Election Year, Online Communities, And Keeping the Peace

With 10% of adults and 30% of those under 30 using social networks to discuss politics in the last US presidential election (1), it shouldn’t be any wonder that these topics may appear in an online community this year.  Should a Community Manager worried? Outright disagreements may be somewhat mitigated by people tending to choose like minded groups to associate with. (2) Further, some groups have a higher tolerance for tough minded discussions. (3)

However, where groups have an otherwise heterogeneous membership, or are focused on social support and are not given to conflict,some political discourse may be off putting to members. (3) More energetic arguments and attacks will end up being controlled by the “belligerent” while the “polite and respectful become discouraged from participation”.(3) No matter the community, the CM should have techniques to help address the situation as needed.

Personal messages, offers to table the discussion until later, appeals to the facts, and banning are some of the  ways to help address the issue, but there are a few more to consider-

But first, is there a problem? Can you quantify any issues, good or bad, that that the political discourse is causing?  Are there fewer active participants? Is membership declining or improving? Is the focus of your group narrowing, and if so, is it in a direction you want? If you community is brand oriented, does this turn align with the larger strategy? Do you run a survey to see how the community feels about this type of discourse? It is good to take a step back and analyze what is going on before spending the time to adjust.

Is accountability a problem?  Since anonymity allows people more power to be discordant, including being held less accountable (4), perhaps removing some of that will lessen the situation. Not allowing anonymous postings may be too much of a change, or not appropriate, for some groups, but tying past actions to pseudonyms may be  helpful. This could include the lessening of karma or other reward/point system, allowing others to post reviews on people’s posts, or mentions in sticky posts.

Is there a place for the problem? Another way to treat these disagreements is to put them in a different area of the group discussion. This would allow them to continue without effecting the focus of the group.  That said, one would need to be careful that animosity which may grow in that area does not spill out into the rest of the group. On a positive note may also be a place for members to release some pressure and allow those who enjoy that sort of thing a place to participate.

There will be a lot of effort to ignite people’s passions in an election year. It’s never to early to make some plans.

1.”The Internet and the 2008 Election ” L Rainie & A Smith Pew Internet and American Life.

2. R. Davis, 1999. The Web of politics: The Internet’s impact on the American political system. Oxford: Oxford University Press. as reported in “Getting political on social network sites: Exploring online political discourse on Facebook” M Kushin and K Kitchener First Monday, Volume 14, Number 11 – 2 November 2009

3.  Sociability and usability in online communities: Determining and measuring success J Preece  Behaviour & Information Technology Volume 20, Issue 5, 2001

4. Several studies mentioned in “Getting political on social network sites: Exploring online political discourse on Facebook” M Kushin and K Kitchener First Monday, Volume 14, Number 11 – 2 November 2009


About John

Interested in how information intersects daily life, technology, and art. Collaboration specialist, working in social and collaborative media. Biomedical Informaticist, focusing on patient/patient, patient/provider communication.
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5 Responses to Election Year, Online Communities, And Keeping the Peace

  1. John says:

    I will be facilitating a #commbuilder tweet chat on this topic June 19th at 10am (PST). Looking forward to getting more ideas.

  2. A very interesting post John (and hi via e-mint). I’m particularly interested in exploring how it is that some groups have a higher tolerance for tough minded discussions…

    Moderation of course is vital in managing contentious discussions – they can easily go off the rails! I recently wrote a post with a few tips which might be of interest to other Community Managers. 5 tips for moderating contentious discussions: http://bit.ly/LWAgvG

    I’m not of a fan of forced identity – especially in relation to political discussions but I do think point 3 is worthy of adoption. Moving or restructuring certain forums is a very useful tactic for resolving issues – and often overlooked in my opinion!

  3. John says:

    Thanks, Alison and any other e-mint’rs.

    Just speculating here, but I think groups with high tolerance for tough minded discussion, may be those more directed to information sharing than emotional bonding. If I disagree with someone, I may still want to be in the group for its informational benefits. If I am looking for more personal help, a place I feel safe to share my own thoughts, I would want conflicting opinions discussed in the gentlest of manners. It would be fun to see if any studies have been done on this.

    The advice on your blog about media legislation is well taken.

    Making a place for people to participate in political discussions now, before the election hype gets even louder, might be the best bet.

  4. John says:

    Feverbee has a good post up on setting up a formal debate within your community. This looks like another way to tackle possibly divisive election year issues in a way that can make your community stronger.

    I also like the idea is that it can be proactive. One can at least set up the platform/process for such debates so they are at the ready, or go ahead and plan a few ahead of time.

  5. John says:

    I facilitated a tweetchat on CommBuild about this topic. There were a lot of good insights. Check out the #commbuild archive for that day.

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