Designing Discourse: How UX and Law Can Promote Free Speech and Debate

Interface and user experience designers could have a hand in promoting free speech and civil discourse through online platforms like Medium.

As online platforms create more opportunities for people to engage in debate and discourse, there’s a large role for interface and user experience (UX) designers to help showcase thoughtful content and spur civil interactions.

Recently, the Charles Koch Institute, along with the Lincoln Network and Medium, brought together designers and legal experts to discover the ways in which interface and UX design merge to influence the types of interactions users have on online platforms.

Alex Feerst, senior counsel at Medium, began the conversation by recalling an inspiring discussion he had with panelist Mike Masnick, CEO of Copia Institute and editor at TechDirt. Rather than focusing on online platforms’ prohibitions, such as the rules that govern a website, the two focused on how to create a site that naturally encourages civil behavior.

UX design, Feerst observed, can be a powerful tool for fostering civil discourse and free speech. Speaking to this point, Masnick and panelist Peter Cho, design lead at Medium, discussed the methods and design strategies they have used to foster community engagement. Both noted that the recent trend of websites outsourcing audience participation to social media platforms instead of traditional comment sections reduces the sense of an online community.

The concept of community resonates strongly with Masnick, who emphasized his desire to have TechDirt be a forum of free expression. “Over the years we’ve really tried to encourage good behavior, discourage bad behavior, but also not be too heavy-handed,” he said. “In fact, we have an incredibly light touch with any kind of moderation.”

Masnick highlighted two major design decisions that have contributed to the formation of this type of community: 1) not requiring visitors to the site to create an account before posting a comment, and 2) including a comment ranking system that gives users the option to either rank comments as funny or insightful or to report abusive comments.

Whereas some sites, like TechDirt, have minimal interference from a site administrator, larger websites, Cho acknowledged, have issues with effectively scaling moderation. A publication like The New York Times, for example, has a full-time staff moderating and approving an average of 11,000 comments a day, and only 10 percent of stories have a comments section in place. “Moderation can be great,” Cho noted, “but at scale, it’s tough.”

“Trolling” and spam are seemingly inescapable realities of any online forum, and Feerst asked if there were any way to limit abuse, such as requiring a Facebook login before a user can post an opinion. The panelists agreed that removing anonymity does little to prevent abusive commenting, though, and that the value of anonymous commenting shouldn’t be disregarded. As Masnick stated, “Some of the most valuable comments came from anonymous people. … We always have the sense that anonymity can be very useful.”

Masnick also argued that when the emphasis is on community, self-policing is a more effective tactic of combating abuse and spam. “I’ve noticed that if I wait and don’t respond right away, other people in the community will respond and maybe do a better job than I would have done.”

Allowing the community to respond to comments is one of many ways designers and moderators can encourage debate and free speech on digital platforms. The expression of ideas online is a unique intersection of free speech and technological innovation, both of which have a profound impact on culture and civil discourse.

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