Listening as an Antidote to a Zero-Sum Outlook with Dr. Filippo Trevisan
|Tavia Gilbert: Welcome to Stories of Impact. I’m producer Tavia Gilbert, and in every episode of this podcast, journalist Richard Sergay and I bring you conversation about the newest scientific research on human flourishing, and how those discoveries can be translated into practical tools.|
This season of the Stories of Impact podcast explores the vital question of citizenship in a networked age: how social media brings communities closer or tears them apart, if big tech has any responsibility to global citizenship, and what the role of the individual is in supporting a healthy, functioning, and sustainable democracy.
Today, Richard is in conversation with Dr. Filippo Trevisan, assistant professor at the School of Communication and Deputy Director at the Institute on Disability and Public Policy at American University. Dr. Trevisan talks about our evolving views on social media and offers insight on how we can use — and how we are already using—the Internet as a tool to improve representation in our democratic process.
Richard Sergay: Filippo, thanks for joining us today. We’re going to focus on this Oxford report titled Citizenship in a Networked Age. I’m curious to begin there what the title means to you?
Filippo Trevisan: Something that has always been an interest of mine is how, as the digital environment changes constantly, what that means for citizens, in terms of what priorities as well as what demands are placed onto them, in terms of consuming information, producing information, sharing it with others, discussing it without others and what that means in terms of their ability to participate in society, particularly in politics, and how that affects their ability to be full citizens and participants in democratic societies, in particular.
Richard Sergay: I’m curious whether you mark this pre- and post-Internet days in terms of looking at it in the digital age?
Filippo Trevisan: I think that’s an interesting question, and a lot of the studies in the early days that were looking at the emergence of the Internet as a place for citizenship looked at what we can do online and what we can do offline, but not necessarily how the two things come together. They sort of tried to compare it.
And I think that for a long time was the done deal, the approach that most people would take, but, relatively quickly, people realized that it was a false demarcation and an artificial one, so to speak. And the two worlds, the digital world and the real world, so to speak, for lack of a better word, really come together in all sorts of ways. And it is very difficult, and it is not natural to try to distinguish between the two of them.
So certainly I think the way I look at it is, how do these new forms of media bring about change in established processes, but with the understanding that democracy, to function, always needs the same common denominator. For example, a free press is one of the things that we cannot do without if we want to have a democratic society. How is that changing with the advent of digital media and the ability of people to access new sources of information, check them out if they’d like to do so, as well as share them with others and sort of become themselves sources of new information?
So the basis continues to be the same, and technology is sort of something that is overlaid and attached to those prerequisites and may have an effect, in some cases positive, in some others, it complicates things.
Richard Sergay: The Internet in many ways does complicate these issues, and we have leadership that one could point a finger to that is taking advantage of those complications and calling out things like “fake news.” What does that do to citizenship, and what then becomes the responsibility of a citizen in an era where facts that are questioned?
Filippo Trevisan: I think that’s an excellent question, and the Templeton World Charity Foundation, in the series of videos that you produced, actually, one of the interviews that relate to citizenship is with Vint Cerf, one of the fathers of the Internet. And he has a very good quote in there, which I think is really telling in terms of what all of these technologies are doing to citizens, and says, being a citizen in the network and digital world, it’s a lot more difficult.
And I would tend to really agree with that quite strongly, in the sense that what we’ve been seeing happening, particularly over the last four years, really since the 2016 election campaign here in the US, is a strengthening of trends that have been emerging since before then, although they didn’t become quite as prominent, in terms of placing a lot of demands on citizens when it comes to asking them to verify the veracity of information, which, you know, some citizens are certainly better equipped or interested in doing than others. Some of them have more time than others to do. Most people don’t have the time that’s needed.
And so there has been sort of a hollowing out of the function of traditional media as not only gatekeepers of information, that’s an expression, I think it’s, it has a negative connotation, that sometimes places it in a dark frame that I don’t think it’s justified, but as institutions that help people access the best quality information in a certain sense.
