Digital Public Discourse (with Lorna Seitz)

Digital Public Discourse (with Lorna Seitz)

In this episode, President and co-founder of Legis Lorna Seitz talks with students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy about electronic public discourse.

August 27th, 2021



In this episode, President and co-founder of Legis Lorna Seitz talks with students from the UC Riverside School of Public Policy about electronic public discourse.

About Lorna Seitz:

Lorna Seitz is an expert in developing transformative laws, policies and programs. Seitz has 20+ years of experience in policy development, legislative analysis and institutional reform. She specializes in facilitating collaborative problem-solving processes, promoting civic engagement with policy-making and oversight processes, and establishing systems to address wicked problems. She is the co-founder and President of Legis, a non-profit founded to realize the potential of 21st-century technology to overcome barriers to inclusive, responsive, evidence-based policy and law development.

Learn more about Lorna Seitz via:

Podcast Highlights:

“The video footage that we've been able to see has been very impactful.. we have the ability to see more primary evidence now.”

-       Lorna Seitz on the impact of modern technology and social media.

“So it really will shift the paradigm of a large number of people when they both have access to relevant information and also they have the ability to discuss it with people.”

-       Lorna Seitz on the impact that accurate information and healthy discourse have on people's views.

“You might have the policy people come up with this policy, and then if you look at the law, it says something totally different; there's a radical disconnect.”

-       Lorna Seitz on the topic of evidence and logic-based policymaking.


Lorna Seitz (President and co-founder of Legis)


Kevin Karami (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Chief Ambassador)

Johanna Arias (UCR Public Policy Major, Dean’s Ambassador)

Music by:

C Codaine

Upbeat Emotive by Fretbound

Video Link:

Commercial Links:

This is a production of the UCR School of Public Policy:

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  • Digital Public Discourse (with Lorna Seitz)

    Introduction:Welcome to policy chats, the official podcast of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. I'm your host, Kevin Karami. Join me and my classmates as we learn about potential policy solutions for today's biggest societal challenges. Joining us today is President and co-founder of Legis, Lorna Seitz.  My fellow classmate Johanna and I chatted with her about digital discourse. 


    Kevin Karami: Ms. Seitz, you are an expert in developing transformative laws, policies, and programs. You have 20 plus years of experience in policy development, legislative analysis, and institutional reform. You're also the co-founder and president of Legis, a non-profit founded to realize the potential of 21st century technology to overcome barriers for inclusive, responsive, evidence-based policy and law development. Thank you for joining us today. 


    Lorna Seitz: Hi. Good morning. 


    Kevin Karami: So to jump straight into it, we'll walk to get it to. I want to ask, with the advent of modern technology, social media, you know, ease of accessibility and overall communication. How has human Record discourse evolved over the past decade? 


    Lorna Seitz: Well, modern technology offers the potential to increase our understanding of how social problems are experienced differently by people in different circumstances. And to bring us into greater contact with the diversity perspectives and fax them will be normally encountered in daily life. But that said, we seem to be moving away from evidence-based dialogue and towards more judgmental exchanges and mini essays that attempt to justify personal beliefs with cherry-picked information. This obviously isn't new in that it's that the methods for communicating align with basic human psychology. We pay attention to the problems we're familiar with and that we experience on a daily basis are more likely to view information as credible if it aligns with what we were originally taught about a subject and with our personal experiences. However, prior to the advent of the Internet and social media in particular, journalists had more time to investigate issues before filing stories. We've lost a lot of that in-depth reporting and a lot of the fact check, checking that came with it. We now see a neat need for coverage that is researched and investigative rather than the highly speculative or opinion-based covers that we're currently getting. Largely this is occurring because it's easy and fast to pontificate about something. And that doing so doesn't tail the same sort of expenses that are associated with investigative performance. Also, platforms use algorithms now to push information to users that are based on the browser preferences, Democrat, Parties, previous branch experiences, demographics, friends preferences, things like that. And these algorithms can give us a really Maya myopic view of the world by consistently exposing us to one perspective or a set of supporting facts. They basically are designed to trigger addictive patterns of media consumption, rather than just support our ability to engage in a well-informed, evidence-based diet. So ICT offers a promise from evidence-based dialogue and more participatory discussions between diverse groups. But we really aren't there yet. 


