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The Social Media Discourse of Engaged Partisans Is Toxic Even When Politics Are Irrelevant (WP-23-29)

Michalis Mamakos and Eli Finkel

Prevailing theories of partisan incivility on social media suggest that it derives from disagreement about political issues or from status competition between groups. The present study—which analyzes commenting behavior of Reddit users across diverse cultural contexts (subreddits)—tests the alternative hypothesis that such incivility derives in large part from a selection effect: Toxic people are especially likely to opt into discourse in partisan contexts. First, the authors examined commenting behavior across over 9,000 unique cultural contexts (subreddits) and confirmed that discourse is indeed more toxic in partisan (e.g., r/The_Donald, r/LGBTNews) than in non-partisan contexts (e.g., r/movies, r/programming). Next, they analyzed hundreds of millions of comments from over 6.3 million users and found robust evidence that: (1) The discourse of people whose behavior is especially toxic in partisan contexts is also especially toxic in non-partisan contexts (i.e., people are not politics-only toxicity specialists); and (2) when considering only non-partisan contexts, the discourse of people who also comment in partisan contexts is more toxic than the discourse of people who do not. These effects were not driven by socialization processes whereby people overgeneralized toxic behavioral norms they had learned in partisan contexts. In contrast to speculation about the need for partisans to engage beyond their echo chambers, toxicity in non-partisan contexts was higher among people who also comment in both left-wing and right-wing contexts (bilaterally engaged users) than among people who also comment in only left-wing or right-wing contexts (unilaterally engaged users). Discussion considers implications for democratic functioning and theories of polarization.

This paper is published in PNAS Nexus.

Michalis Mamakos, Department of Computer Science, Northwestern University

Eli Finkel, Professor of Psychology and IPR Associate, Northwestern University

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