In this age of partisanship, civil political discussions on social media seem nearly impossible. In a new study of online conversation in our politicized era, Indiana University sociologist BK Lee and colleagues are exploring how to create political civility online. Social media is here to stay as a platform for political conversation, Lee says, so if we’re going to figure out how to promote respectful political deliberation online, then we have to understand what sustains civil interaction there. To examine how political deliberation and polarization play out online, the research team is studying data collected from comments and likes across more than 1,000 public Facebook pages of varying political orientations, such as the pages for The New York Times or Fox News. The data include 1.2 billion comments, 8.2 billion reactions to posts, and 2.6 billion reactions to comments from 300 million users across 7.5 million posts. Using a variety of methods, the researchers will measure social interactions, rationality, civility and abusive language in the comments and posts. They will also examine what factors allow for respectful deliberation. The goal, Lee says, is to identify how and why some online communities can counter hate speech, while others fail. The research team plans to develop tools that will improve the design of online communication platforms, ultimately producing a more civil online public space.
In other news, members of Alaska’s Indigenous Yupik community still follow many traditional cultural practices that have sustained their people for centuries in a harsh, arctic climate. Yet despite their remote location, the Yupik’s land, water, traditional food sources, and even their bodies carry a toxic burden from modern life. In fact, industrial chemicals are found in their blood at rates six to ten times higher than those of the average American. During the Cold War, the U.S. military built two strategic bases on Alaska’s St. Lawrence Island, which is located about 40 miles from the Russian Coast. Although those bases have been closed for decades, island inhabitants insist that clean-up efforts remain incomplete. Indiana University scientist Amina Salamova is now exploring the prevalence of the toxic chemicals and the risks those chemicals pose to Yupik communities. The long-term goal, Salamova says, is to help restore the island to the Indigenous people so they can sustain their traditional lifestyle. Salamova and collaborators will collect samples of air, water, and traditional food sources to explore how people are exposed to the contaminants, as well as blood samples from the people directly exposed to contaminants through using the sites as hunting ground. Overall, the researchers hope that their data will be used to develop a community-based public health action plan that will help sustain the Yupik’s cultural heritage and traditional practices.