    Johanna Arias: Thank you for your input and with that ease of accessibility and with the current times with credibility as you mentioned, what do you believe is the most significant issue that has arisen as a result of communication can be largely virtual? Would you say it has exact credibility and that easy consumption of media? 


    Lorna Seitz: I think that there are both positive and negative impacts with it being largely virtual. I think that, you know, a significant issue is looking, I guess, to the negative impacts. And I think that we have to maintain focus on inclusivity. So I think that's one of the concerns of both the positive and the negative side, honestly. There is a potential for some groups in virtual communication and hopefully this is a dominantly pandemic related problem. But some groups have been having trouble participating in inferences, policy dialogues that are oral because they have their family surrounding them. And if you have a political disagreement with a family or an identity difference with your family. For instance, if you are a member of the LGBTQ, community or if you are a victim of domestic violence, it is going to be difficult for you to participate openly in policy dialogues that are oral in nature. So that has been, I think, a major problem with. Switch to more verbal online communication. I think some of the positive sides of the switch that we're currently seeing are the increasing ability of people in some of the same vulnerable groups, as well as people who are working like three jobs at a time or have childcare, elder care responsibilities to participate in policy dialogue through things like town halls. So as we move towards public forums, which have a longer time span, respond. So you put information online, you have maybe a day to provide a response where even longer. And you can do it at your own time. And it's sort of an asynchronous method. We are seeing greater participation in those forums by marginalized groups that weren't previously able to participate for logistical reasons. And we also are. So from that perspective, we're seeing more diverse inputs, so that's good. And we are also seeing more reflective inputs. The same thing if you have a, this isn't so much the online forum as the timing that has been associated with this where you have a greater timeframe for providing input. We are seeing more thoughtful inputs frequently. And people who would not feel comfortable speaking up in a poor public forum may feel more comfortable writing in a question in an online format. 


    Johanna Arias: Thank you. And I'm sure that, you know, those who are listening or were curious to hear your input on that. And it's interesting that you mention all of these scenarios because I'm sure most people with current events in the pandemic have struggled with virtual communication, failed them. And there's also been some benefits that have come with as well. So thank you for sharing that. 


    Lorna Seitz: Yeah, I think that another question that, you know, as far as the virtual communication failing, obviously one of the equity concerns is that some of the connections are not as good as others. So I've certainly participated in dialogues immediately, the square of some speakers will just drop off. And I do work a lot internationally, so I probably experienced more fat than some people would better. Yeah, Obviously some of our connections are pretty strong and others are pretty weak. And so he would be again in real-time in particular, facing a problem with dropping offline, coming back, dropping off, which can make it hard to follow a real-time event like a town hall. 


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    Kevin Karami: It's really interesting that you mentioned these different, I guess, categories, people on how they are, and how discourse being so digital nowadays impacts differently. And so that kinda leads into my next question. So in the context of inclusivity, in what ways has digital public discourse resulted in positive developments? And in what ways has it been a negative development or talking about, or more marginalized communities? 


    Lorna Seitz: Well, I think that some of the positives that go into the different forms of questions that we're now asking different types of inputs for receiving. So for instance, if you think of the power of Twitter and how various hashtag campaigns can trigger a, you know, just a flow of information from a wide range of people about how they're experiencing a problem. So when you think of the yes All Women campaign and you also think of Black Lives Matter. In both those cases. We were able to get a strong sense of the diversity of ways that the problems are experienced and the fact that they are very pervasive problems. I think yes, all the women as a hashtag really outlines that. But it is almost every woman in the United States that has experienced some form of harassment or abuse. Black Lives Matter, I think they have managed to elicit enough information from people, descriptive information, personalized information, even in that sort of short format Twitter response. That it has started to really change attitudes in a way that the sort of colder, more statistical data was not necessarily breaking through for people with So I think some of those aspects of social media that kind of allow more people to participate have been very useful also in Twitter's case. The fact that encourages these very short soundbites when it comes to experiential information. If you can summarize your experience in what it is, 150 characters or less. So short, um, but if you can summarize it in something really super short, people will pay attention to that, are more likely to in some ways, at least to see, wow, look at this catalog of how many people are infected and if you kind of zone in on one small part of it or then you scroll down, you'll look at another part. It will be continuously powerful. Nobody's really going to read the whole thing, but it's going to be very powerful. So I think that that has been good for inclusivity. I think I discussed some of the problems with inclusivity in terms of some groups that are having trouble getting aligned for a variety of reasons. I think also the video footage that we've been able to see is very impactful and that is another aspect of inclusivity. When you rely on government reports for your data or journalists for your data, you're going to have several layers of interpretation in the middle of, between you and what you're seeing. So we have the ability to see more primary evidence now. And again, that can be very paradigm shifting for people who, for instance, if you think of the video footage of George Floyd's murder, you can essentially, not that you want to, you can have ever watch it front to back several minutes. And so that public nature and capacity to see the entire experience is going to kind of cut off a lot of people who might otherwise try to come up with rationalizations. Oh, maybe he did this, so maybe they did this, maybe there was this misunderstanding. And when you see the entire context of an incident, it's difficult to do that. So I think it's also been very powerful in that instead of getting some edited snippets that we might get through the media, you can really see all primary evidence. And as I said, it's hard to rationalize. 


