Face-to-Face, Respectful and Thoughtful Dialogue Key to Repairing Divided Nation

Written by Drexel University President John Fry and published in Inside Sources, this piece explores how social media is creating a dangerous feedback loop that is making it difficult to consider other points of view, further exacerbating the nation’s political divide.

Many universities are struggling with how best to navigate the highly charged political divide that has become even more pronounced since the election of Donald Trump.

Universities have long been bastions of free speech. But many colleges are struggling with how to balance that First Amendment right, while ensuring all students feel free to be heard.

At Middlebury College in Vermont, violent student protests shut down a talk by conservative social scientist Charles Murray. The University of California at Berkley was forced to cancel a talk by a then-editor at Breitbart News after violent protests that included fires being lit, smashed windows and the hurling of Molotov cocktails.

At Hampshire College, some students wanted the American flag flown on campus to come down after the election. Others argued that it should be lowered to half-staff, and did so. Then overnight the flag was taken down and burned, sparking more argument.

Here at Drexel, a professor has twice sparked uproars in recent months with offensive tweets. The tweets were done on his own time, away from campus via a private account. The university issued a statement saying the professor’s views did not represent the views of the university. Even so, we were bombarded with thousands of angry e-mails and phone calls.

To be sure, hate speech has no place on a college campus or elsewhere. But there is a need for greater understanding and tolerance for differing views. Given the tense political environment, we can’t depend on lawmakers in Washington to lead when it comes to finding common ground. It has to come from the grassroots. That’s where universities can play a leading role in encouraging informed debate and civil discourse.

Part of the problem is that social media often lacks context and often occurs in short, angry or reactionary bursts. At the same time, social media has helped to intensify the current divide by providing news feeds that affirm individual biases. This is creating a dangerous feedback loop that is making it difficult to consider other points of view, further exacerbating the political divide.

The internet is a double-edged sword. It has provided greater access to more information than ever before. But it has also left many individuals less informed or even misinformed. This is especially a problem for many young people who spend so much time on social media.

A recent study by researchers at Stanford University found most students were unable to distinguish between real and false news. The study found that 82 percent of students surveyed believed sponsored content – essentially an ad presented as news – was a real story.

This is troubling considering 61 percent of millennials use Facebook as their primary source of news about politics and government, according to a 2016 study by the Pew Research Center. This is not just a problem for the younger generation: 62 percent of U.S. adults also get news from social media, according to Pew.

An analysis by BuzzFeed News found that hyperpartisan political Facebook pages and websites routinely provided their followers false and misleading information. Even more alarming, the least accurate pages generated some of the highest number of shares and comments from readers, the analysis found.

To combat the fake and misleading news, Facebook has added a warning label to indicate the report is disputed. Other social media are developing products to get users out of their information bubble. An iPhone app called Read Across the Aisle uses a meter to tell readers the ideological bent of a particular site. Escape Your Bubble pulls opposing political views into your Facebook feed. Slate is offering a feature called “Today in Conservative Media.”

In other words, the same social media platforms that have helped to fuel the political divide are now developing products to combat it. That is fine as far as it goes. But it seems ludicrous for these same social media providers to benefit from their blunders.

In a perfect world, a better solution would be for individuals to spend less time on social media and more time speaking and listening to one another. Liberals and conservatives need to better understand one another’s points of view and seek to find areas of agreement and engagement. Empathy and respect will go a long way to bridging the political divide.

But it is unlikely to expect everyone to put down their mobile phones. That’s all the more reason why colleges and universities have a duty to foster healthy debates grounded in civil discourse. To be sure, many universities which are traditionally bastions of liberal thinking, would be wise to recruit more conservative and independent scholars.

Professors and students from all political sides should be free to voice their points of view. Universities can play a role in teaching how to identify false news and make sure arguments are grounded in facts.

We can also encourage the importance of purposefully seeking out those who have a different point of view. University campuses are perfectly suited to bring together people from different racial, ethnic, economic and political backgrounds to debate issues of the day.

That does not mean exchanges can’t be robust, especially surrounding controversial topics. But respectful, thoughtful and honest dialogue – done face to face and not behind the safety of a mobile phone – is the best way bind and repair a divided nation.

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