In the Age of Trolling and Twitter Wars, New Research Offers Hope for Online Interaction

By Steve Flamisch

Who says you can’t reason with a Twitter troll?

Two working papers co-authored by Charles Heckscher, a distinguished professor in the School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR), reveal that it’s not only possible to overcome online disagreements – it’s actually easier than researchers expected. These papers are among the first studies to challenge the notion that online communication is hopelessly fragmented.

Analyzing 40,000 posts in two IBM intranet forums, Heckscher and fellow researchers found employees moved toward agreement on controversial topics even though they were not talking in person or getting responses in real time—two conditions sociologists long thought necessary for meaningful dialogue to occur.

“Online conversations can bring together a larger and wider range of views than is possible by traditional methods,” Heckscher said. “In their posts, IBM employees sustained a rhythm of discussion and built group identities that closely mirrored the dynamics of face-to-face groups.”

Digging deeper into the dataset, Heckscher and fellow researchers including SMLR Ph.D. student Hao Gong found examples of IBM traditionalists and progressives engaging in fierce, yet open debates about the company’s values, gradually converging towards a new definition that united most of them. The findings suggest it is possible to develop a shared identity online in a deeply divided community.

“New language and ideas emerged from all parts of the company, not just from the top down,” Heckscher said. “The higher-ups clearly modified their conception of the company’s values as the discussions proceeded. Disagreements did not disappear by any means, but participants moved significantly towards pragmatic discussions rather than ideological confrontations.”

Heckscher is now examining political conversations in open online forums like Reddit; structured dialogues by the group Living Room Conversations; and face-to-face Red-Blue workshops convened by Better Angels, with similarly encouraging results.

Heckscher, author of the award-winning book Trust in a Complex World: Enriching Community, believes strongly in people’s ability to unite for good — in both face-to-face and online settings. He notes crowdfunding efforts to help people pay medical bills or rebuild from a tragedy, as well as Facebook groups where people fighting a disease can share advice and encouragement.

In these examples, he sees promise for the future.

“Our current level of political polarization is very dangerous, and there is now the threat of a spiral of mistrust which can lead to the destruction of shared institutions and to violent conflict,” Heckscher said. “These efforts shows the possibility of breaking that spiral by building bridges and generating shared visions for the future.”

Heckscher collaborated with New York University’s Paul DiMaggio, Princeton University’s Clark Bernier, and Cornell University’s David Mimno on the research.