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Thinking through the Parameters for Online Political Discourse

The final speaker in this morning panel at AoIR 2016 is Elliot Panek, who points out that social media are only one venue for political discourse, and that different platforms support different forms and qualities of discourse. Is it possible to develop robust, lasting frameworks for understanding such discourse that are not inherently tied to specific specific platforms, then?

Elements that are important here are technological affordances, social context, regulation, and user attitudes. Technological attributes include identity disclosure, message display, and message categorisation; the qualities of discourse we may be interested in include the levels of hostility, relevance, and tolerance, C for instance.

On identity disclosure: we might be able to distinguish between anonymous, pseudonymous, and 'real-name' participation; these settings create different levels of personal accountability, which may result in different degrees of hostility or self-censorship. Message display options could result in chronological display, sorting by user ratings, curated content feeds, or algorithmically sorted feeds; this again could result in different levels of relevance and hostility, in censorship through shared community attitudes or empowered moderators, or in the gaming of algorithmic selection processes by users. Participation could further be shaped by offline relationships, by location-based participant selection, or by interest-based self-selection; this again could result in groupthink, hostility towards individuals or the irrelevance of messages, or in hostility towards outsiders.

All of these attributes in turn also interact with each other, and are configured in a diverse range of combinations on different social media platforms. These could be explored through observational discourse studies, across diverse platforms, and also through experimental studies that manipulate specific attributes within controlled environments.