And when that’s being questioned, it really puts individuals in a difficult spot, because they’re sort of left to their own devices when it comes to figuring out what is reliable and what’s not. And certainly a lot of the disinformation that we see nowadays really seeks to capitalize on psychological mechanisms that we know make people more likely to agree with a piece of information that may not be true, but reconfirms pre-existing biases, for example, at the subconscious level. And there isn’t a lot that people can do to fight back against that.
When we are so immersed in this sort of system, everything becomes a lot more difficult. And the election, the 2020 election in particular, and what has been happening since with President Trump, not, you know, agreeing to concede and certainly publicizing a number of questionable or outright false claims about the results of the election and the voting procedures and so on, really has created a lot of fog around this issue. And for people to see through that fog, it’s really, really difficult.
I don’t want to necessarily say people can’t do anything to try and figure out what the good information is in there, but it does become very, very difficult, and I think platforms have a role to play in this process, which they haven’t agreed to take on until very, very recently. And we have seen a shift in the likes of Twitter and Facebook and how they approach their role in the system of information sharing over the last few months, really, I wouldn’t say the last few years, it is something that has really been happening in the last three or four months.
Richard Sergay: Do you think these tech platforms and other social media outlets have accelerated the sense of living within this echo chamber?
Filippo Trevisan: In certain ways, you know, I think a lot of what we see in terms of references to people only listening to their own echo chamber or being immersed in an echo chamber, are a little bit overblown, because studies do tell us that actually, it isn’t quite as bad as we would like to think, or, you know, we’re told by some pundits in the media and so on. And people do have access to a broader range of information on average than they would have had in the pre-Internet age, and don’t necessarily only seek out or are offered by some of these platforms information that they only agree with. So it is a little bit of an overblown statement.
I think more of a concern is the sheer amount of information, as well as disinformation that’s out there, that makes it difficult for people to just focus on what’s important. It just makes it impossible for the average citizen, whose daily life is busy with a lot of other things, to take the time that is really needed in trying to figure out what they should be paying attention to versus what is questionable and they really should be critical towards.
Richard Sergay: It’s not only, it seems to me, the amount of information that has grown exponentially, certainly because of the Internet, but in recent years, it’s also because of leadership that has become in, these are my words, irresponsible in their use of facts and truth in a way to persuade an audience. Would you agree with that?
Filippo Trevisan: I would tend to agree with that, yes. One thing that politicians in particular, and a certain kind of politician has been very good at over the last few years, has been to exploit some of the mechanisms within platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, that are geared towards sharing without necessarily enabling or allowing for people to take the time that they need to reflect on what it is that they’re sharing.
So the goal there, and we know it from studies that have been done and, you know, the hearings of some of the people that have worked on the design of these platforms, that the ultimate goal is to just encourage sharing and engagement as much as possible. And certainly building an interface that promotes reflection kind of slows that process down. And it is not in the commercial interest of those platforms to do that.
And so that has been sort of a hindrance, I think, to the building of a more useful and positive public sphere. But as I said before, I think social media platforms in particular have started to reflect on their role in this space over the past year and acting upon it over the past two or three months.
For a long time, the likes of Facebook and Twitter would like to always reiterate their point that they’re not a media company, that they are a technology company, and therefore they shouldn’t be bound to, you know, police that quality of information on their platforms. And the tune has sort of changed. I think there are two reasons for that. One of them is because they saw their reputation being harmed by, you know, the continuation of allegations and their lack of being able to come forward with a satisfactory response to what it was that they were doing. And the other one has to do more with the principles of democracy and the deeper understanding I think these platforms now have of the role they’re playing within these mechanisms.
And they’ve gone into it in different ways, they’ve taken different types of measures, I think some of them are more effective than others. I think Twitter has been better at trying to create the space for people to reflect on what it is that they’re sharing compared to Facebook. And so we’ve seen them, we’ve seen Twitter, for example, after the election, labeling individual tweets by prominent political figures, not just Donald Trump, but many others as well, or even covering them up with a message about, you know, the content of the tweet being disputed. They didn’t make it unavailable—people could still click on it and read what was under that label, and if they want it sharing it, but they tried to slow that process down and redesign the platform in a way that enabled people to take a little bit more time to think about what it is that they were reading and how that might compare to what other sources of information are saying about the same issue.