    Kevin Karami: Thank you for that. And I think it's a really powerful point. You kind of alluded to this idea that social media kinda gives a voice to the average person in kind of gives the average person the ability to share an experience or a video or tweet something out. It's just so powerful that almost realistically anyone can do that and can actually play a role, major or minor and actually have an impact. A lot of times when we talk about social media, it's in a negative context, but we forget about the positives that you can actually bring in the positive theta, positive that is, that it has brought, I think that's just a really, really powerful point that you just gave.


    Lorna Seitz: But my focus of my organization has been on trying to develop approaches to enable us to develop more evidence-based solutions. Basically, we're looking for laws, policies, and programs that will work or that will accomplish their intended objectives. In order to do that in a way that is equitable, it is important to know what a problem looks like for diverse groups. So how they experience it differently in different parts of the community, how pervasive it is or isn't, different parts of the community. So verging a little into data slides here and what the different modes of causation are. So basically we're looking for if there's a problem, it means that people are basically behaving in a way that is not socially optimal. And they will do that for a wide variety of reasons. When we are trying to find out what those reasons are, they are going to differ by a community potentially or by a person's personal situation, which is not necessarily terribly closely tied to their demographics or their physical location. So yeah, one of the benefits of this sort of distributed information generation is that you get to learn how a problem looks, how it's experienced and what types of problems the solution is catalyzing. You get to see that from Ben, diversity of perspectives. Whereas other forms of policy generation that are reliant on government reports, on NGOs frequently will filter the information that they're looking at to the information that is more available to the decision-makers, their personal experiences of a problem, which are not necessarily the same as. Your experiences of the problem, by experiences of the problem or somebody else's. So it's very, you know, how we see an issue is very tied to our position in society. So I think social media is potentially very useful in putting that form of disparate input into the system which is essential to inclusive lawmaking. 


    Johanna Arias: Totally. And I want to flip the coin here. So a major issue that we often see overlooked is the spread of misinformation and the impact that it can have on large numbers of people. What do you believe is the biggest impact of discourse that is an evidence-based or formative, but rather intentionally aimed, at least for me and misinforming people? 


    Lorna Seitz: Yeah, I have tended to look at misinformation rather than aggressive and assertive disinformation. Because I think that misinformation is just as common, more common in some cases. But yeah, the impact of disinformation is obviously that it supports our ability to really understand what is going on. It also creates polarized cabinets. Again, this gets back to some of our sort of basic psychological tendencies and cognitive shortcuts that we use to understand what a problem is. So, you know, we do have a tendency to give more credibility to information that seems to support our preexisting beliefs on what the situation looks like. So if you have this information that has fed into that, it's going to seem more credible. And we have this huge capacity of having a large polarization and society depending on which sources of news you're paying attention to. And that has been really problematic for our society, for our democracy because it is sort of hardening these intellectual silos or ideological silos that people are in. Rather than doing what we need to see in order to have actual public discourse, which is we need to see a weakening of those sorts of polarizations. And we have seen the capacity of actual information to bring people more together. There are some studies out of Stanford, which has been doing a project for a long time now in public discourse, where they provide their groups with information on the issues like comprehensive, vetted, verified information about a topic. They will bring together a group of people that is reflective of society and the diversity in society. So we'll have a political balance, will a social balance not occur. And what they see is that at the end of their few day intensive dialogue period, instead of having maybe a 5050 split on the issue, there'll be closer to 80, 20 split on the issue. So it really will shift the paradigm of the large number of people when they both have access to relevant information. And also they have the ability to discuss it with people. And I think that second part actually can be critical because otherwise, how do you ascertain whether this information you've been provided is legitimate or not. So it really does help to have that cross-section of your community that you're talking to. I work a lot overseas. We facilitate problem-solving processes, again with a wide range of people. And we have been very successful in coming up with jointly generated solutions that basically unanimously support it. So again, when you start with the problem in that case and you think about what are the relevant pieces of information? What do we know? What do we need to find out? You go, you get the information to bring it back. Eventually, people can generally agree on how you should move forward. 


