Cultivating Civility in Digital Spaces

The notion of civil discourse challenges nearly every election cycle, and the current United States presidential election may be one of the loudest examples of how far we can tumble into incivility in our digital spaces.

Whether you favor a blue state, a red state, a 3rd-party candidate, or a complete overhaul of our government, you have the freedom and the privilege to share your opinion widely. Presidential elections happen every four years in our country, but the changes in digital technologies don’t wait a full term to adapt – so the 2016 election finds us engaging (both civilly and uncivilly, productively and unproductively) in ways we could not have predicted just four years ago.

If everyone has something to say and a platform to use, how does a voice get heard? These days, it seems, the louder and angrier it is (regardless of political beliefs) the more likely it is to rise to the top.  And we ask for input – we give answers, we ask questions, we pull others into comment sections with us. But a post is not always a dramatic improvement over silence if it intentionally lacks civility. And the blending of how students differentiate between digital and face-to-face interactions often means that incivility online will seep into incivility on campus.

So how do we encourage civility in digital spaces?

Junco and Chickering (2010) wrote that we need to have dialogue about how “new communication technologies can be used to strengthen our communities and to foster the key cognitive and affective behaviors we value” (p. 15). It’s clear that there’s more to just “being nice” online. There’s a direct connection between how students use these technologies and how they learn in the classroom and treat each other on campus.

As Junco and Chickering (2010) said, “it’s important to help students think about the unintended consequences of what they post online” (p. 17).  This also counts for adults. Not only is it difficult to control how far an uncivil message spreads, but it’s also even more difficult to have control over how it is interpreted by others. In the final weeks before an election, our active and vocal student populations will share their opinions. Administrators and faculty may also want to have others understand who and what they support – but at what cost? Do our posts accurately represent our beliefs? Do our students understand the sarcasm, hyperbole, or volatile language we may use in social media posts if they only know us in purely non-political contexts?

The National Institute for Civil Discourse (2012) at the University of Arizona defines civil discourse as the free and respectful exchange of different ideas, and that idea is central to the effective practice of democracy.  The evolving expanse of digital tools has broadened the opportunity for exchanging ideas and provided an opportunity for both civil and uncivil dialogue.  Digital communication has aligned with face-to-face communication on our campuses, weaving its’ way into our campus communities and influencing us – from social expectation all the way to creation and implementation of policy. So just as we focus on how policies are made around the freedom of expression, we must focus on how social expectations and campus cultural norms are created around digital engagement.

There are questions we can ask ourselves (and our students) that will help encourage civility in digital spaces, particularly around the current election in the United States.

  • Is this something I would say in person?
  • Is what I’m posting an accurate reflection of what I truly believe?
  • Should I wait to post this until I am calmer and thinking more clearly?
  • Does what I’m posting encourage engagement?
  • Does what I’m posting move the conversation forward?

The week leading up to our Presidential election will be a critical time on our campuses, so setting the tone for what civil discourse and respectful dialogue can look like.

What are you doing to lead by example when it comes to civility online?


Junco, R. & Chickering, A.W. (2010). Civil discourse in the age of social media. About Campus, September/October, p. 12-18.

Kenski, K., Coe, K., & Rains, St. (2012). Patterns and determinants of civility in online discussions. National Institute for Civil Discourse. Retrieved from:


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