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Why Are Online Political Discussions So Toxic?

New research shows how toxic commenters distort public discourse

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Our findings suggest that online political discourse is uncivil largely because the people who opt into it are generally uncivil. Such individuals undermine the democratic values that should be present in the public sphere.”

Michalis Mamakos
Northwestern postdoctoral scholar in psychology

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The lack of civility in political conversations has increased alongside the rise in partisan hatred—and nowhere is that toxicity more evident than on social media platforms. But why is political discourse on these platforms so hostile?

New research shows that comments by politically engaged Reddit users are toxic even if they are not discussing politics, suggesting that people who choose to participate in political conversations are generally uncivil.

The study published in PNAS Nexus by Northwestern postdoctoral scholar in psychology Michalis Mamakos (PhD, 2023) and IPR social psychologist Eli Finkel reveals that people who are toxic in partisan subreddits are also toxic in nonpartisan subreddits—even when political topics are irrelevant.

This incivility can make people reluctant to engage in political discourse, leaving online spaces dominated by toxic individuals. Mamakos and Finkel say this distorts public discourse and promotes combative partisanship at the expense of more civil and informed debate.

“Our findings suggest that online political discourse is uncivil largely because the people who opt into it are generally uncivil,” Mamakos explained. “Such individuals undermine the democratic values that should be present in the public sphere.”

The researchers call this phenomenon the “troll hypothesis,” or that online political discourse tends to be toxic because the people who join these conversations are generally toxic—and this is true no matter what they are discussing online.

“It looks like people who are highly civil in general tend to opt out of political discourse,” Finkel said. “My worry is that the behavior of dispositionally uncivil is turning political discourse into a hostile battleground, trolling one another and raising the costs of engagement for those whose interpersonal style is gentler.”

To understand whether commenting was more toxic in political contexts, the researchers analyzed 260 million Reddit comments between 2011 and 2022 from over 9,000 subreddits about politics, such as r/hillaryclinton and r/The_Donald, in addition to topics outside of politics, like r/wrestling and r/librarians.

They also reviewed hundreds of millions of comments from over 6.3 million users during the same time period in non-partisan subreddits to compare the comments of the users who also engaged in partisan subreddits to the comments of the users who did not engage in partisan subreddits. They show that the comments of the users who posted in partisan subreddits were more toxic, less polite, displayed more moral outrage, and were angrier than those by the non-engaged.

Reddit, which is more popular than Facebook and X—previously called Twitter—has increased exponentially since it was created in 2005. And since the platform limits the use of algorithms serving up content, this made it ideal to study because the comments reflect the users’ decision to join conversions with little manipulation from the platform.

Despite growing calls for people to engage across the political divide and break down echo chambers, the researchers also discovered that people who commented in both right-wing and left-wing subreddits were more toxic than those who only commented in subreddits about either conservative or liberal topics.

They say that democracy requires conflict so that the best ideas can emerge, yet their evidence suggests that the tone of political discourse may be preventing constructive conversations. 

“The disproportionate representation of uncivil people in online political discussions shuts down the voices of the less hostile individuals, and it leads the public to believe that the divide is much deeper than it really is,” Finkel said. This can also contribute to democratic backsliding, he notes. 

This study has implications for scholars studying polarization as they consider the role toxic individuals may play in escalating it through social media.

While social media companies could take more steps to reduce polarization, the researchers argue that companies do, in fact, seek to polarize users because toxic content encourages engagement. Their solution? People who want to have meaningful discussions should not amplify divisive content, but rather encourage the expression of differing viewpoints to contribute to the marketplace of ideas.

“If each of us decides to disengage from content that violates democratic values, social media platforms will be disincentivized to promote such content,” Mamakos said. “Instead of amplifying what divides us, we should focus on the common grounds that unite us and on approaching different opinions with empathy.”

Michalis Mamakos is a postdoctoral scholar in psychology. Eli Finkel is professor of psychology and management and organizations and a Morton O. Schapiro IPR fellow.

Photo credit: iStock

Published: December 18, 2023.