I think that’s really important. I don’t know if it’s going to go forward. You know, all of the platforms have said, this is something that they were going to implement on and around the election, but, depending on what they see in their analytics now about how this is playing out, we may well see some of this continuing into the future. And I think this is, maybe not a sufficient development, but a very positive one nonetheless.
Richard Sergay: Isn’t the genie already out of the bottle here? I mean, can you, after you hear Mark Zuckerberg, when he starts Facebook basically says privacy is dead, today, you know, a decade later, say, well, maybe not so fast, let’s think about ways of fact-checking and containing privacy to some degree. What’s your feeling?
Filippo Trevisan: My feeling [laughs] I think you are touching on a very important point there. And I just, I feel conflicted toward some of those statements, and you know, many of the statements that in particular Zuckerberg has made over the last few years. You know, he has said things along the lines of, you just mentioned.
He’s also said in the past, in a very publicized Washington Post interview a few years ago, that what Facebook wants is not necessarily privacy, but it is control, and to give people control of their information, which I would argue, there aren’t a lot of opportunities built into the platform for people to be able to do that, but at the same time, it also goes to the point of, you know, letting people necessarily control what it is they’re seeing might then not be the right solution if people end up creating echo chambers for themselves. So we go back to the point that you were making earlier on.
As to whether the genie is out of the bottle or not, again, I think certainly if these platforms had acted a few years ago on these issues, the same way that they’re doing now, and not waited until a few weeks ago, it would have been better. But as to whether it’s too late or not, I don’t know if we have a definitive answer.
It depends on a number of things, and depends on whether there is going to be a continuation of these measures, and whether possibly there’s going to be an expansion of some of these measures. You know, I referenced Twitter earlier on, which has taken quite a specific and targeted approach in their labeling. Facebook has had more of a generic disclaimer sort of approach, and they’re placing disclaimers at the top of the Facebook feed and in the middle, but they don’t go after individual posts, in most cases. And I think that’s the less effective way of doing this sort of damage control, so to speak, if you want, or creating a space for people to reflect on what it is that they’re seeing before they share it and engage with it.
So that is one factor that’s going to be important to consider in the future. Are these measures going to continue? Are they going to be expanded? Are they going to be evaluated and therefore improved going forward?
Another one is, you know, if these measures do continue, what are users going to do? Are they going to stick with the platform? Are they going to move to a new platform because they maybe don’t like some of the speech being slowed down, and some of these new constraints being placed onto what it is they’re seeing?
There’s been a lot of talking of this new platform called Parler as a place for alt-right, I wouldn’t even use the word conservative, because I think mainstream conservatives would feel quite uncomfortable looking at some of the disinformation that’s going on on alternative platforms.
But, you know, are people who are very fond of their ability to engage with a certain type of information and platforms that are mainstream, if that ability becomes constrained, are they going to move to a different platform in which there are no constraints and that might make it more difficult for us to access what it is that’s being said over there? That’s another sort of open question, so to speak.
At the moment, I don’t see that gaining the kind of traction that would be required, but, you know, after Trump leaves the White House, there’s going to be the open question of what he’s going to do with his large following on social media. Is he going to take it to a new platform? Is he going to stay where he is if he’s going to be limited in what it can say? And he is just one figure. I mean, I think it’s important not to focus solely on him, but there are a number of others who are ready to take the space that may become available to them if mainstream platforms decide to go a certain way, compared to the way they’ve gone so far, and that creates new opportunities for others.
Richard Sergay: What is the danger for citizenship in creating these alternative universes of social media?
Filippo Trevisan: Hm. I think the danger is that we are effectively creating sort of groups that are going to be unable to talk to each other, because they’re missing the one most important thing that, you know, we can agree to disagree in many cases, but that can only be done if we agree on some basic facts about an issue or an event.
