UT project seeks respect in online political discourse

Bailey Hulsey

After a year of testing social media, a project at the Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life released findings Tuesday on tools that encourage civic engagement.


Communications associate professor Natalie Stroud created the Engaging News Project in fall 2012 to research online tools and how to prompt healthy online political discourse. The project — staffed by Stroud, four graduate students, two programmers and one undergraduate student — surveyed more than 1,500 people of all ages from across the country.


Among the various tools explored was the “respect” button. Stroud said replacing the “like” button found on popular media outlets with a button that says “respect” instead would foster more open-mindedness and less hostility when encountering opposing views.


“The respect button increased the number of times people clicked and lead people to click more on opposing views,” Stroud said. “I find that pretty amazing that a simple change like that could have such a big effect.”


Stroud said she formed the project after authoring the 2011 book “Niche News: The Politics of News Choice,” which analyzes the negative effects of polarization in both news and social media. She said people are prone to accessing news sources whose political views they identify with, which can have negative consequences.


Stroud said she wanted to make a difference after writing a book on the extent of the polarization but found that difficult to do.


Advertising senior Femialex Williams said he has high hopes for social media’s potential to host productive political discussion but initiatives such as implementing a “respect” button would not be widely accepted.


Advertising graduate student Christina Orozco said she also isn’t convinced of the respect button’s potential real-world application.


“It’s the Internet, and we know that people are much more open to voice their opinions on the Internet regardless of how soft you want to name the button,” Orozco said. “People are going to still respond the way they want to.”


But the 50 percent increase in clicks on counterargument comments that the respect button facilitated in Stroud’s studies may prove otherwise, and Stroud has high hopes for social media’s progress.


“I hope that it will be well-used and adopted,” Stroud said. “But, there’s so much more to be done.”