercised compassion and fostered healthy conversation about obesity and the stigma surrounding weight gain.

There may be some sites that are more conducive to vitriolic commenting than others, Bachen said. "This is a power, a voice, an opportunity to have an impact that is unparalleled. There's more power for individuals to be heard, but we havent yet developed norms of civil discourse on social media."

To encourage discussion on the Internet rather than outrage, Raicu and Bachen both said the news media had a part to play in setting an example.

Its this self-feeding loop where the media needs to draw attention to its content, so it generates these shocking headlines and we share them, often without reading them, to express our outrage, Raicu said. If youre surrounded by outraged people, youll use that kind of language and tone yourself. But if we keep censoring ourselves because were so uncomfortable with conflict, as a society we cant function well.

A lot of it starts in the news media, but other media like talk radio have been cultivating and controlling their discourse for a while, Bachen said. Were still at a moment where some of these norms are being worked out, and sadly, we need more modeling from the top.
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