If that is missing, and two groups of people are going to believe completely different things, or not even believe that something is true and existed, then that opportunity for dialogue just becomes impossible. So that is the main problem, I think. And, you know, freedom of speech is paramount to American democracy. However, having people accessing information on two completely separate platforms really would lend itself to the creation of those filter bubbles that we were talking earlier on, right?
So I said, some of the research tells us that on mainstream platforms, maybe the filter bubble problem isn’t as prevalent as many people think, but if we go the way of separate platforms, then that will become a much more acute problem, I would say.
So it’s certainly something that is concerning, looking forward. And again, we don’t know if people are going to move to an alternative platform or set of platforms, but if that happens, there is a risk of not just further polarization, but just two completely different set of individuals that are not going to be able to talk to each other.
Richard Sergay: Among the recommendations in the citizenship report, one that I know is close to your heart as a potential solution, and that is listening as a civic virtue. Why is listening so important?
Filippo Trevisan: Because it enables us to empathize with others, and understand where others are coming from, and try to preempt the negative notion of political engagement as a zero-sum game, that so many politicians, I would say, like to really promote nowadays.
And it’s really, really extremely dangerous, this idea that for one individual or one group of people to be able to benefit from an election or a set of measures that may be put in front of a legislator, another group or another individual has to sort of lose, right? So there’s a winner, and there is a loser—you know, listening is the best antidote towards that. And that’s not the way that policy-making should work.
The way in which policy-making should work is to look for benefits that apply to the biggest number of people, and so for both individuals or both groups to score a win, so to speak. And that’s not impossible to achieve, but if we do promote the notion to start with that, that’s not something that is possible then, you know, we’re going on a very dangerous path.
And certainly we have seen increasing gridlock in institutions and the inability of politicians, not because they don’t necessarily want to come to a consensus, but because that is, in today’s information world, it’s electorally disadvantageous. It might hurt them at the ballot box, and certainly that doesn’t lead to good policy.
Richard Sergay: We’re also seeing an increasing lack of trust in these institutions because of that, is that correct?
Filippo Trevisan: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I mean, it’s, the politicization of some of the discourse has led to a lack, a declining, lack of trust. I mean, that’s a trend that’s been going on in American politics and democratic politics in the Western world, you know, for 50 years. It’s not something that came about with the Internet, but it’s something that has accelerated in the last 20 years in a very dramatic fashion.
And when I think of listening as a potential solution to some of these issues, I think of some of the measures that I was mentioning earlier on. So thinking about ways we can redesign these platforms to encourage space and time for people to think, as well as to highlight and sort of promote the positives.
You know, we’ve talked about all of the negatives of these platforms, but there are a lot of positives as well, and, you know, I see it. A lot of my work relates to how people come together to advocate for better health policy and healthcare, disability support. That’s what a lot of my research looks at. And, you know, those are voices that tend to be sidelined in a lot of debates, but find strength in numbers and are able to find each other online in ways that were impossible before the Internet due to a variety of barriers, geographical distance being only one of them.
And also, sharing personal experiences on these forums is very powerful, both for those who do it, because they are able to sort of put themselves into the frame of a complex, maybe, policy debate through their own experience, which doesn’t require a great deal of political knowledge, for example. So it’s lowering the threshold for participation from that point of view.
And another positive effect is that others who are listening to these experiences being shared online might find those very compelling, right? And so that sort of reinforces this loop of listening and then hopefully at some point it gets to the point of people taking action.
Richard Sergay: Is there research on what it means to listen well online?
Filippo Trevisan: Yes, there is research that relates to technology and the interface effect and what that means for people to be able to take the time and respond. And certainly we see, you know, some platforms are more geared towards listening than others.
And so one thing that is interesting about this recent development with Twitter is that Twitter for a long time has been a platform that’s not being very good at promoting listening, because especially the way in which influential figures like journalists and politicians would use them, it’s more of a broadcast platform. It’s not about engaging with others, it’s about putting information out there and then letting people do what they like with it. Or it’s not about, as much as other platforms, about having a conversation.