    Johanna Arias: Yeah, I helped to look into that study and also the work that you do overseas, I'm sure, is really helping discourse to evolve. So thank you for that.


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    Kevin Karami: And you also kind of alluded to this next question a bit earlier, but maybe we can dive a little bit deeper into it, on COVID-19? I mean, this obviously affects our lives in every single possible way and it has an effect. It has affected discourse a lot and it's affected misinformation a lot, as you mentioned. Covid obviously forced a large portion of the population to work entirely from home for an extended period of time. So the first question is, what are the most significant issues that have risen  or come up from the pandemic in terms of public discourse, with people being forced to not be able to talk as much in person. So everything we've talked about the missing social media, does that kinda get amplified now that everyone is kind of interacting with each other online rather than in person? 


    Lorna Seitz: I think that it has had different effects, probably on different groups of people. As somebody who works a lot internationally, it's been nice to be able to attempt more conferences. Otherwise, I would have to fly everywhere. And I'm a little concerned with the environmental impact of the other colleagues who I would have would also be able to fly keynote, different budgets and different locations. Our groups have been bigger and a lot of these conferences and that's been useful. So from the positive side of being stuck at home and online, there's this potential diversifying effects. On the other hand, when you are meeting with people, you're going to get in person with people, you're going to get a lot more input from people with different learning and processing styles. Some people are really reluctant to say something at the moment. They need time to think about it, to reflect and then they'll come back maybe an hour later, maybe days later, with something that's very insightful. The online formats are a little weird for that. I think we're all familiar with this next problem by interacting with each other on Facebook. But you notice when somebody posts something, it is frequently as a diatribe, but it may just be their opinion. It is going to elicit either something like a thumbs up Smiley face from people, or it's going to elicit frequently something highly dismissive. And if you attempt to respond to any comment that is longer than about six sentences on social media or especially on something like a comment board for one of the news sites. It can be very difficult because people are against cherry picking the information they put up there. So you want to provide the other information. Do you want to provide the facts that you're aware of where you want, at least want to correct things that they've just disseminate and that is inaccurate and they haven't necessarily cited if they have a lot of different points that they've made, it takes virtually forever to get through it and you know, nobody's going to read your whole response. So I think that's difficult because in a normal interaction, you would have a little bit more opportunity to kind of go back and forth organically and you wouldn't have this feeling. Hopefully at least you're being talked down to or lectured at or that somebody was just dismissing what you said because they would have the opportunity to say, Hey, what were you thinking? Why did you say this? Are you aware of this? And to talk in a slightly different way? I think that one of the problems with being online right now is it encourages the sort of almost immediately more dismissive form of communication between people which is really not consistent with the actual discourse or dialogue. It's really kind of, you know, ships passing in the night sort of situations, very different. 


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    Kevin Karami: Thank you for that, I think it's really important to understand all sides of the issue and all sides of the topic and also how COVID has impacted us. So for our final question, you've kind of talked about this earlier, but I'd like to give you a chance to really dive deep into it. But what kind of work do you do on your own or with Legis to help solve the issues that we've discussed on this information. And the fact that public discourse can sometimes not be as, as great as we want it to be. So what kind of work have you done specifically? Both nationally and internationally to kind of help this situation out?


