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Digital civility at lowest level in 4 years, new Microsoft research shows

The Microsoft Digital Civility Index (DCI), a measure of the tone and tenor of online interactions as reported by consumers in 25 countries, stands at its lowest level since the survey began. Findings were released in conjunction with international Safer Internet Day, February 11.

Microsoft’s Digital Civility Index stands at 70%, the highest reading of perceived online incivility since the survey began in 2016, and the first time the DCI has reached the 70th percentile. Moreover, the equally troubling trends of emotional and psychological pain ­– and negative consequences that follow online-risk exposure – both also increased significantly. Results are from “Civility, Safety and Interactions Online – 2019,” which gauged teens’ and adults’ perceptions about online life and their exposure to 21[1] online risks across four categories: reputational, behavioral, sexual and personal/intrusive. The index works like a golf score: The lower the index reading (on a scale from zero to 100), the lower respondents’ risk exposure and the higher the perceived level of online civility among people in that country.

Three countries were added to the 2019 study: Indonesia, the Netherlands and Poland. The Netherlands debuted at number two, registering a DCI of 56%, second only to the UK, which has held the number one spot for online civility in three of the last four years. Still, even the UK saw an increase in incivility to 52% from its most favorable DCI reading of 45% in 2016.

The other three countries rounding out the top five for online civility were Germany (58%), Malaysia (59%) and the U.S. (60%). Those with the lowest online civility readings were Colombia (80%), Peru (81%) and South Africa (83%) – all in the 80th percentile, and the first time any individual country has seen a reading at this level.

Topics and online forums that drive incivility online

Physical appearance and politics are the primary drivers of online incivility, with 31% of all respondents pointing to both of these two topics as problematic. Sexual orientation was close behind at 30%, while religion and race came in at 26% and 25% respectively.

The two age groups cited different primary drivers, however, as did men and women. For teens and females, appearance (38%) was the most prominent response, with teenage girls (41%) and adult females (35%) citing it as a key driver. Among adults, politics (38%) was the most frequent determiner of online incivility, with 34% of adult males citing it as a key source. For both age groups, sexual orientation was the second most-selected response at 30%.

As for where, online, the most incivility takes place, it’s probably no surprise that both age groups cited social networks. Two-thirds (66%) said social media sites were the most prominent place for incivility, with media-sharing sites (24%), discussion forums (24%), anonymous social media (23%) and gaming sites (20%) further removed.

In addition, more so than in previous studies, respondents reported experiencing risks recently and more frequently. For instance, 40% said they’d been exposed to a risk in the last week or month prior to the study being fielded, and three-quarters (75%) experienced one of the 21 risks on two or more occasions. In fact, 40% of all respondents said they’d experienced unwanted sexual attention, sexual solicitation and unwanted contact three or more times in their lifetime. (The study was conducted May 1-31, 2019.)

Eyes on the 2020s

On the plus side, people seemed encouraged by the advent of the new decade and what the 2020s may hold in terms of improved online civility among all age groups. As we noted at the start of the year, in this latest study, we asked respondents to share their “2020s vision,” and select three words to best describe what they hope will define online experiences and digital interactions in the coming 10 years. “Respect” was by far the preferred option (66%), followed by “safety” (57%), “freedom” (33%), “civility” (32%) and “kindness” (26%). “Empathy” was the only other choice to garner more than 20% of the vote, and “well-being,” “inclusivity,” “health,” “compassion” and “curiosity” all scored between 11% and 15%.

We also asked participants to pull out their crystal balls and predict online behaviors across some sensitive scenarios. Here are some of their responses:

  • Half (50%) say technology and social media companies will create tools and implement policies to encourage more respectful and civil online behavior and punish poor conduct
  • Half (50%) predict people’s ability to protect their privacy and personal data will improve
  • A third expect fewer women to be sexually harassed online (34%), fewer teens to be bullied (33%) and expect online political discussions to become more constructive (33%)

Start with our Digital Civility Challenge

To help realize some of those positive 2020s predictions and to ring in the first Safer Internet Day of the new decade, we continue to highlight our Digital Civility Challenge: four common-sense principles for safer, healthier and more respectful online interactions. Everyone can commit to the challenge actions and pledge to adopt positive online habits and practices throughout the year.  The challenge tenets are:

  1. Live the Golden Rule by acting with empathy, compassion and kindness in every interaction, and treat everyone you connect with online with dignity and respect
  2. Respect differences, honor diverse perspectives and when disagreements surface, engage thoughtfully, and avoid name-calling and personal attacks
  3. Pause before replying to things you disagree with, and don’t post or send anything that could hurt someone else, damage a reputation or threaten someone’s safety
  4. Stand up for yourself and others by supporting those who are targets of online abuse or cruelty, reporting threatening activity and preserving evidence of inappropriate or unsafe behavior

In addition, we’re sharing a list of resources that may help individuals navigate online issues, as well as some best practices to help build a culture of digital civility among technology companies, educators, counsellors and school officials, law- and policy-makers, and the broader, inclusive online community. We thank our partners and collaborators at other technology companies and those among civil society who have taken up the digital civility cause by starting their own programs and initiatives rooted in this practical message of respect and kindness.

Our website and resources page offer additional advice and guidance about safety issues, and for more regular updates, you can connect with us on Facebook and Twitter. We hope you’ll get involved this international Safer Internet Day and become a champion for digital civility today, throughout the year and the new decade!

[1] Reputational – “Doxing” and damage to personal or professional reputations; Behavioral – Being treated meanly; experiencing trolling, online harassment or bullying; encountering hate speech and microaggressions; Sexual – Sending or receiving unwanted sexting messages and making sexual solicitations; receiving unwanted sexual attention and being a victim of sextortion or non-consensual pornography (aka “revenge porn”); and Personal / Intrusive – Being the target of unwanted contact, experiencing discrimination, swatting, misogyny, exposure to extremist content/recruiting, or falling victim to hoaxes, scams or fraud

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