But the idea of sort of safeguarding the quality of information in the way that we’ve seen over the last couple of weeks with the election has put a different spin on that platform, too. So it’s an interesting development to look forward to how it’s going to evolve going forward and in the future.
There is also, you know, a lot of psychological research done about listening online in platforms such as Facebook, for example, and what the positive and negative effects can be from that point of view.
And so, you know when I was talking about support groups and groups of people sharing their same experiences, that’s definitely going to have a positive impact, particularly on people who experience isolation in other aspects of their life. It can also have somewhat negative effects in some ways, if people feel like their experience is being dismissed, right?
So that’s the other flip side of the coin, I would say. It’s also, you know, for good listening to be successful, there has to be somebody who is willing to listen and act as an engaged communicator from that point of view, it’s not just about those who are doing the talking. It really is about those who are doing the listening, as well.
Richard Sergay: In fact, I was going to ask you whether there’s a difference between listening well and not listening poorly.
Filippo Trevisan: I think there is a fine line between not listening poorly and listening well. I would say not listening poorly is a good starting point, and not listening well is development, an ability that may be acquired over time. And also listening poorly starts with not contradicting the other. There might be an opportunity there to put forward additional information, but certainly, you know, it’s a good starting point if we don’t dismiss the other person’s experience
Listening well, then, requires the ability of engaging in a conversation, because listening is part of that two-way communication process that needs to happen for communication to come to a positive outcome or a positive resolution. And we know that from, you know, the very basic studies that have been done about how communication works.
And for a long time, listening wasn’t recognized as a valuable part of the community process, all the focus and all the attention was on the speaking. But listening is just as important and essential to communication that, you know, leads to a positive outcome for both parties. And what’s interesting to see on some of the social media platforms is how listening has to be adapted because of the loss of visual cues, for example, which are really important in face-to-face communication, as well as video communication over the Internet.
But a lot of the communication that happens on social platforms is text-based, and if there is an image, it doesn’t tend to be one that sort of relates directly to that communicative process. Listening in writing, it’s more work, and it’s more difficult, and requires us to think in ways that we’re not used to, because when we are having a conversation face to face, we know for a fact that we are, and we, we don’t even think about this, we just assume that we’re not only communicating with our voice, there are a lot of facial expressions and, you know, hand gestures that may go with it. And that will complete the package of what it is that we’re trying to say and how we’re trying to engage with the other person.
In much of social media communication, that’s lost. And people don’t think about how to integrate that into the written form. And so, you know, the use of punctuation, for example, or, all caps, and, you name it, there are ways that can help communicate better and listen better as a text communicator on social media. But that’s not something that comes natural to most people.
And then it’s further complicated by the fact that it’s not just about what we want to say, it’s also about how much experience and ability to interpret what it is that we want to say and the way in which we want to communicate it through text, the other person who’s trying to listen has, right? So there is a potential for misunderstandings and misinterpretations that is greater, I would say, than on a face-to-face basis.
Richard Sergay: Can digital platforms and tech companies do things to support better listening?
Filippo Trevisan: Yeah, they can definitely do that. And you know, one of them has to do with creating space for people to listen, and sort of moving away from sharing and engagement as the absolute imperative, and trying to slow down the flow of information in certain ways.
And so some of the election-related measures we were talking about earlier on are a positive step in that direction, and there are other measures that could be taken that relate to offering alternative points of view, for example, or modifying algorithms in way that promote encounters that would lead to listening. So that’s something that they can do in terms of acting on their infrastructure and their interfaces. And that’s one element.
Another one might be, again, trying to intervene on their algorithms in way that may offer people opportunities to join groups, for example, that relate to their interests in ways that they might have not considered before. And that can be helpful as well in terms of bringing about some of those, social scientists have called them “weak links” between people, that otherwise would not emerge because of other barriers that exist in the physical world. So those are measures that platforms could take going forward.
Richard Sergay: As you peek into the near future of citizenship in the digital age—optimist? Pessimist? Realist?
Filippo Trevisan: Ever the optimist, [laughing] but you know, also pragmatist in terms of, we need to think about what it is going to take for the companies that run these services to really see and find an incentive in sort of modifying some of their basic architecture. And so far, profit has been driven by sharing, clicking, and advertising.