    Lorna Seitz: Well, let's just start it out with a methodology that was developed to guide people through a legislative problem-solving process. And it kind of takes people logically through the steps of collaboratively identifying a problem, describing whose behaviors are problematic. Basically that the solution will eventually need to change. Identifying why they're engaging in those behaviors, and then coming up with a solution that addresses the causes of the behaviors. It's very simple. It's essentially based on John Dewey and problem-solving generally. And part of the question is, how do you use that? So I did a survey about, I guess it was 2010 of a lot of the people I've worked with overseas previously to see how they were using this method. Now, it's supposed to be evidence-based. But you will notice what I just said. You can walk through the logical process sort of intuitively. I think this is happening. I think that is happening. I think these are the causes. And actually going through that logical process is very useful. So just pure logic is actually very useful because it's amazing how many laws, policies, and programs fail because they have no basic underlying logic. So I will give it some credit for that. But the problem was, it works the best. Obviously, if it's actually based on evidence and that evidence is reflective of the realities of a large cross-section of the population. So the question was, who, in which countries can they obtain that evidence quickly and easily, and where to campaign, and how do we fix that? So how do we make sure that there is a flow of the relevant data into a system and that we can then verify it. And so when they're reaching their decisions is not intuition or it's not the combined wisdom of all the people in the legislative drafting office. So frequently, people with a similar position in society and similar backgrounds who will probably see an issue somewhat similarly. But it is informed by a flow of credible and diverse information. So that was sort of the transition we've been trying to make with Legis is trying to come up with a way to do that. It became apparent that in many drafting offices, they didn't have staff that could do all the research. So they didn't have somebody that could go out there and walk the streets, talk to everybody, interview everybody. They needed to have the information when they asked the question. They need to be able to immediately have access to the answer to the question. So one thing we've been working on is developing a platform that will kind of elicit that information and ensure that there are flows of information between different functional groups. So for instance, we deal with policy makers, we deal with the legislative drafters. There's the people that come up with the communication programs. These are all different groups. They should be operating on the basis of the same facts. But when we started this process, they weren't necessarily you might have the policy people come up with. And then if you look at the law, it says something totally different. There's a radical disconnect. And they're still saying, Oh yeah, this does that, but it doesn't, you know, are then you'll look at the communication protocol. And again, things can get lost. Going back to COVID, we've actually seen how difficult it can be for the scientific community to do that translation between science and a community message. And sometimes they've done that in a way that is effective. And sometimes they've managed to sort of summarize things in a very conclusive way where they're telling people what to do. People don't understand the mechanisms or the reason behind it and it doesn't match with their, you know, how they personally had been experiencing the problem. So they will think they're being lied to and they'll dismiss what they're told by the CDC. So, you know, that challenge of how do you translate it for people so that people again with different learning styles look at what they need. So people that just need the baseline, tell me what to do, I'll do it. They get that people who need to see the evidence will be able to access the evidence easily. So yeah, we work on that sort of thing by making sure that there's a data pipeline that flows the same information to these different groups that should be acting on the same information. And that enables people like yourselves to contribute to the process, to contribute your experiences on the front end, to help participate in translating some of those experiences into testable hypotheses. So a lot of the experiences you might see on Twitter or social media or very personalized experiences. When you have to have a law or policy or program to address it is when that experience is shared by a significant number of people, generally. So if it's one person, we don't necessarily change the entire system for it. For that person, if it's everybody, we need to move quickly and there's obviously some line in between. So one of the things we think it's important to do is to have people essentially treat that experiential information to a certain extent as a hypothesis. Leaving what they say, but saying, how often does this happen? In what circumstances in which communities is this happening? And to get more information about the nature of the problem. So transforming them into research questions and then having people conduct the research. So to make sure that the, there is the sort of feed in of information into the policy-making process by a distributor of community. And so that's one of the projects I've been working with, with legislators developing that platform and kind of thinking you have a lot of issues related to that. And also continuing to do a lot of these sorts of in-person consulting and drafting work.


    Kevin Karami: Thank you for that. I think that's amazing. And I think it's so interesting that a really important part of your work is just making sure everyone has the same information and is on the same page about it. And making sure that people are applying logic in their discussions. And that's something that we often don't think about. We often just think, you know, the information is there and we're just going to use it. But logic and accuracy are such important parts that we kind of take for granted. So I just think it's amazing the work you do. And I think this topic is also really interesting because it's something that we almost never talk about. I think this is an amazing topic and I think that our audience would really appreciate a unique perspective on a topic that is almost never discussed and that needs to be discussed more. So thank you for joining us today. I think you were amazing explaining different aspects of information and discourse, how social media technology played a role in this. Really thank you for joining us. 


    Lorna Seitz: Thank you. 


    Outro: This Podcast is a production of the UC Riverside School of Public Policy. Our theme music was produced by C Codaine. I'm Kevin Karami, until next time.