What do good and not so good online discussions of civic issues look like?

Activity: What’s Happening Here? Looking Closely at Online Conversations about Civic Issues

(30-45 minutes)

This activity is designed to support close looking and critical thinking about the different strategies people use when they talk, and disagree, about civic issues online. Students are asked to look closely at two different online comment threads about civic issues in order to identify and critically evaluate the different dialogue strategies used by commenters. The first thread is from YouTube and was sparked by a video of a speech about environmental issues by a public figure. The second thread is from an educational platform called Youth Voices (a school-based social network that was started in 2003 by a group of National Writing Project teachers) where students from different schools across the country participate in dialogue about civic issues.

At the 2014 United Nations Climate Summit in New York, actor Leonardo DiCaprio delivered opening remarks in which he stressed the importance of addressing climate change through policies and legislation.


Ask students to read the following comment thread from the YouTube video of DiCaprio’s talk.

Now ask students to read I Want a Woman for President, an exchange between teens with different perspectives on the idea of supporting a presidential candidate based on his/her gender identity. The exchange was posted on Youth Voices, a platform for youth discussion of civic issues. Have them read the original post and 3 comments of their choosing.



Working in pairs, ask students to notice the specific features of comments in the YouTube and Youth Voices threads; interpret possible intentions and impacts of these exchanges; and make connections to their own experiences.


For each step, below are specific questions to explore.



  • What stood out to you or what did you notice when you read each comment thread?  

  • How would you describe the tone of the comments?  

  • Choose one commenter from each thread and notice HOW they shared their ideas and responded to the ideas of others. Name the comment “moves” you see. [By moves, we mean the specific things they did in their comments - for example: asked a question, cited a statistic or fact, shared a belief or value.]



  • Consider intentions and impacts: Considering the same commenters, what do you think their intentions or motivations might be?  What makes you say that?  

  • What are the possible impacts of each exchange on the participants?

  • What are the possible impacts for readers of the thread who aren’t commenting?



  • Can you make any connections between what you read in these threads and online discussions you have been a part of or that you have seen on your social media networks? Describe.




As a whole class….

  • Compile a list of specific commenting moves students noticed. What moves appear to help make conversations productive and worthwhile? What moves aren’t so helpful?

  • Discuss students’ interpretations, focusing on and recording the possible impacts of each exchange on participants and readers.

  • Surface connections to online exchanges students have been part of or observed. Invite students to reflect on their own approaches to online dialogue about civic issues.

© 2018 by the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics

Students explore their identities and communities, identify civic issues that matter to them, and consider how they might use digital media for civic participation.

Students work to understand and analyze civic information online, and consider what information they

can trust.

Students navigate diverse perspectives and exchange ideas about civic issues in our inter-connected world .

Students consider how, when and to what end they can create, remix and otherwise re-purpose content that they share with others in online spaces.

Students consider a broad range of tactics and strategies for acting on civic issues.