And I think there is going to be a point at which reputation is going to become so important that it’s, that’s one of the things that’s going to really support action by these companies. And trying to change their reputation around, and that’s what is going to promote these type of changes. So far, we haven’t seen them on the scale that is needed to really sort of shift interactions towards a more positive set of interactions. But I think we’re starting to see some of that, and, you know, none of us has a crystal ball and we know what’s going to happen going forward, but I think that’s going to be a positive development that we’re going to be seeing over the next few years, is wanting to be seen as a responsible actor.
There is a possibility for regulation as well and more regulation. I am not sure that that will necessarily solve the problem. There is something positive to be said, I think, for the idea of thinking about how some of these companies, particularly Google and Facebook, in some ways act as a monopoly on some of these ways of interacting, as well as a lot of advertising online. And so that is problematic, and certainly that’s an area where legislators might want to intervene going forward.
But it’s not going to be the only factor that’s going to contribute to a better, a more sound exchange of ideas online and therefore a better opportunity for people to reform citizenship to its full extent. I think reputation of these platforms is going to be key going forward and how much pressure users are going to be able to place on them to change their ways.
Richard Sergay: Filippo Trevisan, thank you very much for a very thoughtful interview on a critical subject about citizenship in the digital age. Thank you.
Filippo Trevisan: Thanks for having me.
Tavia Gilbert: We’ve covered a great deal of ground throughout this most fascinating season. I hope this series of conversations, which began with Dr. Andrew Briggs & Dr. Dominic Burbidge discussing their report on Citizenship in a Networked Age and their agenda for rebuilding our civic ideals, has been informative, galvanizing, and even inspiring.
I admit that it’s overwhelmed me, at times — thinking this deeply about the perils of modern digital communication; the speed at which information, or misinformation, can spread; the manipulation of reality by bad actors who recognize the opportunity inherent in constant disruption. But this season’s conversations have also encouraged me to recognize how much power I have as an individual: power to choose my words and my tone carefully, to trust information but to also verify it, to participate fully in the civic life of communities, both national and global.
I’m closing out the season with an awareness of how much work that full participation requires, but how much promise is held by those citizens who rise to the occasion. What can we create — for ourselves and for our fellow citizens — when we roll up our sleeves and commit to doing that hard, vital, collective work?
Thanks for listening to our third season of the Stories of Impact podcast. In two weeks, we’ll be back with the first episode of Season 4, which focuses on Human Flourishing. What does it look like for human beings to flourish? What do we need to do to ensure everyone has that opportunity? These are just some of the questions we’ll be exploring when Richard begins the season in conversation with Dr. Andrew Serazin, President of Templeton World Charity Foundation. Dr. Serazin describes TWCF’s bold new commitment to invest $40 million into research to promote Human Flourishing. Here’s Dr. Serazin:
Andrew Serazin: Flourishing is a holistic concept. By one definition, it means that all the many dimensions of your life are good. Flourishing goes beyond typical measures of health — both physical health and mental health. It also includes measures like life satisfaction, meaning and purpose, character and virtue, and social relationships. Flourishing is contrasted with languishing. It connotes a sense of generativity, positivity, growth, and resilience.
Tavia Gilbert: I can’t wait to hear more of that conversation when we return with our next episode. In the meantime, if you liked today’s Story of Impact, we’d be grateful if you’d take a moment to subscribe to the podcast, to rate and review it, and if you’d share or recommend this program to someone you know. Your support helps us reach new audiences.
You can hear all of our podcasts at storiesofimpact.org, and you can find Stories of Impact videos at templetonworldcharity.org/our-impact.
This has been the Stories of Impact podcast, with Richard Sergay and Tavia Gilbert. This episode written and produced by Talkbox and Tavia Gilbert. Assistant producer Katie Flood. Music by Aleksander Filipiak. Mix and master by Kayla Elrod. Executive producer Michele Cobb.
The Stories of Impact podcast is generously supported by Templeton World Charity Foundation.